Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who, having taken their lamps, came to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five wise. 3 For the foolish ones, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them. 4 But the wise took oil in the flasks with their lamps.
5 With the bridegroom delaying they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But in the middle of the night there was a shout: ‘Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 But the foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Lest there not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.
10 With them having gone to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready entered with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Later the other virgins also came, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But answering he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour.
What is the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins? Tradition has taught us to read this as a story about a final consummation at the second coming of Jesus, at some uncertain point in our own future. Taken in isolation from the story that Matthew is telling this might be a plausible interpretation, but if we take the narrative context seriously, I think we have to conclude that what Jesus had in mind was a much more immediate and relevant outcome.
The parable forms part of Jesus’ teaching about future events in response to a question about the destruction of the temple and the end of the age (Matt. 24:3). He describes the hardships and challenges that the disciples will face during a period of mounting ‘tribulation’ in Judea. This narrative climaxes ‘immediately’ in a symbolic statement about the appearance of the ‘sign of the Son of Man’ in heaven (Matt. 24:29-30). The ‘tribes of the land’ – that is, the tribes of Israel, not of the whole earth – will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven and sending out his angels to gather his disciples to participate in his vindication and victory.
I will not go into the detailed reasons here why I think that in Jesus’ mind this corporate vindication was closely associated with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans – I just think it makes good sense of i) the temporal and logical development of the passage; ii) Jesus’ repeated and unequivocal insistence that all these things would take place within a generation; iii) the background to this language in the prophets, Daniel in particular; and iv) the historical perspective of the early community of disciples.
Jesus is clearly anxious to impress upon his disciples that although they can be confident that these things will work themselves out within their lifetimes, they cannot afford to be careless or complacent about the task that he has given them. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins makes this point: the disciples are not to be like the foolish virgins who find they have run out of oil for their lamps when the bridegroom finally arrives at the house and are excluded from the party.
There are two other significant places in the New Testament where the image of a wedding feast is used in this sort of eschatological sense. We should consider them first, before asking particular questions about this parable.
The parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14)
The king gives a wedding feast in honour of his son. When those invited treat the king’s servants shamefully and kill them, the ‘king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city’ (22:7). Then he sends his servants out into the streets and they invite all and sundry to the wedding feast, ‘both bad and good’.
This looks like a straightforward allegory: official Judaism, represented in this context by the chief priests and the Pharisees, rejects the invitation to participate in the celebration of Jesus as God’s Son and mistreats both the prophets and the disciples (cf. Matt. 5:12; 23:29-31, 34); God’s judgment on these murderers is to destroy Jerusalem and the temple; and instead the ‘poor’ and ‘sinners’ are invited to the feast – though the unfortunate man who gets in without a wedding garment is consigned to the ‘outer darkness’, where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. The bride plays no part in the story: the wedding feast is given for the king’s son (22:2).
The final warning that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (22:14) recalls the question put to Jesus in Luke when he is on his way to Jerusalem: ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ (Lk. 13:23). At issue here is the fate of the Jews in Judea. The narrative culminates in the desolation of Israel’s house (cf. 13:35) and the exclusion of ‘all you workers of evil’ from the feast that will celebrate the restoration of the kingdom of God. This is the same feast, in effect, as the wedding feast of Matthew 22:1-14. It stands as a symbol for the renewal of the people of God around Jesus as the Son of God as the direct outcome of judgment and tribulation.
The marriage supper of the Lamb
The other significant marriage feast in the New Testament is found in Revelation 19:6-10. It forms part of the climactic account of divine judgment on Rome: ‘the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants’ (19:2). The context has shifted, but this is again an argument about ‘kingdom’: ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’ (19:6) – this time not by judging Israel but by defeating Rome, the arch imperial oppressor of the saints. But the same pattern is played out: the city or nation or empire that persecutes the servants of God is destroyed, and a party is held to celebrate the establishment of an alternative ‘kingdom’ of the Son.
In this case, however, the bride has become a key figure, because in John’s mind this celebration also entails the reunion of Jesus with the saints who suffered at the hands of the oppressor. These are the martyrs, who had been killed ‘for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, who come to life and reign with him for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4). This is their reward for having faithfully endured suffering and for having ‘conquered’.
Back to the virgins
The first thing to note is that this is also a parable of the kingdom: ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom….’ The two previous passages have suggested that ‘kingdom’ has in view historically significant events in a foreseeable future that will have a profound and far-reaching impact on the status of God’s people in relation to the nations. This sense is supported broadly by references throughout the New Testament to texts such as Psalm 2; 110; Daniel 7:13-14. Jesus is the Son who is given authority over the nations which threaten the existence of the people of God.
Secondly, in the Old Testament the imagery of a wedding feast is used widely to describe the joy inspired by God’s restoration of his people:
Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “ ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’” (Jer. 40:11; cf. Is. 61:10; 62:5; Joel 2:16)
Jesus’ use of the metaphor is entirely consistent with this motif. Nothing in the text indicates that he is using it to describe events unrelated to the theme of the restoration of the people of God following judgment.
Thirdly, it seems a much too obvious point to have to make, but the parable is addressed to a specific group of people – the disciples, who do not know when their deliverance and vindication will come, who will have to wait some time before the master or the bridegroom returns to the house. If they are to fulfil their calling, if they are to be good stewards, good shepherds of the emerging flock of renewed Israel, they will have to be prepared, ready at all times, proactive in exploiting the opportunities given them for extending the reach of this movement of transformation.
OK, so we’re off the hook?
No, that would be a serious misunderstanding of this argument. In the first place, we still need to determine what it means to be responsible participants in this ongoing story. I regard it as an exegetically and historically sound insight that Jesus spoke prophetically and symbolically about events that would take place within the lifetime of his disciples. But we cannot conclude from this that the New Testament has no bearing on the existence of the redeemed, vindicated people of God beyond these proximate horizons.
Secondly, I have always maintained that there is a third horizon in the New Testament, just perceptible in the background of the historical argument about the eventual vindication of the emerging church. In broad anthropological terms it is the inescapable judgment of death on human sinfulness, but the historical narrative of the people of God from Abraham onwards, which is repeatedly a narrative of failure and restoration, has generated the ultimate prospect of a new heavens and a new earth, of a final destruction of all that is evil, and of the renewal of life in the presence of the Creator.