At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
(Matthew 25:1-12, TNIV)
I have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever understood this parable. In my two decades of church attendance and learning from the Bible, no one has ever explained this one to me in a way I’ll actually comprehend. I suspect that’s because the next verse tells us the meaning of it (unlike many of the parables which come with no explanation and so must be taught and explained.)
But Jesus said more than verse 13 alone, and Matthew thought this story worth including. For this reason I think it’s important that we too ensure we can understand the story, both in the way we teach it, and in our Bibles themselves.
I can’t understand this parable not because of the words it uses, but because it describes something that is so culturally foreign to me. I went to two weddings on the weekend and at one of them this passage was read out. But neither of those weddings had the slightest resemblance to this parable, other than that they both had grooms.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. For sure this is something where study bible notes would be very helpful, and this blog is about “better Bibles” and that includes study notes! But there are a lot of times when notes won’t be available; most Bibles aren’t study Bibles after all, and then there are the times when the story will be copied into something like the wedding programme I read on the weekend. So I think the Bible texts themselves need to somehow bridge this huge cultural gap.
I don’t know how to do that. But I can leave you with some of the questions I’ve been wondering:
- Who are these virgins? And is their sexual history actually important? Should we instead be thinking of their marital state (ie, they are unaccompanied), or their young age? Some translations just say “girls”, but others say “bridesmaids.” Guys, which is it?!
- What does the groom want with ten virgins? There should only be one virgin on his mind… his wife! If instead they are bridesmaids then why aren’t they with the bride?
- Why are they waiting outside? What’s their role in the wedding and what obligations do they have? Why do they need to be there (outside) when the groom comes, and why do they need lamps?
- Finally, what kind of girl would sleep outside in her prettiest wedding outfit??