Chapter 24 ended with a warning concerning the fate of those who are unfaithful. The general themes from chapter 24 continue into chapter 25.
As Matthew pens this gospel, he is not only recounting the teachings of Jesus, but he is using Jesus’ words to speak to the people of the early Church. Because of this dual purpose, like with many parables, this parable illustrates more than one truth or application. The parable has one immediate application which speaks judgement against the scribes and the Pharisees, who are like the foolish maidens who were unprepared for the coming of Christ, the bridegroom. And yet it could also serve in a predictive way as a warning to the greater church that we should always ready, so that when Christ comes again, we will be found ready.
The question as to whether this parable is intended to reflect first-century Palestinian marriage practices cannot be proven or disproven from extra-biblical sources. That said, it seems that there were three stages of the marriage ceremony; engagement, betrothal (which was legal and binding), and the marriage itself.
Jesus begins this parable by comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to what happens to ten bridesmaids as they were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive to take the bride in procession to the wedding banquet. Jesus begins the parable with the bridesmaids waiting at the bride’s house ready to light torches for the procession back to the groom’s house, where the ceremony will take place.
The bridesmaids are all gathered in one place to await the arrival of the bridegroom who is delayed, or at the very least is not arriving at the expected time. All the bridesmaids have fallen asleep, it is the middle of the night after all, and suddenly there is an announcement that the bridegroom is coming, and they gather up all their stuff to go out and meet him. It is at this point that five of the bridesmaids realize that they no longer have any oil. They are supposed to hold lamps and light the way for the procession and dance as the groom goes to greet the bride.
This brings me to my first question. Why can’t the bridesmaids with the oil share with those who have no oil? Perhaps, these “wise” bridesmaids are selfish bridesmaids. Their friends ask them to share, and they refuse. It would be better for everyone to have half as much oil than it is for some to have full lamps and others to have empty ones. It was the bridesmaid’s job to light the way for the procession. Which is worse? For there to only be five lamps filled with enough oil to light the way, or for there to be ten lamps that all go out halfway there leaving them and the entire procession in the dark, with no light to help them find their way. This poor “delayed” bridegroom might really be late if he is left in the dark and cannot find his way to the place he needs to go.
The lack of oil necessitates the five oil-less bridesmaids going out into the night in search of oil. Now these must be some resourceful and persistent bridesmaids, they somehow manage to find someone who sell them the oil in the middle of the night, no small feat. This apparently takes a lot of time, because when they return, the bridegroom has already gone in, the doors have been closed and the wedding feast is underway.
The foolish beg to be let in. But no one will let them in. The groom says he does not know them because they were not there when he arrived. Why don’t the other bridesmaids vouch for them or why is no one aware that five of their friends are missing and are left outside?
Jesus then ends the parable by saying, “Keep awake,” because we will not know day or the hour. So, the point of the parable is not about oil but is really about staying awake? One would think that the epitaph that Jesus puts on the end of the parable would help make everything make sense. How can this be about keeping awake? Both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids were asleep when the cry went up. Being awake cannot be the point of the parable that would make the whole thing arbitrary. What can be learned if the kingdom of Heaven is unfair and arbitrary?
Although the NRSV says “keep awake,” the NIV says, “Keep watch.” A better translation is, “Keep alert.” It is not about falling asleep but about keeping watch; paying attention to what matters; not getting distracted or sidetracked by things that do not matter. This is exactly what happens to these bridesmaids. They get distracted, sidetracked. They are not foolish for falling asleep; all ten of the Bridesmaids fell asleep. It was actually wise to get some rest. They were not idiots because they did not bring the correct amount of oil. They probably had a reasonable amount of oil. The bridegroom was unreasonably late, so a reasonable amount of oil was not enough.
What was not prudent was heading into the darkness of the night in search of oil. They needed the oil so they could help light the way through the darkness. They had no light, but they went the darkness without any light of their own attempting to find their way to a merchant whom they could awaken and convince to sell them oil and then make it back the house before the bridegroom so they could help light the way for his procession. But because they went on this wild goose chase, they missed out. The fact that they can find what they are looking for is beside the point. By the time they are finished with this foolish endeavor it is too late. They missed the procession. The bridegroom reached his destination without them. Their oil is no longer needed. They had become distracted; they had gotten sidetracked.
They had foolishly allowed something that seemed to matter, take them away from the bridegroom. While they were out hunting for oil, so they could light their lamps and provide light for the bridegroom, the bridesmaids with the lit lamps had used their lamps to light the way. There may not have been enough oil to share so they could all light their lamps, but there was enough light to share. The five lamps must have provided enough light to lead the procession. They did not need to go into the night in search of more oil. When the bridegroom came, their oil became superfluous.
The oil was not what was important at that point. The bridegroom was what was important. Being with the bridegroom, going with him was what was important. Their job was to go with the bridegroom to take him to the bride. No wonder they were left out in the night. No wonder Jesus calls them “foolish.” They had one job and they had failed to do it entirely. The oil, although important, was not vital to their mission. When the bridegroom arrived the most important thing was to be there to greet him and to go with him and the procession to the bride. Their job was to lead the procession, to light the way, and to dance. They might not have had light anymore, but their sisters still had light enough, they could have still danced, they could still have led the procession. Instead, they missed the bridegroom, they missed the procession, they missed the whole wedding, because they went out into the night looking for oil.
As Christians it is our job to be ready when Jesus returns. We need to be ready to greet him when he arrives, ready to go with him. And we need to keep alert, to not be distracted by seemingly important things. We need to not be sidetracked by things that we believe are vital but actually only serve to lead us astray. It is not foolish to tire, to need rest. It is not unwise to expect him to return sooner than he does and not have enough, to fall short in some way, what is idiotic is to go off in one direction or the other and leave him behind entirely.
It is so easy to think there are things we need to do as Christians; important things, good things, things we should care about. Sometimes we get so involved in doing them that they become our focus. Being a Christians becomes all about these things we do and not about Jesus Christ. We take our eyes off the one who really matters and go into the night hunting for oil.