This parable is an interesting example for parable study since it is often dismissed as a creation of the later church to explain the long-delay of the return of the Lord. The parable is an allegory created by Matthew to explain why Jesus did not return as quickly as anticipated. For example, Eta Linnemann said that this parable “is certainly a creation of the early Church. A Christian prophet or teacher unknown to us uttered it in the name and spirit of Jesus.” (Parables, 126).
I would rather read this parable in the context of the others in Matthew 24-25. The parable was intended to use common typology for Israel’s relationship with God found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the relationship of God and Israel is pictured in the Old Testament as a marital relationship (Isa 54:4-6, 62:4-5, Ezek 16, Hosea). The fact the main event in the parable is a wedding feast also may allude to the great victory banquet at the end of the ate (Isa 25:6-8). If we follow Blomberg’s method for interpreting parables, then the bridegroom is the central character, the two sets of bridesmaids are the contrasting characters. This would imply strongly that the bridegroom is God / Jesus, since in most of these sorts of parables God is in that central position. The ten virgins or bridesmaids would then refer to the followers of Jesus who are waiting for his return. Five are prepared for a long interim, the other five are not.
But other elements are not intended to be typological at all. For example, the oil is sometimes equated to good works, or the merchants with the Church. (If you want to be ready for the return of Jesus, go and do good works in the Church?) Likewise the closing of the door. This is the “judgment” of the five foolish virgins, they are shut out of the wedding feast, not allowed to come in and serve their master.
What makes the bridesmaids “wise” or “foolish”? It cannot be that they fell asleep, both are said to get drowsy and fall asleep. The delay was so long that normal life had to go on. The issue is that the foolish five are unprepared for the long wait. The type of lamp they used would need to be refueled when the groom arrived. They did not think ahead and prepare for a lengthy wait. By preparing themselves, the five wise bridesmaids are allowed to join the groom and enter into the wedding feast.
But what of the unprepared virgins? Why are they judged harshly? The shutting of the door is an indication of final judgment: there is no longer any way for them to get into the kingdom, they have missed out. The groom’s response to their please is that he does not know them. This reminds us of 7:21-23, and 21:37. In 7:21-23 Jesus says that not everyone that cries out “Lord Lord” will be in the kingdom, the same words are used here, the virgins cry out “Lord Lord” (NIV = Sir Sir!)
The groom’s response is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 and is a rabbinical formula to dismiss a student. The implication is that they had the same opportunity to be ready, and that since they were not ready at the right time, they will have no part in the kingdom. They remain outside, in the dark. The fact is, they were always in the dark and only thought that they would enter into the Wedding Feast.
This is yet another example in Jesus’ teaching of a shocking reversal. Those who think that they ought to be in the kingdom do not get in. For me, this is a sober warning to the present, complacent church which thinks that when Jesus returns he is going to approve of what we have been doing. I suspect not a few people will be on the outside, shouting out to Jesus, “Did we not do miracles in your name? Did we not vote in your name?” While it may be dark on the outside, it will certainly be crowded.