Full Text for The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) (Text)

THE SPRINGFIELDER January 1976 Volume 40, Number 1 The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25 : 1-13) DEAN 0. WENTHE Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five wise. The foolish ones took their lamps, but did not take oil with them. The wise ones took oil in flasks with their lamps. And when the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell into a sustained sleep. And at midnight a cry went up, "Behold, the bridegroom. Come to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lan~ps. And the foolish ones said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out!" But the wise ones answered, "No! There may not be sufficient for us and you. Rather, go to those who are selling and buy for yourselves." And while they were away to make the purchase, the bridegroom arrived. The prepared ones went in with him into the wedding feast, and the door was closed. Latcr on, the othcs virgins came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open for us." Rut he replied, "Verily, 1 tell yoii, 1 do not know you." Therefore, keep vigilance continually, for you do not know the day or the hour. T HIS PARABLE OCCURS only in Matthew. It has been inter- preted in a wide variety of ways. One scholar has understood it as an attack upon the hypocrisy of Jewish teachers in Jesus day.' Still another says that it can only be properly understood if we assume that the setting is Passover-night-"ultmann and Donfried regard it as an allegorical creation of the early church.9odd and Jeremias believe that it is a parable which at least in its outline, goes back to the historical Jesus.'' These varying attitudes indicate that one should examine the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids with a great deal of care. Verse 1 : Since this parable is placed in a scries of eschatological admonitions (chapters 24-25), it is probable that the opening tote refers to the Parousia as previously introduced in Matthew 24:44, 50. Except for the doubtful textual reading in John 3:5, the expression basileia tbn ouranbn can be found only in Matthew (29 times). Though Matthew also uses the more common basileia tou Theou ( 12 : 28, 19:24, 21 : 3 1, 43) and undoubtedly viewed the two expressions as near equivalents (cf. 19: 23, 24), it is possible that this expression conveys an added nuance of meaning. If stress is placed upon the fact that the kingdom comes from heaven, this would underscore the view of the kingdom as reign rather than realm. Further, this emphasis on ton ourandn points to tile fact that the kingdom is not an evolution- ary developmcnt from within the processes of nature, but a divine 'intervention from without. In later Rabbinic idiom, "heaven" 'is a cemmon substitute for ccG~d.7' The reading tou nurnphiou kai ti?s nurnphes is supported by D (sixth century Western witness), X (tenth century Alexandrian wit- ness), H (ninth century Caesarean witness), the Vulgate (Western witness), the Syriac (Western witness), and the Diatessaron (Western witness). For the reading tou ~ump~iou, the manuscript support In- cludes Aleph (fourth century Alexandrian witness), B (fourth ten- tury Alexandrian witness), K (ninth century Byzantine witness), L (ninth century Alexandrian witness), W (fifth century Western wit- ness), certain Syriac and Coptic manuscripts. and a few of the church fathers (Basil, Chrysostom, John of Damascus). As the evaluation of the Aland text indicates, there is considerable doubt concerning which reading is correct. Though the reading tou numyhio~r is attested by earlier witnesses, it is striking that tou numplziou kai t&s rzumphzL~ is witnessed by various textual families. Due to the near balance of the manuscript evidence, many scholars have argued fro~n other grounds. Hence, some have argued that . . . kai tzs rr,umph~s is the original reading and that it fell out because it did not fit the church's pattern of Christ as the bridegroom who would come to his bride the church. Since the longer rcacling presupposes that the wedding was lleld, as was the Jewish custom, in the home of the bri.degroon.1, and the shorter reading that the wedding was in the bride's house, the more difficult reading may well be the latter. Finally, the fact that the numphZ is nowhere eIse mci~tioned in the parable would seen1 to support the shorter reading. Verse 2: 'lhe word pair morai . . . rh-orrirnoi also occurs in Matthew in the context of the story of the wise and foolish builders (Matt. 7:24-27). Whether or not the builders' story is technically a parable, it is striking that in both of Matthew's usages it is a future event (the arrival of the bridegroonl or the arrival of the rain) which dete~mines the quality of the action under consideration. Before this watershed ever~t both the virgins and the houses look alike. Tractate Shabbat 152b and 153a of the Babylonian Talmucl contain two para- bles which use a similar contrast in contexts where the result of the eschaton is mder discussion. Verse 5: 'The. inceptive aorist etzustaxatz indicates the point of entry into the state of sleeping. The imperfect ekatheudo~z denotes the virgins' continued sleeping. Verse 10: The use of an open or closed fhura to denote either God's grace or irrevocable judgment is as early as the eighth century B.C. (Is. 22:22). This same passage from Isaiah is directly applied to Christ in Rev. 3:7. Verse 1 I : The repetition of kyrie may well express extreme urgency. Verse .I 3 : A small nunlbcr of witrlesses insert