The Parable of the Ten Virgins

oil-lampThis parable in Matthew 25 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 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.

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?

10 thoughts on “The Parable of the Ten Virgins

  1. Certainly in Matthew this conclusion is supported. First of all in just one chapter prior to this parable Jesus tells His disciples that there will be a delay and no one can know when the end will come, but all must be ready. He tells a parable of a man left in charge while the master is away who, when he sees that the master delays, begins beating the other servants. Certainly this man would have thought he was ready for a while, but then the reality of the master’s return grew faint and he lost sight of the importance of being ready always (Matthew 24:44-51). As a result he was punished. And in the chapter right before this story even Jesus proclaims His woes to the Pharisees, telling that they are blind guides who think they do well but are really the farthest from the truth (Matthew 23). Matthew has just written chapters about the danger of hypocrisy and how important it is to be truly ready for the master’s return.

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  2. I guess this parable sort of confuses me. If the ten virgins are all followers of Jesus, then why would any of them miss out on getting in to the kingdom simply because they predicted his return incorrectly? Plus, the things Jesus said about his return often made it sound like his return was quite imminent. Like you said in class, a lot of Jesus’ followers assumed that Christ’s return would happen within their lifetimes. Paul says that Christ will come like a “thief in the night” (1 Thes. 5:2). If this is true, then nobody will be ready for the Wedding Feast.

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  3. The 5 virgins who didn’t have enough oil are the ones classified as foolish. My question then is why are they one hundred percent foolish. As Eric said “if the ten virgins are all followers of Jesus, then why would any of them miss out on getting in to the kingdom simply because they predicted his return incorrectly?” Could the reason be that the oil represents their belief (not trying to allegorize) and when Jesus doesn’t return in their life time they slowly run out of belief and begin to dismiss what he said. Not having enough oil to keep the lamps burning shows a lack of care for the groom. He would have been home preparing a house for them and the only thing they had to do was keep a lamp burning. They might not have put it under a bushel but by not keeping oil in in it they still let it blow out, and because of that they must be foolish.

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  4. After reading though this parable again, it is very obvious who is the wise and the foolish when looking in the context of this entire parable. The foolish 5 are actually called that in the parable: “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out’ (Matthew 25:7). They are not all foolish because they all fell asleep, but the foolish are those who weren’t prepared when the time came to join the wedding because they didn’t bring enough oil. It is hard to say whether the oil or the lack of preparation should be stressed in this parable. I think that their lack of preparation is the key point in this parable because the context of Jesus’ teachings at this time are about his return and what to expect when the kingdom comes. But, looking at the fact that 5 of the virgins didn’t bring enough oil, this can be related to other parables. For example, the parable of the bags of gold found in Matthew 25 shows that the foolish one was the servant who did nothing with the gold. This servant didn’t do enough with what was given to him, he actually did nearly nothing with it.

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  5. I agree with my classmates that this parable is one of the most confusing parables in the Gospels. And I think a great source of the confusion comes from the idea that all of the virgins are Jesus-followers. But, I think perhaps the reasoning behind the parable is simply our mindset about life. Perhaps, what Jesus is calling for is a perspective focused on eternity. Jesus wants his followers to focus on his return, as opposed to focusing solely on the present. Christianity calls us to focus on the future just as much as the present. We ought to be doing things in the present as a preparation for the future return of Jesus. Our present life only has purpose because of our future.

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  6. In Matthew 24:44 “ So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” The foolish described in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 are the ones who are not prepared. They were not prepared with oil for the return of the bridegroom. The wise in the parable are those who did prepare oil in awaiting the return of the bridegroom. As stated in the parable the wise enter the kingdom of heaven and the foolish do not. This parable kind of confuses me in a similar way that the parable of the bags of gold in Matthew 25:14-28. The servant who is given 1 piece of gold and does not profit any does not inherit the kingdom of God. The “lazy” servant and the 5 foolish virgins seem to have a connection to final God’s judgement. Their lack of initiative and preparation separate them from the kingdom of God. It’s to the extreme that God will say “I never knew you”. What is the harshness of the crime. Could it be that their failed opportunity to be prepared was their doom? Or is there something more? Did they ever know the bridegroom? Were they ever saved in the first place? These are some questions that I have concerning the parable.

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  7. In this parable I would consider the wise to be the 5 bridesmaids who had enough oil and were prepared. The 5 foolish ones were the ones who were not prepared. I think that is really what this parable is all about, being prepared and using the time that we have. The 5 foolish bridesmaids were very foolish with their time and were not prepared. In Matthew 25 in the parable of the talents, we see three men who are given different amounts of bags and the master told them to make more with what they were given, well the man with the least amount of bags did nothing with his bag and the master was very displeased with him. Similarly with the parable of the 10 virgins, whether we are given time or money, we need to take advantage and do our best to use it to glorify God.

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  8. If we look in the previous chapters, we find Jesus speaking to the Pharisees and scolding them for not being true to what they say they are. “So you must be careful to do everything they (The Pharisees) tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them”(Matthew 23 3:4). This passage is Jesus telling the crowds and the disciples to be careful of listening to the Pharisees. The Pharisses are a group that Jesus is constantly calling out about being hypocrites and not doing what He says. It is entirely possible that this parable could have been a stab towards the Pharisees, and it most likely was, especially if we look at the other accusations Jesus has towards them. Matthew 23, after this passage, is the ‘Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees’. So it is fairly easy to tell that this parable could have been pointed towards them. However, it is also a passage that is easily ‘preach-able’ and can be applicable to any follower of Christ who is not doing what they are originally called to do.

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  9. I would agree with my fellow classmates that this parable is confusing, to say the least. But I do think that taking a look at the surrounding chapters helps to shed some light on the themes that Jesus was trying to bring out. Matthew 24:36-44 touches on the idea that Jesus’ return will be very unexpected and sudden. People are exhorted to keep watch and be ready at all times for the return of the Lord. The end of chapter 24 tells of an unwise and rebellious servant who, when his master takes an extended leave, foolishly wastes his time and does not consider his master’s return until it is too late.

    The parable just following the Parable of the Ten Virgins involves three servants who were entrusted with money while their master went away on a long journey. When the master returned after a long time, he required an account from each servant on how he had invested his money, and the master rewarded the wise servants and punished the foolish servant who did not invest his master’s money at all.

    While the Parable of the Ten Virgins is confusing, I think that the context of these passages helps to understand what the two groups of five bridesmaids might mean. The five who were prepared with enough oil had the foresight to plan ahead for the bridegroom’s return. They invested while the master was gone so that when he returned they would be ready. The five foolish bridesmaids didn’t seem to place enough importance on being prepared for the return of the bridegroom, so when he arrived, they were caught off guard and were separated from the bridegroom forever.

    While I don’t understand all of the details and imagery with this parable, it seems pretty clear that the wise are those who are anticipating and preparing for the bridegroom’s return, and the unwise are those who foolishly waste their time, unaware that the bridegroom will be coming soon and requiring an account of how they have prepared for his return.

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