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Matthew 25:1-13 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 23-25. THE CONTEXT
Chapters 23-25 are Jesus’ final discourse (lengthy speech or teaching) in this Gospel. Jesus began his public ministry in this Gospel with a lengthy discourse that we call the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), and he closes it with this lengthy discourse that is sometimes called the Judgment Discourse (chapters 23-25). Chapter 26 moves into preparations for Jesus’ crucifixion.
We give special credence to things that people say or do as they prepare to die, because a dying person wants to impart some special love or wisdom—something important—before dying. This Judgment Discourse, then, gains significance as Jesus’ dying words to his disciples—the most important wisdom that he could possibly provide them.
Chapters 24-25 deal with eschatology (end times) and the Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ). Chapter 24 concludes with the Parable of the Faithful or Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51)—the first of four parables that address the coming kingdom. In that parable, the unfaithful slave assumes that the master will be delayed indefinitely, and therefore feels free to behave unfaithfully. However, the master comes unexpectedly and punishes him, cutting him in pieces and relegating him to a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (24:51).
The common lectionary does not include that parable, but we would do well to remember that it is the first of a series of four parables, the other three of which we will deal with on this and the next two Sundays, the last three Sundays of this liturgical year. The other three parables are:
• The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (25:1-13)—this Sunday—emphasizing the importance of being prepared for Christ’s coming.
• The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30)—next Sunday—emphasizing the importance of being found by Christ at his coming to have been faithful over that with which he has entrusted us.
• The Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46)—not a parable really, but an apocalyptic vision of the last judgment—the last Sunday of this liturgical year—emphasizing the importance of being found by Christ, at his coming, to have been generous to “the least of these my brothers” (25:40).
In the first and second parables, the master is delayed (24:48; 25:5). In the third parable, the master returns “after a long time” (25:19). These parables reflect the fact that Matthew’s church, late in the first century, is dealing with an unexpected delay in the Parousia (Second Coming). They expected Jesus to come by now, and these parables tell them that it is important to stay ready for the master’s coming.
In all four stories, the master surprises us with the crispness of his judgment (24:40-51; 25:12-13; 25:26-30; 25:31ff).
Just as Jesus began his ministry with a lengthy teaching section (The Sermon on the Mount—chapters 5-7), so he now concludes with a lengthy teaching section (The Eschatological Discourse, this treatise on end times—chapters 24-25). At the conclusion of this discourse, Jesus will announce his coming passion: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (26:2).
MATTHEW 25:1-5. WHILE THE BRIDEGROOM DELAYED, THEY ALL SLEPT
1“Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins (Greek: parthenois—maidens, unmarried girls virgins), who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, 4but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept.”
“Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins” (v. 1a). Kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven are essentially synonymous. Matthew uses both in this Gospel, but prefers kingdom of heaven. His intended readership is primarily Jewish, and Jews are reluctant to use God’s name lest they use it wrongly (Exodus 20:7). The future tense, “will be,” suggests an eschatological dimension (having to do with the last days), but John the Baptist and Jesus have also told us that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near (3:2; 10:7). This is true, in part, because Jesus personifies the kingdom of heaven—Emmanuel—God with us (1:23). It is also true because the kingdom is present in the heart of every person who makes God king in his/her life.
“ten virgins (parthenois—maidens, unmarried girls virgins), who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1b). Jesus describes preparations for a wedding. Weddings provide much needed relief from the humdrum and hard work of daily life. Usually women take care of children and perform household chores. They look forward to any small distraction, such as their daily visit to the village well where they can visit with other village women.
But, occasionally, their tedium is broken by the great events of village life—weddings, births, and bar mitzvahs—even funerals. Of these, weddings involve the greatest celebration. At a wedding, the couple is the center of village life for days on end. After the marriage ceremony, there is feasting, dancing, and revelry, which can last for several days. It is a glad week for the couple—and for their friends as well—an event not to be missed!
An important part of the wedding ceremony is the procession from the home of the bride’s parents to the couple’s new home. As the bridegroom escorts his bride to their new home, their pathway is lighted by wedding guests holding aloft flaming torches, probably sticks wrapped with oily rags (Gower, 66; Keener, 356).
