THE FIVE WISE AND THE FIVE FOOLISH MAIDENS: Matthew 25: 1 – 13
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins is quite short and has a brief narrative to set out the issues. A similar parable is given by Luke in chapter 12: 35 – 38, which refers to the master of a house, this time attending a wedding celebration, but whose return could not be predicted. Hence the need for his servants also to be ready and waiting – not asleep or indolent.
In Israel during Jesus’ time, it was the custom that at a wedding the groom would prepare his home, the wedding ceremony and reception, and when all was ready he would go to the bride’s home to collect her and bring her to his own home. This would be a great demonstration of prestige and the route taken would be the most circuitous that could be devised in order to let all possible know that the wedding was in immediate prospect. Most guests would gather at the groom’s home, however with his companions he would collect the bride personally. It would be no particular wonder if his arrival was later than expected and the guests kept waiting for his arrival.
Hence the image of guests at the groom’s house, waiting and falling asleep as the evening went on and night drew in. The provident would have lamps and spare oil, ‘in case of need.’ The improvident would have only the lamps, with no allowance in case of a delay. But once the groom and bridal party had arrived then the celebration was on and the door would be shut against gate-crashers and other uninvited guests.
This is the setting for the further lessons that Jesus was wanting to impart. The symbolism is deeply embedded in the Old Testament: the coming of the Messiah in glory, the invitation to the elect to join Him in His victorious celebration, the magnificence of the feast in which He would be the host and the guests would be the chosen of Israel.
But is also applies to the church, and stands within a context of the church awaiting the glorious return of its Lord and its vindication against the oppressions and persecutions of the world. In this sense the parable has two significant elements: the delayed return of the groom and the slumbering of the maidens.
The Creeds are insistent in stating that Jesus ‘would come again to judge the living and the dead’. The doctrine of the Second Coming is firmly entrenched in the Christian faith, and yet it is now interpreted in various ways. Perhaps Jesus is already here in the church and a literal coming again is unwarranted. Perhaps it is to be interpreted spiritually rather than literally. Perhaps the various forms of apocalyptic writing, which are dispersed across the gospels, epistles, and in the Books of Revelation and of some of the Old Testament prophets are to be taken figuratively, or in the context of persecution of their immediate readers, who are to be encouraged by these writings, but are not authoritative texts foretelling the future. And if there is no second coming then the church is not to live in expectation of one but should rather concentrate with the affairs of the here and now and dealing with the regime and fashions of the present age. Maybe the church should focus on the needs and exigencies of the time and not worry about the future.
This leads to the second issue – the slumbering of the maidens. In the parable, all the maidens had slumbered off, having grown weary of waiting and certainly not able to keep themselves at a pitch of excitement and expectation.
Nevertheless, some had reserves of oil and some did not. All had lamps. All had dozed off. In one sense the lamps may be seen as representing the formality of the church with its structures, its creeds and liturgies and its canons. It would have its orders of ministry, its cathedrals and the splendour of its worship together with choirs, vestments, and great ceremony. But to reduce all this to opera and politics and administration is to miss the central point.
Is this the work of the gospel? Are these the works that Jesus is carrying out or is He expected to rubber-stamp other peoples’ arrangements and agendas? Is this work and structure led by the Holy Spirit – symbolised by the oil in the lamps – or is He absent, acknowledged in word but not in deed or in life?
To put it another way, have we also grown weary of waiting? Are we too easily distracted by the fashions and fantasies of the age, and the glamour and prestige that go with them, and drawn away from the less exciting areas of life such as repentance of sin and the proclamation of what may be a highly unfashionable gospel message?
I think that there are two further points to make. The first is that oil is often taken to be a symbol of the Holy Spirit. It suggests an anointing from God, and a power and an authority not given from human institutions but one which will – or should – be recognised and validated by the church. Those who continue in their own strength and following their own agendas will find their efforts long, arduous and bereft of the sustaining and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. It is He who gives life to the word and to the worship. It is He who deepens faith and relationships in the church. It is He who gives power where there is only futility and helplessness. But if we are not desiring His presence in our life as a church or in our own lives, then as a perfect gentleman, He will not intrude. And the oil will run out.
But there is a further aspect, for the church has been persecuted in the past, many times. I do not think that there has ever been a time when the church has not been persecuted in one part of the world or another, and in European history, apart from the Wars of the Reformation there have also been times of the severest persecution by atheistic regimes, such as Revolutionary France and Russia, Nazi Germany and the anti-clerical pogroms of Latin America of the 1920s and 1930s. In our own land we are certainly used to ill-concealed contempt and opposition to Christians by the broadcasters, and indeed the courts.
But this is not to undermine the teaching of Jesus that a Coming Again is indeed to take place even if nobody knows the day or the hour. But we are warned to look out for the signs of the times – and in such times to ensure that our formal structures – the lamps – and indeed full of oil and that they are ready to give light: if they are not already doing so.
- How do you see the symbolism of the wedding feast, the bridegroom, the bride, the guests, the lamps and the oil?
- How far is the formality and structure of the church a protection against its more immediate and personal aspects?
- The parable speaks of a delay in the arrival of the groom. How do you see it?
- Are there areas of life, worship and ministry which a further impetus, with his power and authority from the Holy Spirit, is needed?