Matthew’s Gospel. It comes very near both the end of Jesus’ ministry and of Matthew’s Gospel.
To understand Matthew 25, we have to consider chapter 24. Jesus and the disciples have finally arrived in Jerusalem. As they’re leaving the temple, the disciples go to call Jesus’ attention to the temple’s buildings. Jesus responds by telling them that the temple is going to be destroyed; one stone won’t be left on another.
When they get to the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down and the disciples ask him when all of this is going to happen. Jesus then launches into this sermon. He warns about false teachers and persecution, signs and unknown times and tells a series of parables. This Sunday, the lectionary has us considering the parable of the ten virgins. In coming weeks, it will have us consider the parable of the talents or bags of gold and then the sheep and the goats that make up the rest of Matthew 25.
In first-century Palestine, marriages happened in three stages. The first stage was the engagement, which was basically the two fathers negotiating over the dowry and the details. Once that was settled, you moved into the betrothal. Now, for all intents and purposes, when you were betrothed, you were married. It took a divorce to break a betrothal. If the man died during the betrothal period, the woman was considered a widow. During this period, it was the job of the bridegroom to set up house. Sometimes this meant building his own home; it commonly meant building an addition on to his parent’s home. When your father decided that you were done and the place was ready for you to bring your wife home to live with you, then the wedding began.
“It was the Jewish marriage custom for the groom and his friends to leave his home and proceed to the home of the bride, where the marriage ceremony was conducted, often at night. After this, the entire wedding party returned to the groom’s home for a celebratory banquet.” The virgins are awaiting this processional parade. Now, I know that the NIV here uses the word “virgins,” but it isn’t making a statement about their sexual purity or virtue. It’s saying these are young, unmarried women, so the assumption is that they have been chaste. Some of your translations might say “bridesmaids,” even though that is a less literal interpretation, I think it better conveys the nature of who these ladies are.
There’s just one problem with the bridesmaids—five are wise and five are foolish. The Greek word here is moros, which is where we get our English word “morons.” So, half are wise and half are morons. In this story, there is an easy way to tell who is wise and who is a moron—the wise bring extra oil and the morons don’t.
Now, when you picture these bridesmaid’s lamps in your mind, don’t think of the keresone lamps or oil lamps your parents or grandparents may have had or even the clay little lamp jars that you’ve maybe seen on the History Channel. These lamps were torches. Small clay lamps would have been of little use in an outdoor procession. These torches consisted of a long pole with oil-drenched rags at the top and these torches required large amounts of oil in order to keep burning, so much that the oil had to be replenished about every 15 minutes.
It is this constant need to replenish the oil that causes the foolish virgins’ problems. The bridegroom took longer than they expected to come. He takes so long that they all fall asleep. Now, the problem isn’t that they fall asleep, because both the foolish and the wise fall asleep. The problem comes when they wake up. A cry comes out at midnight, “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” In Scripture, midnight can refer to the actual time in the middle of the night or it can just mean an unexpected time, which seems to be the case here.
The cry wakes them all from their slumber and they start trimming their lamps and that’s when the morons realize, “We don’t have enough oil to get us to the party.” They have several options. They could just see how far their own lamps get them and if they run out, try to make the last bit of the journey off the light from the lamps of the wise. They decided to ask the wise virgins if they can borrow some oil. The wise virgins refuse, saying that then, they might not have enough either, and if all of the torches go out, it will certainly ruin the processional. The point here is not to justify selfishness. In commenting on this passage, Roger Hahn writes, “Rather, the point is that being prepared is an individual responsibility. One cannot be prepared for someone else, only for oneself.”
Since they weren’t prepared, the moronic bridesmaids head off to try to get to the Walmart Supercenter before the bridegroom arrives. It’s the only oil merchant open in the middle of the night. Actually, you know as well as I do, there were almost assuredly no oil merchants open in the middle of the night, so it takes a while before they get to the banquet. In the meantime, the wise virgins have gone into the banquet with the bridegroom and the door has been shut.
When the foolish virgins arrive, they start banging on the door, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” They receive a reply that shocks them: “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.” It’s too late to get into the party.
Hahn again writes, “The parable of the ten virgins provides a most interesting lesson in readiness for the second coming. The problem of the five foolish virgins was not that the bridegroom came quickly; their problem was that he delayed and they became lackadaisical. Readiness for Christ’s return cannot be based on the nearness of that return. Disciples must be ready because they do not know and cannot know when the Messiah will come again.”
With the parable clear before us, it is easy to draw some conclusions. God may delay his coming longer than people expect just like the bridegroom. As you read the New Testament, you can see that clearly the first Christians believed that Christ would return in their lifetimes. It’s been 2000 years, and we are still waiting. If we are going to be like the wise bridesmaids as followers of Christ, we must be prepared for such a delay. On the flip side, what’s most concerning is that “like the foolish bridesmaids, those who do not prepare adequately may discover a point beyond which there is no return—when the end comes it will be too late to undo the damage of neglect.”
Christians must live like Boy Scouts—always prepared. There is no way for us to know if Jesus will come this afternoon or 2000 years from now. We could die tomorrow or we could live to be 100 years old. We do not know when we will have to stand before the Creator of the universe. The question for us today is are you ready? Are you always prepared, like a Boy Scout? Now the question isn’t, Is my dad ready? Is Mom ready? Is my spouse ready? We already saw that you can’t be prepared for someone else and no one else can be prepared for you. Brother and sister pastors, as you prepare to stand before your people this Sunday to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, how are you preparing them for that day?
 Dennis, Lane T. and Wayne Grudem, ed. The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008, 1876.
 Barker, Kenneth L., ed. The Reflecting God Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 1476.
 Hahn, Roger L. Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students. Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007, 296.
 Ibid, 297.
 Blomberg, Craig. Matthew: The New American Commentary, Volume 22. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992, 371.