COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 25:1-13
by Dr. Knox Chamblin
VII. THE PARABLE OF THE TEN VIRGINS. 25:1-13.
This parable, and the two that follow, flows directly out of the close of ch. 24 (the discourse continues through ch. 25). All three parables depict the crisis precipitated by Jesus' Return, and the separation that occurs at the Judgment over which he presides.
A. The Parable Itself.
1. The introduction, v. 1. As in previous such cases, it is the whole picture that Jesus introduces. "The kingdom of Heaven will be like this: There were ten...." (NEB; NIV's "the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins" is misleading). By the same token, v. 1b describes not an action prior to those of vv. 2-5, but the virgins' action in response to the cry of v. 6. (22:2 likewise anticipates 22:8-10.)
2. The custom. At the end of the period of betrothal, the bridegroom came with his friends (cf. Jn 3:29) in formal procession to the bride's home, whereupon she, together with her friends (the unmarried virgins of the parable), would join the bridegroom and his friends for the procession back to the bridegroom's home and the wedding feast (cf. 22:1-14).
3. The "lamps." The NIV, like English versions generally, translates lampades (vv. 1, 3-4, 7-8) by "lamps." Yet Joachim Jeremias has argued convincingly that the term should here (and generally) be translated "torches"; see his article "Lampades in Matthew 25:1-13" (Soli Deo Gloria, ed. J. M. Richards, 83-87). "They are long sticks, around the tops of which are wrapped rags completely soaked with olive oil. A group of girls carry these burning torches in festive procession to the house where the wedding is to take place. There they perform all kinds of dances and figures until the torches go out" (84, adopting Ludwig Schneller's description of Palestinian wedding customs in the late 19th century). Gundry, following Jeremias, writes: "Torches resist a breeze, give a bright light [neither of which a small oil lamp would do], burn only about fifteen minutes, and then need to have the rags...soaked again in oil" (p. 498).
4. The crisis. At the news of the bridegroom's approach, all ten virgins prepare their torches (v. 7), i.e. "they pour more oil on the oily rags so that they will burn brightly, and light them" for the return procession (Jeremias, 86). The verb used in v. 7b is kosmeo, which basically means "put in order" and thus need not be restricted to the translation "trimmed" (NIV). The first five girls are "foolish" because they fail to bring flasks of reserve oil (v. 3) - without which their torches cannot possibly last through the dancing (cf. Jeremias, 86-87). The other five virgins rightly refuse to give away some of their oil (25:8-9), "for otherwise all the torches would go out without possibility of replenishment before the procession and dance are completed" (Gundry, 500). For their negligence, the five foolish virgins are excluded from the festivities (25:11-12).
B. The Message of the Parable.
1. Two kinds of disciples. The ten virgins represent the church (as did the wedding guests in 22:1-14): the five foolish ones represent false disciples, and the five wise ones true disciples (cf. 22:11-14). The vigilance and readiness of the one group of girls sharply contrasts with the negligence and laziness (v. 5b, "they all became drowsy and fell asleep") of the other. Correspondingly, true disciples are those whose obedience to Jesus' teachings demonstrates that their profession is genuine, and false disciples are those whose disobedience demonstrates that their profession is spurious (5:14-16; 7:21-27; 24:45-48).
2. The Day of Reckoning. The bridegroom represents Jesus Christ (cf. 9:15, the one other place in Mt where nymphios occurs), and his sudden coming (v. 6) the unpredictable day and hour of Jesus' return (v. 13). When he comes, he will surely judge the members of the church for their works (16:27) and separate true disciples from false. Just as the two men in the field, and the two women grinding with the hand mill, are separated (24:40-41), so the five wise virgins are welcomed into the feast and the five foolish ones are shut out (25:10-12). The foolish virgins' lack of oil, corresponds to the wedding guest's lack of the proper wedding garment (22:11). In each case, the absence of evidential works of righteousness is in view. The close of the parable resembles the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount: (1) "Lord, lord [Kyrie kyrie], open to us" (25:11), and "Lord, Lord [Kyrie kyrie]" (7:21-22). (2) "I tell you the truth, I don't know [oida] you" (25:12), and "I never knew [egnon] you" (7:23a). (3) "And the door was shut" (25:10), and "Away from me..." (7:23b). Here, as there, the stress falls upon the fate awaiting false disciples.
3. A renewed call to vigilance, v. 13. In this closing exhortation Jesus expressly links the parable to the admonitions at the end of ch. 24, by reiterating 24:42 (cf. also 24:36, 44). Because the exact time of Christ's return is unknown, constant watchfulness is demanded. The accent in the parable's climax, upon the judgment in store for false disciples, summons all disciples soberly to reflect upon their condition and to consider their patterns of conduct - for a subtle danger might be to regard Jesus' warnings as intended for other disciples, least of all for oneself (cf. 1 Cor 10:12). Verse 13 urgently warns professing disciples to demonstrate the authenticity of their profession by diligent, unstinting obedience to Jesus' teachings. He calls for habitual obedience, for a life of good works, as distinct from a desperate attempt at the very end to make up for years of negligence and disobedience (as illustrated by the foolish virgins' last-minute purchase of oil). Moreover, an established pattern of obedience will help one to remain steadfast in the face of mounting pressures as the End approaches. "Otherwise, intensified persecution during the tribulation may tempt professing disciples into antinomianism as a way of escape" (Gundry, 502). Perhaps we are also meant to infer from 25:7-9 that one person's good works cannot somehow be transferred to someone else's account at the End!