e,.t he ho huios tou anthropou ercl7cfai after l7bm17.. While the manuscript evidence deci- siveiy supports the shorter reading, it does nfitness to the fact that early copyists saw the eschatological theme tvtlich runs through our parable and those adjacent to it (cf. Matt. 24:44). One of the key quesiions which must be answered in the inter- pretotion of this parable is: "To what extell1 does Matthew 25: 1-13 reflect the marital practice of first-century Judaism?" More than one Ten Bridestnaids 1 I -- scholar ],as suggested that the details of these verses, especially the holding of the in the bride's home (verse 1 with the shorter readin:) and the nocturnal time of the wedding, could not have been drawl1 fronl the Jewish pctice of Jesus' day. This evaluation of the story leads to tile conclusion that we are not dealing with a parable of Jesus, but with an allegory which was created by Matthew to Por- tray Christ's relationship to the chi1rch.011 the other end of the spectrum stands Joachiln Jeremias who argues that "it is utterly incredible tllat she [the church] should have produced an artistic picture of a wedding corresponding in every detail to reality as a mere fiction."' The answer to this question seems to hinge on the extent to which we can. with confidence, reconstruct first-century wedding cus- toms. ~enerall~. those who regard our parable as incompatible with what is known cancel- ling this aspect of Jewish life refer to the de- scriptive quotations in Strack-Billerbeck.' On the other hand, those who find the details consonant with ancient marital practice in Pales- tine point to studies which cite parallel incidents and practices as they occurreci in Jesus' day.TThe fact that recent research in this area is tending to support the latter position is shown by an article in which A. W. Argyle reverses his earlier positior, and states: "Jesus knew better than to tell. and the evangelist knew better than to record, a story which the hearers would dlsrniss as ridiculous."Tile force of this argument and the fact that Mt. 25:l-13 is followed by the parable of the talents (not explicitly called a parable in Matthew, but so classified in Luke 19 : 1 1 ) are suficient grounds to view this material as a yarabIe rather than an allegory. The probability t.hat all these incidents are drawn from the actual historical situation also suggests that there is no reason to deny the domirlical origln of the parable. If we look at the broader- context of our parable, it forms a part of thc last of five major teaching discourses by Jesus in Matthew.l0 Xt is clear that chapters 24 and 25, and possibly 23, comprise a collec- tion of Jesus' teacl~ir~g which is oriented around preparation for the eschaton. Indeed, the closing admonition to grzgoreite (The present imperative stresses that we are continually to keep watch.) echoes the grzgoreite of Matthew 24:42, 43 and underscores the eschato- logical orie~ltatio~l of our parable. Since this parable does not occur in the other gospels, the con text in Matthew provides the only canon- ical setting for its intcrpretation." The nearer context of chapters 24 and 25 includes the following materials: 24:1-2 The Prediction of the Destruction of the Temple 24: 3-14 The Beginning of Woes 24: 15-28 The Great Txibuiation 24: 29-3 1 The Coming of the Son of Man 24: 32-35 The Lesson of the Fig Tree 24:36-44 The Unknown Day and Hour 25 : 1-3 3 The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids 25; 14-30 The Parable of the Talents 25: 3 1-46 The Judgment of the Nations12 If, then, we have established that we are dealing with a bona fide parable, which is set in an eschatological context, it is necessary to search for the point of comparison and to explore the imagery of the story. The point of comparison might well be thought to be the ten bridesmaids (homoi6thZsetai . . . deka parthenois). A proper un- derstanding of the Aramaic background of homoi6thbetni with the dative will, however, point us not so much to the virgins as to the wedding.':; All of the imagery in this parable would coincide with an ancieni wedding in which the bride lived some distance from the bridegroom. Since the key elements of the ancient ceremony were the wedding procession and the wedding feast, we are introduced to the scene at the point where the bridegroom is soon expected to arrive and take the bride in festal procession back to his home. The late hour of his arrival (due to the distance he has travelled) necessitates that the bridal attendants provide lamps. Though such 2 late arrival is rare, we do have a rabbinic passage which associates the arrival of the bride- groom with a late hour: Moses went (on the day of lawgiving) into the camp of the Israelites, and awoke them out of their sleep. 