“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For 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, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
This parable can be confusing if we try to attach specific meaning to each component (lanterns, oil, trimming the lamps, oil sellers, etc.). While it was common in medieval theology to spiritualize every single aspect of a parable (see Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable), parables generally teach one overarching truth and should be understood that way. We’re not called to ferret out the allegorical meaning of each component. There are times when, because of context or other teachings in scripture, symbolic meaning can be assigned. For example, I believe we’re safe in saying the “bridegroom” in this parable is Christ. There are also times when scripture tells us what the components mean as we see in Matthew 13 when Jesus explains the parables of the sower and the wheat and the tares. But, beyond that, we should not speculate.
The key to understanding this parable is its context. Matthew includes this teaching immediately after Jesus’ teaching on the end of the age in Matthew 24. The parable is a warning to be prepared for the coming of Christ.
The foolish virgins thought they were ready. However, the unexpected return of the bridegroom exposed them as frauds – and it was too late for them. The response of the bridegroom to their pleas in verse 12 is almost identical to Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:23:
“And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
We know not the day and the hour. Therefore, we should make our calling and election sure so that when that day comes we will receive a rich welcome into the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (II Peter 1:10-11)
Are you ready for the coming of the Lord?