The coming weeks present a troika of parables that conclude the public teaching of Jesus in Matthew. These constitute his final testament to the disciples, a manual of discipleship for life “between the times” of Jesus’ earthly presence and his triumphant return. They have a menacing tone, in jarring contrast to the voice of the one who was “meek and humble of heart.” Five young women have the door of a feast slammed in their face; a timid and fearful steward is cast into outer darkness, where people will weep and gnash their teeth; and people who were clueless about the presence of Jesus are consigned to eternal punishment.
The story of the wise and foolish virgins, like other parables, takes place in the world of everyday experience. The sad but beautiful film, “A Wedding in Galilee” (1987), shows that even today a village wedding is a major event. Matthew’s parable portrays the return of the wedding party from the bride’s home to the groom’s home where the actual marriage ceremony and feast will take place. The bride has 10 young women attendants, who will wait and welcome her to the new home with festive lamps that both greet the party and light the way.
The story is relatively simple. Since the wedding party is delayed until midnight, the young women fall asleep, only to be awakened by a loud cry that the procession is near. They all wake up and relight their lamps. Then the foolish ones, who had brought no oil, ask the others to share their oil, only to be met by the harsh reply, “No; there will not be enough for us and you” and the dubiously helpful suggestion to go and buy some at midnight—when all the shops would be closed! The foolish ones, perhaps doubly foolish now, go to seek oil. We never learn whether they found any, but by the time they return, the feast has started and the door is barred. They call out, “Lord, Lord,” only to have the groom reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
There are more interpretations to this parable than there are young women in the story. Many people see it simply as an allegory created by the early church to urge watchfulness during Jesus’ absence. The image of God as the bridegroom, the spouse of Israel, is applied to Jesus in the New Testament (Mt. 9:15); and calling the women virgins rather than bridesmaids reflects the Pauline view of the church as a virgin espoused to Christ (2 Cor. 11:2). There is also tension between the lesson drawn, “Stay awake,” and the parable itself, since all the young women sleep.
Some readers think that the ones who should have been condemned were the “wise,” the somewhat selfish and nasty bridesmaids (alpha girls), who would not share their oil. More convincing is the view that the lamps lit and supplied with oil are symbols of the works of love and mercy that one must have at the final judgment. These cannot really be shared with others, so the narrative is a warning against both moral procrastination and presumption.
Surprisingly, commentators rarely focus on the “wise” virgins. Today’s first reading contains a beautiful image of Lady Wisdom (Gk. sophia), seeking those who would accept her, “for whoever for her sake keeps vigil will be free from care.” Wisdom is one of the most polyvalent of biblical notions. Wisdom is transcendent knowledge revealed by God and also evokes thoughts of practical know-how, along with prudent judgment gained from experience. Wisdom is personified as God’s partner in creation, who existed before humanity and now seeks out humanity to respond to her teaching (Proverbs 8). Five of the bridesmaids are called wise (or prudent) because they carefully assess the needs of the situation and prepare for the future. The lamps are symbols that through their teaching and good deeds they will be lights shining in darkness, which cannot be hidden under a basket. They are guides for the community as it awaits the return of Jesus.
The parable/allegory speaks to us during our long hours of waiting for the bridal party to arrive. The “foolish” bridesmaids warn us against a presumptuous reliance on others, while the wise women are models and guides for Matthew’s church, and for ours today. The contemporary church must be enlightened by women’s wisdom. In the Gospel the wise are both strong and realistic, and in the first reading Lady Wisdom seeks those worthy of her and “meets them with all solicitude.” Yes, the Gospel is ominous: if we do not want to shudder before the words, “I never knew you,” there is still time to join the procession behind the “wise virgins.”