Matthew 25: 1-13: Wise and Foolish Virgins

By Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1838-1842) – Flickr, Photographer: oar square from Frankfurt/M., Public Domain,

Matthew 25: 1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaidstook their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaidsgot up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaidscame also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Matthew concludes his final teaching discourse with three parables found only in Matthew about how a wise disciple responds to the unknown day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man in glory. Those who are wise will be able to enter into the joy of their master and celebrate the long-awaited banquet, and those who are foolish may find themselves on the outside desiring to be a part of the celebration of the wise with the bridegroom. There are a number of connections throughout these parables with the Sermon on the Mount in particular and Jesus’ teaching and parables in general, and Matthew as a skillful editor has structurally used these parables of faithful preparation and stewardship to highlight the need for a community of wise disciples who can live faithfully in uncertain times when their master seems delayed or distant.

There will be wise and foolish in any community, but Matthew in this initial parable brings together a group of wise and a group of foolish virgins[1] who are awaiting the wedding feast and the bridegroom who the wedding feast celebrates. Throughout Matthew, we have seen Jesus use the wise/foolish pattern that is frequently used throughout the scriptures, particularly in wisdom literature, to help individuals and the community discern what wisdom looks like in practice. Here as Jesus begins his final trio of parables, wisdom is reflected in being prepared for the delayed coming of the bridegroom. As M. Eugene Boring can state:

Readiness in Matthew is, of course, living the life of the kingdom, living the quality of life described in the Sermon on the Mount. Many can do this for a short while; but when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise. Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed. Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant; being merciful for a lifetime, when the groom is delayed, requires preparedness. (NIB VIII: p. 451)

I find the grouping of five wise virgins helpful in this first parable because it is a group of the invited ones who have acted in a way that the parable views as wise and responsible, while the foolish are like those sown on the rocky soil without roots who are unprepared when the life of discipleship becomes challenging (13:5, 20). The community will endure suffering for their testimony and faith, and the metaphor of the wise virgins who come prepared for the delay reflects the course on both wise individuals and wise communities whose practices form faithful disciples that live each day in perseverance, preparation and hope. Sometimes preachers and readers have become focused on the foolish virgins, but scripture never calls on the reader to focus on the foolish, but instead to focus on the wise. The consequences of foolishness in the parable may be an encouragement to take the path of the wise, but preachers and readers should never become focused on the foolish to the point of ignoring the positive portrayal of these wise virgins who do participate in the long-awaited wedding banquet. Women throughout Matthew’s gospel have both been exemplars of faith [see for example the highlighting of women in the genealogy (1:1-17), the Canaanite woman (15:21-28), and the unnamed woman at Bethany (26:6-13)] and have been used in parables as illustrations of the kingdom of heaven (13:33) and although less frequently noted than men, their references have generally been positive.

With the next parable dealing with an economic illustration, it may be worth looking at wisdom as an economic concept. In the words of E. F. Schumacher: 

From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence…Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. (Schumacher 1989, 33-34)

In her discussion of wisdom and sloth, Ellen Davis highlights the ‘valorous woman’[2] which Proverb 31: 10-31 praises.

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness (sloth). Proverbs 31:26-27

This final character of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is a woman who can speak wisdom and in Ellen Davis’ words:

This woman who “does not eat the bread of sloth” (v.27), is a consummate practitioner of the economics of permanence as Israel understood it, maintaining the integrity of her household. (Davis 2009, 154)

These wise virgins, which become a metaphor for the faithful community, bring permanence to the practices of the Sermon on the Mount in this time of delay, but those who cry out to the closed gates “Lord, Lord’ find they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (7:21-23) and they are like foolish builders who built their house on sand. (7:24-27)

The identity of the bridegroom traditionally in scripture for Israel has been God. The image of God becoming Israel’s husbands (or Israel’s infidelity to that relationship) are a frequent theme in the prophets.[3] But in Matthew, Jesus has already referred to himself as the bridegroom (9:15) and has used the image of a wedding banquet for the son of the king in a previous parable. (22:1-14) In Matthew, Jesus continues to weave images and roles that have been traditionally used to talk about the God of Israel in evocative ways which point to the identity of Jesus. Those wise women and men whose continue to persevere in faithful lives in their time of awaiting the advent of the kingdom of heaven continue to illuminate the way that in Jesus they have met their bridegroom and even in the bridegrooms delay they remain ready to light their lamps and enter the banquet in joy.

There are many times in history where large groups of people choose paths that are foolish, that choose short term gain over permanence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflecting on the foolishness or stupidity of people in his own time (Germany at the end of 1942) could state:

It would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. (DBWE 8:43)

Bonhoeffer knew people who could remain “remarkable agile intellectually yet stupid” because they were captured by the societal pressures, rhetoric, and they become a “mindless tool…capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil” (DBWE 8:44) In Bonhoeffer’s time the Third Reich and its power to shape a stupid or foolish society were to be resisted in a church where the community was formed for faithfulness of wisdom. Even when the church and society both failed to resist the sociological problem of the stupidity of the people under the sway of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer still, even in prison, attempts to reimagine a church that can faithfully bear light to Christ in the darkness of a ‘world come of age.” In the United States many faithful have been concerned about the foolishness of the church and people who have made easy alliances between political and religious groups for the sake of gaining political power and influence. The temptation to abandon the practices of the Christian community for the sake of power, wealth, and influence have always been a powerful alternative for those initially drawn to Christ. The wise are called to form communities that can still maintain wisdom’s light in the midst of the sometimes overwhelming darkness of foolishness in the world.

[1] The Greek parthenos is a term for virgin in general. Although virgins may serve as bridesmaids, the bride is never mentioned in the parable. Most translations by translating the virgins as ‘bridesmaids’ assigns greater specificity than the parable requires. This is also the same term used in 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) in reference to Mary as a virgin. Foolish throughout this parable is the Greek moros where we get the English ’moron’ from.

[2] Even though English translations often render this ‘a capable wife’ the woman in the poem is viewed in her relationship to her work, and even though the woman in the poem is married the focus is on her and not her husband or their relationship.

[3] For example: Isaiah 54:5, Jeremiah 31:32 and Hosea 2:16, although for both Jeremiah and Hosea this is a recurring theme condemning the people for their unfaithfulness to this marriage.

2 thoughts on “Matthew 25: 1-13: Wise and Foolish Virgins

  1. Pingback: Matthew 25: 14-30: Two Wise and One Unwise Slaves | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Song of Songs 3 Seeking the King of Her Heart | Sign of the Rose

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