Jesus calls us to be properly prepared for his return.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand the importance of preparedness for Christ's return, emphasizing the need for watchfulness and readiness in our faith journey.
Understand the distinction between the "thoughtless" and "thoughtful" bridesmaids underscores the significance of forethought and planning in our spiritual lives, highlighting the need for intentional growth in discipleship.
Reflect on how we, as individuals and as a church, can continually prepare ourselves to meet the bridegroom and celebrate joyfully.
Catching up on the Story
After Jesus pronounces the seven woes over Israel's religious leaders, he turns his attention to his second coming. Jesus has already mentioned that he must suffer and die but that he will one day return again. He will refer to his second coming as the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus’ second coming will take place after periods of persecution and suffering.
It might be easy, at this point, to get wrapped up in interpreting current events to determine a day and a time when the second coming might occur. Jesus, for his part, warns that no one will know the day or the time but that watchfulness is very much needed. In Matthew's context, periods of suffering and persecution had already happened, and Jesus' second coming had not immediately come.
Jesus, in this section of Matthew, will tell three parables. The first, 24:45-51, deals with two separate servants who are left in charge of their master's house. Neither of the servants knows when their master will return. One of the servants spends his time taking care of the household duties, ensuring that things are in order. The other servant gets complacent when the master does not return promptly. He begins to neglect his duties and engages in nefarious behaviors. Jesus wants to know which one has been faithful? It's a rhetorical question, but the answer is clear: the diligent servant who is prepared even though his master has been delayed in coming home. The story's point is clear: even though we do not know when Jesus will return, we must be prepared. The next two parables, 25:1-13 and 25:14-30, will have similar themes.
Jesus begins the parable of the ten bridesmaids with a "then," which connects this story directly with the one that preceded it. You will notice that Matthew is using a future tense throughout this parable. Previously, Jesus has said, "The kingdom of heaven is like…" Here, Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven will be like… The story's context in Matthew, as well as its use of the future tense, note that the story is linked to the future.
The parable is about ten ladies classified as either wise or foolish. The NIV translates these ladies as "virgins," while the NRSV uses "bridesmaids." "Bridesmaid" is a more accurate translation because it better fits the context and activity of the ladies in the story. The setting is a wedding banquet, and these ladies have a specific role in attending to both the bride and the coming bridegroom. Jesus describes five of the bridesmaids as "foolish" while another five as being "wise." While wise and foolish are decent translations of their original Greek words, I will suggest an alternative translation. We will refer to the five foolish bridesmaids as "thoughtless" and the wise bridesmaids as "thoughtful." In truth, both foolish and thoughtless connote the lack of desire or desire to think and plan ahead. As we will see in a moment, for whatever reason, the five foolish bridesmaids failed to think and plan ahead for the night’s events. At the same time, the five wise bridesmaids showed forethought and planning so that they would not dishonor the bridegroom at his coming.
So, Jesus tells us, the five thoughtless bridesmaids and the five thoughtful bridesmaids took their lamps so that they might be prepared to meet the bridegroom when he comes to the wedding banquet. One commentator believes that the “lamp” that Jesus places in the story is not a small clay vessel with an oil-soaked wick. This type of lamp would have been suitable for an indoor setting but would have provided insufficient light for an outdoor journey. Rather, lamp refers to more of a torch with an oil-soaked cloth wrapped around a wooden rod. The process for preparing a lamp for a situation such as our parable would go as follows. The cloth-wrapped end of the torch would have been pre-soaked in oil to ensure that the cloth might retain as much oil as possible. Since it would not have been immediately lit, the cloth needed to stay oil-soaked for as long as possible. The excess oil would have been wrung from the cloth. The oil on the cloth would have been inadequate for keeping the torch burning for any length of time. It would have been necessary to rewet the cloth right before lighting to ensure it would provide light for as long as possible.
In the story, the ten bridesmaids are waiting to welcome and lead the bridegroom to the wedding banquet in a flurry of light and rejoicing. They know that the bridegroom is coming and the direction he is coming from, but they do not know the time of his arrival. A watch has been set, and the bridesmaids begin to wait. Jesus tells us that the bridesmaids begin to get drowsy and fall asleep. One might be tempted to think that falling asleep while waiting for the bridegroom is a bad thing. We do not get that impression from the story. The early church fathers, however, believed that sleep represented death. Their rising from sleep is then the resurrection that takes place for both the righteous and the unrighteous. Sleep does not need that meaning in the parable for the story to have deep meaning for us.
