by Steven Siciliano  |  4 May 2018  |  

This series of articles, called “Reading What’s There,” intends to show how studying biblical passages in their own context can provide insights beyond those that can be derived from other methods. Here we survey representative expositions of Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids, a passage in Matthew 25, then interpret the passage in its context and discuss what it means for faith and practice today.

The Church Fathers

After the apostles of Jesus passed away, elders and teachers known as church fathers arose to lead local congregations and influence the wider faith community through their writings, many of which have been preserved. A survey of how they handled the parable of the bridesmaids is useful for the sake of observing their conclusions and the methods they used to reach them.

John Chrysostom, an Eastern Church Father from the 4th and early 5th centuries, seemed to take for granted the idea that the bridesmaids in the parable alluded to the practice of celibacy, which was held in high esteem at the time. Since the Greek word translated bridesmaids can more technically be rendered as “virgins,” Chrysostom used the parable to say that abstinence from sexual relations and other enjoyments was, by itself, useless without the oil of charity.[1]

About a century later, Gregory the Great said that “sleeping” in the parable represented death, which all Christians would have to face. The oil which five bridesmaids had and the other five lacked represented good deeds done in life, whose nature and number would either exonerate or condemn them in the judgment.[2]

Macarios, another Eastern Father from the 4th century, said that the oil represented God’s gifts of grace, things from the outside that enter our “vessels,” which he understood as referring to our unaided human nature. Only those believers who seriously pursued the “oil of gladness” and other Christian virtues would be able to pass muster in the judgment.[3]

St. Augustine, who is definitively associated with the western church tradition, began his exposition of the parable by refuting an idea that must have been prevalent at the time, that the “virgins” represented only the most religious members of the church. He too said that the bridesmaids’ time of sleeping symbolized death and that having oil in the vessels after awakening to judgment symbolized good deeds, specifically those that had not already received praise from men. He also noted the fact that there were exactly five wise and five foolish virgins, a number he correlated with the five senses. The wise virgins, he said, represent those Christians who deny the pleasures of the senses, while the foolish are those who indulge them.[4]

Martin Luther

About a thousand years later, Martin Luther expounded on the parable. Luther said that the oil represented having faith in Christ, while the lamps stood for service to others. “The whole Christian life,” he said, “consists in these two things: Believe God. Help your neighbor.” However, in a more hostile segment of his presentation, Luther also said that the foolish virgins were “phony Christians who only give the appearance of being Christians.” Then, alluding to his own opponents, he suggested that the five foolish bridesmaids correlated with church leaders who could pontificate on theology but who failed to practice Christian virtue. In that regard, he said, the lamps represent false, outer pretenses of Christianity while the oil represents real faith.[5]

Luther and the church fathers used the parable of the bridesmaids as a vehicle for explaining concepts they already believed to be true. They treated the parable as a kind of allegory in which each element in the story was supposed to represent something else, such as faith, the five senses, charity, etc. Each came up with different lessons, but none seemed to explain the parable in its own context or on its own terms. Instead, they conscripted it to convey general truisms that suited their own times.

A More Recent Interpretation

In the early 1800’s, during a time of renewed interest in Christian missions and biblical studies, a farmer named William Miller began preaching about the second coming of Jesus. He applied the parable of the bridesmaids to his own times by equating the bridesmaids’ trimming of lamps with the upsurge in bible societies and social reforms.[6] Others who were associated with Miller later linked details of the parable with Miller’s prophetic movement itself, suggesting that the failed prediction of Christ’s coming in 1843, followed by the announcement of his return the next year, paralleled the delayed appearance of the bridegroom in the parable. Although all of Miller’s followers would pass through a “sleeping” period during the intervening year, those who maintained their faith and kept studying their bibles comprised the wise virgins, while those who gave up and lost faith comprised the foolish, “oil-free” virgins.[7]

This practice of applying biblical passages to one’s own group may seem odd to contemporary readers but it did not originate with Miller and his adherents. It is a method known as “pesher” that goes back at least to the time of Jesus, having been employed by the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There are even hints of its use in the New Testament, suggesting that highly motivated but marginalized religious groups have taken comfort in a “pesher-style” reading of scripture for at least two millennia.[8]

So What’s It All About?

