Ever ready: allegory

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” Be it parable or allegory, we are limited in dissecting this passage from the gospel. Many commentaries offer insight from wedding customs, but of another culture or age. One commentary I reviewed was assuming 10th century Jewish wedding customs from Spain reflected an unaltered liturgical custom. Possibly.

We know that weddings provided one of the high points in village life, and the question of who was and was not included affected one’s social standing. Our knowledge of Jewish wedding customs at the time is limited, leaving scholars to suggest analogies from other cultures; but it is probably wiser to admit our ignorance. This story mentions only two parties, the bridegroom and the ten girls. The precise role of the latter in the ceremonies is not clear but most scholars assume that Hellenistic-Roman marriage customs also apply in Jewish circles at the time, and thus the young women are servants from the bridegroom’s house, awaiting the return of the bridegroom with his bride after the wedding feast at her house. Possibly.

Boring notes, “Unfortunately, we do not know the marriage customs of first-century Palestine well enough to make definitive judgments on this basis, and the story itself is unclear on the procedures of the wedding celebration. Where is the bride, who is never mentioned? There do seem to be tensions with the customs described by Matthew in other allusions to weddings. In 22:1–2 there are no bridesmaids awaiting the bridegroom’s arrival, but all come to the home of the bridegroom; in 9:15 members of the wedding party are mentioned, but not “virgins”. Further, details within the present story seem inherently unrealistic, whatever the wedding customs were: (1) the arrival of the bridegroom at midnight seems strange, but corresponds to the image of the thief in 24:43. (2) The notion that at midnight shops would be open where the foolish bridesmaids could go to buy oil also seems unrealistic and contrived.”

Nonetheless, as parable or allegory, apart from our limited knowledge of 1st century Palestinian wedding events, we offer some “allegorical” insights about the pericope. Central and primary would be an identification of Jesus as the bridegroom come the eschatological (end times) event. It echoes Matthew’s previous use of this imagery (9:15; 22:1–3), in Jesus’ being addressed as “Lord,” and in speaking in solemn, amen, pronouncements (25:12; cf. 5:18).

In the OT the image of God as bridegroom and Israel as bride is well steeped in the tradition and continued into the imagery of the NT writers with Christ as bridegroom and the church as the bride (John 3:29; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25–32; Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9, 17). It should be noted here that the “church as bride” is not used in the Matthean text. Boring [450] notes that “To represent the church, Matthew needed a group in which the members looked the same to external appearances, but who would be separated at the parousia. The scene is analogous to 13:36–43, also a Matthean allegory in which the present mixture of authentic and pseudo-disciples will be sorted out only eschatologically. The ‘wise’ and ‘foolish’ terminology corresponds to 7:24–27, where two men build houses that superficially appear alike, but only one of which meets the eschatological test.”

Hence, the bridesmaids represent the church at the parousia of Jesus – a mixture of faithful and not so, of wise and of foolish, of the ready and the unprepared. They all have lamps and oil, and all sleep, but only some are really prepared for the eschaton when it comes. The bridegroom’s delay points out that both those who thought the parousia would never take place and those who counted on a long delay and thus “still had time” were tragically mistaken.

The bridegroom’s arrival is the parousia, with the same phrase, “to meet” (eis apantēsin), used here as in 1 Thess 4:17. Since Matthew designates the story as “like the kingdom of heaven,” this shows that the kingdom has a future aspect, that the final coming of the kingdom for which the church prays (6:10) is identical with the parousia of the Son of Man. Both Son of Man and kingdom of God have present and future aspects.

The oil, or rather having oil, represents what will count at the parousia: deeds of love and mercy in obedience to the Great Commandment (25:31–46). This makes contact with Jewish traditions that used oil as a symbol for good deeds (Num. Rab. 13:15–16), while in other symbolism oil represents the Torah (Deut. Rab. 7). The problem was not having “oil” and not that they went to sleep, since both the “wise” and the “foolish” bridesmaids fall asleep. Here, Matthew pictures preparation for the parousia as responsible deeds of discipleship, not constant “watching” for the end.


Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 449-51
  • The New American Bible 
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