Jesus describes preparations for a wedding. Weddings involve the greatest celebration. At a wedding, the couple is the center of village life for days on end. After the marriage ceremony, there is feasting, dancing, which can last for several days. It is a glad week for the couple and for their friends as well.
An important part of the wedding ceremony is the procession from the home of the bride’s parents to the couple’s new home. As the bridegroom escorts his bride to their new home, their pathway is lighted by wedding guests. It is an honor to be asked to participate, and those who agree are expected to do so enthusiastically and responsibly.
Both the wise and foolish bridesmaids are prepared for the bridegroom’s coming. The wise bridesmaids are different from the foolish bridesmaids at only one point, they have the foresight to take flasks of oil to replenish their lamps, only the wise bridesmaids are prepared for the bridegroom’s delay.
Scholars vary in their understanding of the oil, and that deserves our attention. Some think it is faith, others piety, good works, or a personal relationship with the Lord. In the wider context of this entire Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) gives us great insight into Christ’s expectations. Being prepared—having oil—means obeying Jesus’ teachings. The wise and foolish bridesmaids remind us what Jesus said that the wise man was the one who “hears these words of mine, and does them”.
- In the Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), the Son of Man rewards those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner—which corresponds nicely with what Jesus identified in this Gospel as the greatest commandment—to love God and neighbor (22:37-40). Being prepared—having oil—means generosity to those in need.
This parable speaks pointedly to those who emphasize becoming a Christian through any initiatory event (conversion—baptism—receiving the gift of tongues) without requiring a corresponding growth in discipleship. A good beginning is not yet a race well run.
“But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him’” (v. 6). Midnight is an unexpected hour for a significant event. Midnight is a time for sleeping, particularly for people who have only oil lamps or candles for artificial light.
“The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out’” (v. 8). The foolish bridesmaids, seeing that they do not have enough oil, ask the wise bridesmaids to share theirs, which the wise bridesmaids refuse to do (v. 9).
“But the wise answered, saying, ‘What if there isn’t enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves’” (v. 9). We might think the wise bridesmaids to be acting selfishly, but they are instead acting wisely. If they share their oil it will quickly be gone, and the bridegroom will have no light for his wedding party. It is far better that they use five torches to illuminate the pathway for the entire distance than to use ten torches at the beginning and thereby to risk having to walk in darkness at the end. The wise bridesmaids are not mean-spirited. They do not criticize the foolish bridesmaids for being unprepared, but instead suggest a remedy—go to the store and buy more oil—a real possibility. This wedding is the event of the week for this village. The foolish bridesmaids can expect neighbors to do everything possible to respond to their pleas for help.
While the foolish bridesmaids are searching for oil, the bridegroom comes, “and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut” (v. 10). they didn’t have oil when it was needed. What good is their oil now that the procession is finished?
They plead, “Lord, Lord, open to us,” (v. 11) but the bridegroom replies, “Most certainly I tell you, I don’t know you” (v. 12). The bridegroom’s attitude seems harsh, but is an appropriate response to the gross breach of responsibility by the foolish bridesmaids.
It is devastating to be rejected by the bridegroom, because his word is final. Earlier, Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, in your name cast out demons, and in your name do many mighty works?’ Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you who work iniquity’” (7:21-23).
The point of this story is that we must be ready at all times for the Lord’s coming, because his arrival will come at an unexpected hour (24:36). Once Christ has come, there will be no further opportunity to prepare. Those who are ready will be included, and those who are not ready will be excluded.
The longer Jesus delays, the more difficult it is to maintain our readiness Jesus promises, “But he who endures to the end, the same will be saved” (24:13).
Jesus closes by summarizing his point—that we must maintain constant readiness for his coming again, because we “don’t know the day nor the hour”.