10 May 2013

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” (vv. 1-4)


The parable of the ten bridesmaids (commonly known as the "parable of the wise and foolish virgins") falls in the latter third of Jesus' final long speech in Matthew's Gospel (chapters 23-25).

In the long teaching of which today's passage is a part, Jesus judges the present and speaks of coming judgement. He uses a series of warnings, woes, predictions and parables. This 'judgement discourse' immediately precedes the plot to arrest and kill Jesus, the events of the last supper and his passion.

Today's parable begins with Matthew's Gospel familiar formula, "… the kingdom of heaven will be like this". However this parable offers a less everyday, familiar setting, and seems more contrived to make a theological point. The bridegroom is delayed, and all the bridesmaids must sleep (verse 5). When they are awakened, those without oil beg the others to share and are rebuffed (verse 8). While they rush to the dealers to buy oil themselves, the wedding feast is called and the doors closed (verse 10). They are too late.

The parable does not reduce easily to an allegory giving moral guidance: if it did, it would seem to be starkly at odds with other "kingdom of heaven" parables in Matthew's Gospel. The parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35) taught extreme forgiveness. In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the landowner showed extravagant generosity to the late hired workers, to a degree that brought outrage. In light of these, are readers of today's passage to understand that in the kingdom of heaven people should not share what oil they have at the end of days?

But to try to make the parable into a simple ethical story misses its teaching. Its point is about readiness for God's coming at the end of days. All must sleep; we are not to remain restless with anxiety about when God comes, but to be ready. Thus this parable paradoxically counsels a calm and prepared confidence, not a state of constant worry and rush to set things right.

To Ponder

  • What, in your view, does readiness for the coming kingdom include?
  • How do you recognise a "wise" person in your church, group of friends, or workplace? What are they like? 

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.