Ten Bridesmaids

Ordinary 32A

Matthew 25: 1 13


This reading takes us into our Lord's final sermon (probably at Bethany) before his arrest and crucifixion.

The scene for the parable is a traditional Jewish wedding. It was the custom to have ten bridesmaids (referred to as virgins, i.e. unmarried girls) who gathered beforehand at the bride's house where the wedding ceremony would be held. There they would wait for the bridegroom. Upon word that he had left his house and was on his way, they would go out to meet him, and join his retinue for a formal entry at the bride's home. Weddings were almost always at night and so oil lighting was necessary.

It is interesting that Jesus relates this parable towards the close of his teaching ministry. Later we shall see why.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 1

At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like
ten virgins who took their lamps,
and went out to meet the bridegroom.

"At that time" refers to the coming of the Son of Man. This signals that the parable will have a focus on the consummation of the Kingdom at the end of time.

Verses 2 5

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 late, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

Our Lord calls five provident or careful; and five careless in that they did not see or discern what is proper or necessary, as they should have.

The wise took a small flask of oil with them to pour on their torches as the flame died down. The "foolish" ones took it for granted the bridegroom would come within a time frame they had assumed, which means they had unconsciously decided on.

They assumed he would conform to their expectations. Verses 5 and 13 form the core of this parable. Any assumptions out of step with bridegroom's intentions were foolish.

The bridegroom was late, or more literally, long in coming. All ten bridesmaids dosed off, quite harmlessly waiting for the signal to move off.

Verses 6 and 7

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 reference to "midnight" has end time connotations to it. All the young ladies jumped to and trimmed the burnt rag off the torches to increase the flames for adequate lighting. The lamps all started going out, and those who brought an extra supply of oil quickly dabbed it on the torches and immediately the torches lit up. The trouble is, only five had brought extra oil to cover for the extended waiting time.

Verses 8 and 9

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."

So, when the foolish asked the others to share what they had brought, they explained they couldn't. The whole purpose of the lamps was to ensure there was adequate light for everyone. If they had shared, it was likely none of the torches would last long enough. Accordingly, the foolish were sent off to buy some extra oil.

Verses 10 12

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, "I tell you the truth, I don't know you."

At this point, the parable clearly begins to show itself as an advance and privileged intimation of the end time. If the unwise have neglected to respect the situation of the bridegroom, and to be prepared for what eventuates, they have chosen their own fate. The bridegroom can only say to them, "I do not recognise anything in your words or actions with which I can identify!"

Here ends the parable.

Verse 13

To round off this very poignant warning, our Lord adds:

Therefore keep watch,
because you do not know the day or the hour.

This does not mean, thinking back to the ten bridesmaids, "stay awake". It means "keep watching", in other words, "Keep you attention focussed on me and not someone who has their own agenda no matter how forcibly or ruthlessly they pursue it."

Some Reflections

1. The parable is a warning from Jesus to his disciples not to assume that their future is automatically assured!

  • They must exercise foresight and very great discernment. They must plan carefully.
  • They are not to be obsessed with calculating the return of Jesus based on Old Testament prophecies and "signs" which they observe or see into events.

2. "The Church has more to do than passively wait. (Blaiklock)

To be passive is to be at risk. We are called to remain fully engaged and alert to dangers.

3. In the story Jesus told, his point is not the surprise of his coming, but the apparent delay, and what can happen. The five unwise bridesmaids took it upon themselves to set the time for the bridegroom's arrival. Translated into the contemporary Church, we find it commonplace today for ambitious people to (consciously or unconsciously) make demands on God to conform to their personal version of what should happen. This results in all sorts of distortion to the Gospel message, in other words, foolish misguidance.

Not surprisingly, the non-religious people in our society consider much of what they see in radio / TV Christianity as "screwball" and "weird". Who can blame them!

Our Lord was very emphatic that his followers would devoutly take their lead from him and not dare to make presumptions.

4. "Keep watch" means: "Be prepared for the Lord's return." It means remain in a state of high alert. We are therefore to keep our inner sight on him. This must be achieved at all costs, and every means to do so must be utilised.

All the prophetic messages we need to respond to this call can be found in our Lord's own teaching. We are to listen to him and discern his message and, meet his very specific requirements. We are not to hike off all round the Old Testament putting together the most fascinating "prophecy" we can, like a jig-saw of quotations.

Many claim today to be the "voice of prophecy" but rarely give us real insight into the teachings of Jesus. One only has to listen a little to them to discover why: they do not have their heart set on listening to him. They fascinate their audience with an assortment of signs and wonders but they lack spiritual depth to help people hear the straightforward teaching of Jesus. The spiritually alert and awake will discern that something is seriously wrong!

5. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew there are references to "partial comings" of the Son of Man before the final return. Our Lord is therefore constantly emphasising the message, "Be ready":

  • for any hour of testing that may some unannounced;
  • to resist temptations to relax standards;
  • to meet any crises
  • to grasp any opportunity. (Bruce)

6. Spiritual preparedness cannot be distributed around in a crisis. We cannot rely on another person's moral life and spiritual graces when a time of testing suddenly engulfs us.


We close with a short quotation from R Cox:

"But what is important in our Lord's teaching is not the surprise; it is the delay of his coming. This may prove a greater trial of faith than all the terrifying calamities, such as the destruction of Jerusalem (see 2 Peter chapter 3). Apathy can be more perilous for the Christian than persecution."

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