“The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids”
Mansfield Traquair Church
(1852 – 1936)
Matthew 25: 1-13
1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”.
This is the fifth and last discourse of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
1. First Discourse: The programme of the Kingdom (Chapters 5-7);
2. Second Discourse: The Mission of the Apostles (Chapter 10);
3. Third Discourse: The Mysteries of the Kingdom (Chapter 13);
4. Fourth Discourse: Life in the Christian Community (Chapter 18);
5. Fifth Discourse: the Establishment of the Kingdom (Chapters 24-25).
This is the so-called: ‘Apocalyptic Discourse of Jesus’ after having foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew places three Parables here to clarify the need to be alert and ready for “the end of time”, to conclude the body of the teachings of Jesus. After this, we see Jesus in Gethsemane ready to face his Passion and Death.
This Chapter contains the Parable of the “Ten Wedding Attendants”, followed by the great Parable of the “Talents” and the final Parable on the “Last Judgement”: three master pieces of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.
The Apocalyptic Discourse
It is not easy to understand a literary gender that has fallen into disuse over the centuries. However, there is in human consciousness an undoubted fear about the dramatic expectation of the “end of time”, a universal cataclysm.
During the years of the ‘Cold War’ this fear was accentuated by the possibility of an irrational nuclear war that could destroy the entire world. Therefore, the fear of an apocalyptic end of the world does not seems to be completely alien to us, even if it does not form part of our daily conversations.
Apocalyptic literature was born in times of distress and is present in the Old Testament. The first centuries of the Christian Era was also a moment of great transformation, crisis and even oppression.
The ‘end of time’ in the New Testament
Without entering into a detailed description of the Book of Revelation, other writings in the New Testament help us to understand what the Christian approach to this issue should be.
The Apocalyptic narratives are generally organized along three events:
1. A promise of salvation;
2. A crisis; and
3. The very act of salvation.
The Letters of Saint Paul show a development of interpretation from an ‘immediate expectation of the end of time’, towards an ‘expectation that is projected into the indefinite future’:
a) 1 Thes.1:9-10 is the oldest document in the New Testament (49-50 A.D.). In
this text Paul asks the Christian Community “to wait for the Son from heaven”; and at
the end of the Letter he says that “the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the
archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the
dead in Christ will rise first.”
b) Years passed by and neither Jesus came nor were Christians taken into the skies.
c) Then a few years later (51 A.D.), Paul has already changed his perspective: he
affirms that Christians “will rise from death”, but he does not say that “we who live
now will be taken up into heaven”, neither does he say that this is going to happen
“soon” (1 Cor 15:22-28).
The Second Letter of Saint Peter (67-68 A.D.) seems to have already overcome the anxiety created by the understanding that the coming of Jesus was going to take place in Peter’s lifetime.
Since then, the Christian interpretation of such apocalyptic messages is that in God there is no time; what seems to be a delay in the fulfilment of the promises of God is simply the manifestation of God’s patience towards humankind. God’s patience is so that each one of us, and humanity as a whole, may have an opportunity to convert and turn to Him: ‘Do not miss your chance!’
Therefore, the immediacy refers, not to the fulfillment of God’s promise, but rather to the need to convert to Him “without delay”.
The Church teaches that “the glorious Messiah’s coming is suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by ‘all Israel’, for ‘a hardening has come upon part of Israel’ in their ‘unbelief’ towards Jesus”. Furthermore, “the Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement”.
We understand that God is the Master of the universe and of human history, and the fulfillment of God’s promises is guided by the love of God, and not by any kind of divine wrath or punishment. For the sake of His Son “the Only Just One” God will not destroy humanity. The final judgement will take place beyond history.
Beware of the Prophets of Doom
In moments of crisis we often see ‘doomsday’ personalities and false messiahs appearing. They interpretate in their own way signs and times about the destruction of the world. When we see this happening, we should be guided by the principle that God protects us. God is, and will be, patient with us until his ‘Word has given fruit and the fruit is ripe for the harvest’.
In the uncertainty of our present time, and the change of a cultural paradigm, certain individuals interpret literarily what was written in the Bible in the form of images and in code.
If at the time of the first Christian persecution, these apocalyptic descriptions and Parables in New Testament evoked hope and raised up the spirits of the suffering Members of the Church, why should Christians nowadays be fearful and anxious by millenarist interpretations of the same Scriptures?
The ‘end of time’ in the Gospel of Matthew
Matthew calls the attention of the reader by talking about the end of the world. However, his message is not one of doom or fear.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew is full of exhortations to be critical, and not to follow the presumptuous ‘saviours’ of any epoch.
Jesus himself makes a clear invitation to forget about the day and the hour and not to succumb to anxiety, because eventually, all will end up with the “glorious manifestation of Jesus and the salvation of the Children of God”.
The correct Christian disposition before questions about the fulfillment of God’s promise is therefore vigilance and self-giving to help the most needy of our brothers and sisters.
And this is a message which is valid both for those who worry about a dreadful end of the world, and for those who believe that the world is a work of creation that God cares for, now or for a long time to come.
The story Jesus reflects a common wedding arrangement of the time: a group of bridesmaids accompany the bridegroom to meet the bride, but soon things get out of control: the groom (not the bride) is extremely late (midnight).
The exceedingly uncompromising position of the groom is also rather surprising on his wedding day!!!
Were we to compose such a story we would probably have the “diligent” bridesmaids kind enough to share some of their oil with the others; or again that the groom would not prove so inflexible. But that would have watered down the point that Jesus was trying to make: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.
We need to qualify the meaning of “keeping awake”, because both the “sensitive” and the “foolish” bridesmaids slept and all of them woke up in time for the bridegroom’s arrival.
So why does Jesus reprove the foolish bridesmaids?
Taking the arrival of the Bridegroom for granted made the “foolish” bridesmaids lazy. They thought they had already won entry to the banquet. Yet the duty required of them was to watchfully attend for the arrival of the Bridegroom with their lamps lit. In this, however they failed!
On previous occasion Jesus had said: “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 in heaven.”
At Gethsemane “[Jesus] said to [his Disciples], ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’”
Jesus is the Bridegroom who is asking us to stand praying and watching by his side in the hour of his trial. And any person in need takes the place of Jesus, as He himself put it: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.
“I am so thankful that I have
a joy that the world cannot rob me of.
I have a treasure that the world cannot take from me;
I have something
that it is not in the power of man or devil to deprive me of,
and that is the joy of the Lord.”
As we begin to contemplate the Word given to us, let us try to imagine in our hearts the scene that Jesus depicts so vividly.