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 other parables in Matthew 24-25, as well as the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple his final week. 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).
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?) This is very “preachable,” but I am not at all convinced that was Jesus’ original point.
What makes the bridesmaids “wise” or “foolish”? It cannot be that they fell asleep since both the wise and foolish 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. By preparing themselves, the five wise bridesmaids are allowed to join the groom and enter into the wedding feast.
But what about the unprepared virgins? Why are they judged harshly? The shutting of the door is an indication of final judgement: 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.
The groom’s response is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 and is a rabbinical formula used 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, they remain on the outside. I think that the context supports this reading – what else do you seen in Jesus’ final week that supports this conclusion? Who should we identify as the “wise” and “foolish” in the immediate context of the parable?