A wedding is a great joy for all the members of the community, but especially so for the young women invited to serve as the bride’s attendants. It is an honor to be asked to participate, and those who agree are expected to do so enthusiastically and responsibly.
“Five of them were foolish, and five were wise” (v. 2). The wise and foolish bridesmaids remind us of the wise and foolish builders about whom Jesus spoke in 7:24-27. In that story, the wise man built on rock, but the foolish man built on sand. The house built on rock stood through the storm, but the house built on sand fell, and great was its fall. Jesus said that the wise man was the one who “hears these words of mine, and does them” (7:24).
“Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps” (vv. 3-4). The wise bridesmaids are different from the foolish bridesmaids at only one point—they have the foresight to take flasks of oil to replenish their lamps. Both the foolish and wise bridesmaids sleep, but the wise bridesmaids first prepare for the bridegroom’s arrival. They have lamps and oil, and are set to greet the bridegroom no matter when he might arrive. They are ready—and readiness is the point of this parable.
We expect all the young women to be ready, because the bridegroom’s coming will signal the beginning of a great and joyous festival—something that promises to be one of the highlights of these young women’s lives. “The theme is preparedness, not for the worst…but for the best” (Buttrick, 556).
The surprise is that five of them have not prepared—but in our everyday lives we see unprepared people—job seekers who go to an interview wearing their caps backwards—students who take a test without having studied—couples who “get married in a fever.” We shake our heads and wonder at their lack of preparation, but then we remember our own foolish moments.
“Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept” (v. 5). The bridegroom’s delay is a key point in the story. Both the wise and foolish bridesmaids are prepared for the bridegroom’s coming, but only the wise bridesmaids are prepared for the bridegroom’s delay. As noted above, Matthew, writing this Gospel a half-century after the resurrection, is struggling with the issue of the delayed Second Coming. In this series of parables, he encourages the church to maintain its vigil, even though they are weary of maintaining an “alert status.”
This parable includes a number of allegorical elements (people, things, and happenings that have a hidden or symbolic meaning). Scholars generally recognize that:
• The bridesmaids are the church that is waiting for the Second Coming.
• The bridegroom is Christ.
• The wedding feast is the great and joyous occasion in which Christ comes for his church—the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
• The delay of the bridegroom corresponds to the delay of the Second Coming that Matthew’s church had experienced.
• The bridegroom’s arrival in the dark of night is the Second Coming itself.
• The closing of the door is the final judgment.
However, scholars vary in their understanding of the oil, and that deserves our attention. If the thrust of this story is that we must be prepared with oil for Christ’s coming, what is the oil? Luther said that it is faith. Others have identified it as piety, good works, or a personal relationship with the Lord.
One approach to understanding the oil is to examine the context—both the narrow context of this series of four parables and the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel:
• In the Parable of the Faithful and Unfaithful Slave (24:45-51), the faithful slave is the one found at work when the master returns. Being prepared—having oil—means working faithfully for the Lord.
• In the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), the faithful slaves use wisely the resources entrusted to their care. Being prepared—having oil—means practicing good stewardship—good ecological practices—careful management of time and money—generosity to those in need—proclamation of the Word—the possibilities go on and on.
• In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner—which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment—to love God and neighbor (22:37-40). Being prepared—having oil—means generosity to those in need.
• In the wider context of this entire Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) gives us great insight into Christ’s expectations. Being prepared—having oil—means obeying Jesus’ teachings.
This parable speaks pointedly to those who emphasize becoming a Christian through any initiatory event (conversion—baptism—receiving the gift of tongues) without requiring a corresponding growth in discipleship. A good beginning is not yet a race well run.
MATTHEW 25:6-12. THE BRIDEGROOM IS COMING!
6“But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!’ 7Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise answered, saying, ‘What if there isn’t enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ 10While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us.’12But he answered, ‘Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you.'”
