Join the wise who wait for the bridegroom

Published: October 10, 2015

This is the 10th column in a 12-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

Feasting and marrying are rich themes found within the pages of our Bibles. Why? Simply put, these experiences tap into the human experience of intimacy. Our need and desire to share life with others is so universal that most cultures have ritualized these moments at the table and the altar. Biblical storytellers tap into these human events to reveal something of God to us, even when in the ancient world the “table” is the simple dusty floor of a tent or the “altar” is the home of the new husband.

The parable of the Ten Virgins is unique to the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25:1-13). A bridegroom, and perhaps his bride, is making his way back to his home, according to custom, to celebrate the end of the period of betrothal and the beginning of married life. Ten virgins (some translations use bridesmaids) head out to meet the bridegroom.

Five are prepared with oil in their lamps and extra oil on hand; five bring only their lamps. After an unexpected delay, now in the dead of night, those without extra oil have to run to get more and only those fittingly prepared are there at the proper time to enter the wedding feast. 

On the surface, it seems to be a story about cultural traditions surrounding betrothal and marriage and a story about being prepared for a celebration. If we are aware that Jesus was understood in early Christianity as the bridegroom (see Mark 2:19-20; John 3: 25-29; 2 Corinthians 11:2), then we realize that this is a story about being ready to enter into a lasting relationship with Jesus who comes to meet us, the Church, as his bride.

However, the context for this story in the Gospel of Matthew gives it a particular and pointed dimension. The story occurs in the portion of that Gospel identified as an apocalyptic discourse, or a sermon about the last days. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and reached the temple. His days are numbered and his words in Matthew’s version of events call for vigilance in the face of coming tribulation and judgment. This ominous tone points to the end of time in a cosmic sense, but also the end of Jesus’ life and our own. 

The story begins by alerting us that there are wise and foolish virgins. That they are virgins is not nearly as significant as whether they are wise or foolish. Readers of the Gospel of Matthew will hear echoes of the Bible’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Proverbs, Sirach and Wisdom) where those who follow the path of foolishness will end in destruction while the wise shall inherit glory.

The glory of the kingdom of heaven is the intimacy that one finds in breaking bread together, in being among those known by the bridegroom, in entering the celebration of the wedding. The wisdom that Jesus promotes in this parable is that true disciples are prudent, always at the ready, while those who fail to prepare will find themselves locked out of the celebration by their own action, or inaction in this case.

Earlier, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had cautioned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” Now, in his final hours, he illustrates in the form of a parable what that will look like. Doing the will of God requires recognizing what is appropriate for the task at hand and the wisdom to stay the course.

The parable ends with the stern advice, “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Obviously, since all ten characters slept, this is not a literal ban on sleeping. Rather it is a call to the kind of attentiveness that is expectant and hopeful. It is a call to be at the ready so that we do not miss the moment when Christ, the bridegroom, returns to his house. 

In a world that seems more and more tumultuous with each passing day we may wonder why Christ delays in returning. Perhaps we are being invited, even prodded, to live each day wisely, with diligence in our work for the kingdom, surety that Christ has not abandoned us, and hopeful expectation that our names are on the guest list for the heavenly banquet.

Study Questions 

  • When has a wedding or some other special feast given you a glimpse into the kind of unity Christ desires with us?
  • What two or three life events have helped you learn the value of wisdom over foolishness?  How might you pass on these lessons to others?
  • How does the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) challenge you or give you comfort?
  • What spiritual practices help you to be attentive and expectant about Christ’s arrival in your life? In our world?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Oct. 10, 2015. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.