Despite their divergent methodologies, the ideas stated by these writers were often valuable. For instance, Chrysostom’s claim that celibacy is futile without charity sounds a lot like what Paul says in a well-known section of his letter to the Corinthians: “though I give up my goods” and “surrender my body to be burned” it would all be worthless without godly love. Nevertheless, what these writers had in common is the fact that they seem to be exploiting rather than explaining the parable. They may have used it to exhort, encourage, and convey generally sound biblical precepts but none of them treated the parable in the way it seems to function in its original setting.

The parable of the ten bridesmaids appears in the section of Matthew’s gospel that deals with the second coming of Christ and the ensuing judgment. It begins when Jesus predicts the impending doom of the temple, followed by the disciples question in regard to when that will happen and how they might know the event is near. After listing the kinds of things that would take place before He would return, Jesus then tells four parables that focus less on when and more on what to do in the meantime.

The parable of the bridesmaids at the beginning of chapter 25 describes the prelude to a wedding ceremony as practiced in Jesus’ day. Ten bridesmaids prepare lamps so they can join in the procession but the appearance of the bridegroom is delayed and, while waiting, the bridesmaids all fall asleep. It is not until midnight that an announcement rings out to arise and meet the groom, at which point the ten wake up and tend to their lamps. By that time, the five young women who had failed to bring extra oil for their lamps find that their flames are flickering out, so they ask the other five if they could borrow some of their extra oil. That won’t work, they are told, because sharing the scant supply would run the risk of everyone’s lamps going out. The wise five instead advise their foolish friends to go and buy oil for themselves. Unfortunately, the groom arrives while they are still on their way, and they get shut out of the feast.

In context of the question posed by the disciples at the beginning of the discourse, the meaning of the parable may already be obvious. Before spelling it out, however, it would be good to remember how parables work. Most parables are not the same as allegories, in which each item stands for something else. The topic of discussion in Matthew 24 and 25 necessarily suggests that the coming of the bridegroom represents the return of Christ, while the bridesmaids represent believers awaiting His appearance. Nevertheless, the point of this parable, like many of Aesop’s fables, does not lie in the alleged symbolism of the details but in the plot itself. For instance, no one interprets the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” by saying the wolf represents a certain political system while the boy stands for a corrupt politician, or any other one-to-one correspondence like that. The point of the story comes through in the action: if a person tells lies too often, then after a while people won’t believe anything that individual says.

The parable of the bridesmaids works the same way; the plot line conveys its message. The fact that the five foolish virgins failed to bring extra oil shows they were neither expecting nor prepared to wait very long for the bridegroom to arrive. If the wedding procession had taken place early in the day, they too would have been ready with lamps burning, but their oil did not hold out through the delay.

In its own context, Jesus used the parable to encourage His followers to be ready to wait for Him longer than they may otherwise have expected. The evident message of the parable is therefore relatively straightforward: “My return may take a lot longer than you anticipate, so be prepared to remain faithful for the long haul.” In that regard the meaning of the parable flows naturally out of the question the disciples asked at the beginning of chapter 24.

This conclusion is reinforced by careful attention to the details of the parable. The lamps of all ten bridesmaids were still lit after they awoke, so the difference between the two groups was not a matter of five having a particular quality (represented by oil) which the other five lacked. Both groups fell asleep too, so that wasn’t the problem either. Falling asleep in the parable merely serves to reinforce the main point – that the waiting period was long. Therefore, the only difference between the wise and foolish maidens was the fact that one group had come prepared for a delay while the other seemed to expect that their wait-time would be brief.

The Takeaway

Understanding the parable in its own setting yields at least three lessons that are as applicable today as two-thousand years ago. First, Christians need to understand that they have to stay faithful and focused for the long haul, likely for a lifetime; for there is no way to know when the Lord will return. Second (based on the first) is the idea that the timing of Jesus’ return is not the most important thing to worry about; staying faithful until the end is. And third, if believers should lose their faith and commitment to Jesus during the in-between time, it will be difficult if not impossible to regain it at the last minute. The lesson is to be ready for anything and determined to stay faithful every day, no matter how long it takes.

  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  7. (See pages 393-395.)
  8. Pesher: “Hebrew for ‘commentary’ and particularly used for commentaries on the OT in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which looked for hidden meanings in the text which were seen to apply to and to justify the community’s way of life. The NT use of OT texts has some similarity with this method: over and above the original sense, a passage is said to have a special meaning for the present time (e.g. 1 Cor. 10: 11).”

Steven Siciliano is pastor of the Jackson Heights, Hartsdale, and New York Filipino Churches in the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an M.A. in Community Health Education from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

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