“But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him'” (v. 6). Midnight is an unexpected hour for a significant event. Midnight is a time for sleeping, particularly for people who have only oil lamps or candles for artificial light. People under those circumstances go to bed early and arise early to take full advantage of daylight hours. At midnight, they tend to be deep in slumber.
In an emergency, people in deep sleep require time to awaken—to get their wits about them. They are less likely than usual to remember where to look for things and more likely to make mistakes. Only thorough preparation can help a person faced with an urgent situation when awakened at midnight.
“The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out'” (v. 8). The foolish bridesmaids, seeing that they do not have enough oil, ask the wise bridesmaids to share theirs, which the wise bridesmaids refuse to do (v. 9). We might think the wise bridesmaids to be acting selfishly, but they are instead acting wisely. If their share their oil it will quickly be gone, and the bridegroom will have no light for his wedding party. It is far better that they use five torches to illuminate the pathway for the entire distance than to use ten torches at the beginning and thereby to risk having to walk in darkness at the end—an unimaginable breach of wedding protocol.
“But the wise answered, saying, ‘What if there isn’t enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves'” (v. 9). The wise bridesmaids are not mean-spirited. They do not criticize the foolish bridesmaids for being unprepared, but instead suggest a remedy—go to the store and buy more oil—a real possibility. This wedding is the event of the week for this village. The foolish bridesmaids can expect neighbors to do everything possible to respond to their pleas for help.
While the foolish bridesmaids are searching for oil, the bridegroom comes, “and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut” (v. 10). Jesus does not say whether they succeeded in purchasing oil, but it is quite possible that they did. However, that no longer matters, because they didn’t have oil when it was needed. What good is their oil now that the procession is finished?
They plead, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” (v. 11) but the bridegroom replies, “Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you” (v. 12). The bridegroom’s attitude seems harsh, but is an appropriate response to the gross breach of responsibility by the foolish bridesmaids. This wedding is supposed to be the highlight of this couple’s life—something to remember fondly for the rest of their days. The foolish bridesmaids almost ruined everything—an offense beyond calculation—an insult beyond reckoning.
The parallel, of course, is Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion. The Son of God has come from heaven to live among us and to die on our behalf. He has provided us with the witness of scripture and countless faithful disciples. He has offered us the Spirit to inspire, guide, and direct our lives. He has given us a lifetime to get to know him. If we reject him, we can expect the door to be closed and locked at the end.
It is devastating to be rejected by the bridegroom, because his word is final. The rejection is made even worse by his reputation for love and generosity. It would have been so easy to please him! Why did they not do so! Why do we not do so!
Earlier, Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity'” (7:21-23).
Jesus makes it clear that he has expectations regarding our behavior—standards that we must take seriously—obedience to which we must aspire. In this parable, he also makes it clear that there is a time for repentance and a time when repentance will be too late. When the bridegroom comes, it will be too late to borrow oil—too late to ask for help—too late to pray—too late to read the Bible—too late for baptism—too late to get ready. When the door closes, it will be too late to plead for mercy. It will matter not how we weep and wail and gnash our teeth—the door will remain tightly shut.
The point of this story is that we must be ready at all times for the Lord’s coming, because his arrival will come at an unexpected hour (24:36). Once Christ has come, there will be no further opportunity to prepare. Those who are ready will be included, and those who are not ready will be excluded.
We should keep in mind that death is as final as the Second Coming—and as unpredictable. For some people, death comes swiftly and unexpectedly in the prime of life. When it comes, that’s it! No more time for preparation! We are prepared or unprepared—admitted to the party or facing a closed door! No middle ground!
The Second Coming is not popular preaching in mainline churches today, but we must sound the warning—help people to prepare.
The longer Jesus delays, the more difficult it is to maintain our readiness—and the delay has been long indeed. But faithful discipleship entails continuing to believe that which we have not yet seen—and continuing to pray for Christ’s coming again to put things right. Jesus promises, “But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved” (24:13).
MATTHEW 25:13. WATCH THEREFORE
13“Watch therefore, for you don’t know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”
Jesus closes by summarizing his point—that we must maintain constant readiness for his coming again, because we “don’t know the day nor the hour”.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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