The lookout cries out in a loud voice when the bridegroom approaches. All of the bridesmaids rise from their sleep and begin to prepare their torches for travel. They "trimmed their lamps" of both the NIV and the NRSV, which could be translated as "adorned their lamps." The original Greek word is often associated with women making themselves beautiful. Keep in mind that the bridesmaids are joyously bringing in their friend's groom, bestowing honor on him on this happy occasion. Their presence there and the brilliance of their lights were meant to celebrate the arrival of the groom!
Again, this would entail a few preparations. First, the cloth must be checked to ensure it was still properly attached to the handle. Next, the cloth would need to be re-soaked in oil to ensure that the cloth was holding as much oil as it possibly could hold. It’s at this time that the thoughtless bridesmaids realize that they have not brought extra oil to reinvigorate their torches. Seeking to not bring dishonor on themselves and the bridegroom, the thoughtless bridesmaids ask for oil from the thoughtful ones. The thoughtful bridesmaids refuse to give any oil to the other bridesmaids because if they do, there may not be enough oil for any of them to make the entire round-trip journey with brightly burning torches. This would detract from the joy and celebration of the situation. The thoughtful ones do offer a solution; the others should go now and seek to buy some oil quickly so that they may not miss the wedding.
So, the thoughtless bridesmaids set off in search of oil. The parable moves forward quickly at this point. We are not told of the meeting of the bridesmaids and the bridegroom or his entry into the wedding banquet. We are meant to imagine that the bridegroom is greeted with great joy and celebration by the bridesmaids and is ushered into the wedding with much fanfare.
Meanwhile, the thoughtless bridesmaids return to find the wedding procession over, and the doors of the banquet hall closed. They knock on the door, hoping to be let in. The bridegroom responds, rather harshly, that he will not open the door to let them in because he does not know them! The thoughtless bridesmaid's failure to be prepared has led to a severing of ties.
Jesus ends the parable with an admonition to keep awake because we know neither the hour nor the day.
There are a couple of passages that can help us make sense of this parable. Similar to the parable of the wedding banquet (22:1-14), this parable emphasizes the necessity of being prepared for the party. It is not enough to have been invited to the party and responded; one must be prepared for it. In the wedding banquet parable, this meant being properly dressed for the occasion, and being prepared was allowing our lives to be transformed by the Holy Spirit from the inside out. This, we noted, requires intentional work on our part as well. This parable's meaning is slightly different in that it urges watchful preparation because we do not know when Jesus will return again. Christian faith that only relies on an initial experience of salvation with no subsequent growth in grace will result in one being barred from the party. This preparation is not a matter of knowing the times. It is completely a matter of knowing how to continually respond to Christ's salvation.
Secondly, we are called back to the Sermon on the Mount. It is in Jesus' Sermon that we are given a primer on what it means to be a disciple. Growth in discipleship is the only way for us to be prepared for Christ's return. If we are not constantly seeking to become like our master teacher, then we will not be prepared for his return.
The third passage that might be helpful is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul uses the imagery of a Christian in the last days being resurrected to meet Christ in the air to usher him back to earth. The imagery is the same except with different characters. The bridesmaids who were thoughtful and prepared are like those who will be resurrected to meet Christ in the air. The bridesmaid's preparation was to ensure that the wedding event would be greeted with joy, celebration, and brilliance. Imagine the celebration that will take place when a fully prepared Church, who has sought to be transformed into the image of Christ and who has worshiped God in word and deed, hears and is ready to respond to the call, "Look! Here is the bridegroom!"
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
In the story, there are ten bridesmaids. Who do these bridesmaids represent?
Five of the bridesmaids are described as "foolish." Why are they described that way?
Five of the bridesmaids are described as "wise." What makes them wise?
During weddings in Jesus' day, the groom would be ushered into the wedding by the bridesmaids. Why would it have been important for them to have torches?
Who is the groom in the story? Read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for a hint. How are the two accounts similar?
The major theme in this section of Matthew is preparedness for the final coming of the Messiah. How do we, as individuals and as a church, prepare ourselves for the coming of the bridegroom?
Who are you in this story? The wise or the foolish bridesmaids? Why?
Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841).
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).