'Arise out of your sleep; surely the Bridegroom cometh and clairneth his bride . . .' Pirqe R. Eliezer, 41 .I" Jeremias finds a similar allusion in the Mekilta, Ex. 19: 17, "where Deut. 33:2, 'Yahweh came from Sinai (on his right was burning fire),' is interpreted with the words 'like a bridegroom MJ~O goes to meet the bride'."'" It is doubtful whether the ten virgins were servants of either the bride or the bridegroom, since servants would not have been expected to provide oil for themselves. It is also improbable that we should regard them as bridesmaids for then they would be expected to stay with the bride. T. C. Burkitt has offered the helpful suggestion that the ten virgins are most naturally understood as friends or neighbors of the couple who go out to meet the bridegroom's procession as it approached the bride's house."jThe term hupant~.sis can be a tech- nical word for the "official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary."li The identity of the nurnphz is another crucial element in the proper understanding of this parable. Should we identify the bride- groom with Christ? As the parable now stands its major emphasis is on preparedness for that critical moment when the bridegroom arrives. In this respect, no more should be read into the arrival of the bride- groom than into that moment of crisis caused by the arrival of a flood, a thief, or the master of the house. While Jeremias seems to indicate that Matthew has identified Jesus as the bridegroom in the parable, the present form of the text does not support such a conclusion.'"t is only by reference to such passages as Matthew 9: 14-15, Mark 2:19-20, and Luke 5:34-35 that such an identification is made. Despite the absence of such an explicit identification in Matthew 25 : 1-1 3, the strong urge to identify the bridegroom with Christ is manifested already by the copyists who inserted into verse 13 the phrase en hC ho huios lou anfhr6ppou erchetai. Perhaps the final an- swer to this question will depend upon whether one thinks that Jesus is here (as in Matthew 9: 14-15 and parallel~) making a point 'On- ccrning that, who will bring about the escllalological crisis Or about tile prrpo,edn~.y,r \ihic]l illat crisis will demand. The latter interpretation, jn view of tile final exhol-tation jn verse 13, seems the more probable If, as some scholars surmise, Luke 1 3:24-3°, be viewed as dra\vine upon a colllmoll tradition with our passage, then there is additional stpport for stressi.ng the point of preparedness for e~~l~at~l~~i,~~l crisis, since this theme dominates the Lucan material.'' If it 1s agreed that the jdentity of the nunl~hz is not the major point o[ the js any ide~~tification with Christ justified? Since the Old Testalnent, and especially thc prophet Hosea, develop the descriptioll of God as the marital partner of Israel, the Jews did have a conception of God coming as a bridegroom on the last day. Besides the rabbinic exegesis of Deuterono~ily 33:2, we have a passage like Isaiah 62: 5-"As the bridegroom rejojceth over the bride, so shall thy God r-eioice over thee.''^" It is i;nportant to note, J~owever, that this identification is no- where extended t~ the Messial~. in [he Old 'Testament." Later Judaism great1.y elaborates on this theme, but is also wanting in any Messiah- bridegroonl identification. As we review the Old 'Testament's use of this marriaoe imagery, it is important to note that it is Yahweh's 9 covenant wltli I'srael. wJ~icli infosrns and gives theological. meaning to the terms. Our parable, irl which all of the virgins conceive them- seIves to be in a rikht relationship with the bl-idegroom (kyrie, Icyrie, anoixorl I?Zmin), tells of how some seceive an alrnost Hoseanic rebrrke (Amen, Iep(7 humin, oz4k oidn humas) and suggests that the Old Testa- ment concept of covenant is an assuxnption of our parable. This is very likely if Hosea's Id nmi is the equivalent of God saying, "Now I do not know you."'Vt is very interesting that in Luke 13:24-30 those who are excluded by the owner of tl~e house protest that they had a covenant with the owner-"T.hen you will say, Wc: ate and drank with you. and you taught in our st1-eets." The reply that greets them is very similar to verse 1.2 of our parable: "I do not know you 01 where you come fron~."?' In the Lukan colttext it is very clear that Jesus is the home-owner-, since verse 26 uses not the third but the second person. Thus, though it is probable that many in Jesus' original audience thought of the bridegroon~ as God th.e Father, it is also conceivable that man)' had heard Jesus' explicit identification sf Himself ~lith the bridegrooln (Matt. 9: 14-15 and parallels) and rightly perceived that Jesus was transferring the Jewish expectation concerning the coming of God the Father to His oivn person and word just as He had done in 12uke 13 124-30. NOW Jesus is the mediator of the covenant and it is One's rt!ia~joll~hip to Hin: both liow and at the Parousia, which makes all the difference. TIds interpretation would parallel one of Dodd's emphases when he writes : In these three eschatological parables, then, we seem to have reflected a situation in the ministry of Jesus when the crisis He had provoked was hastening towards uncertain and unexpected developments, which called for the utmost alertness ox the part of His l01lowers.~~ If this interpretation is plausible, then we can determine in what sense the virgins can be viewed as the church. Jesus, as the Mediator of the new covenant, relates to His people just as God did in tlie Old Testament. His appearance at the Parousia will result in His people beillg gathered to Him. From the perspective of His ministry, it is impossible to distinguish his true folbwers (the prepared) from the false followers (the unprepared). It is only in the crisis of the bride- groom's entrance that all know which disciples are truly His. Thus, just as Jesus' closing exhortation shows that his hearers (the nascent church) were to identify with the virgins, so the church can today hear the admonition to preparedness in view of the approaching Parousia. When one passes beyond the identity of the bridegroom and virgins, he encounters a variety of efforts to allegorize such elements of the story as the lampades and the elainon.'' It is preferable to re- gard such. details as the simple components of the story and no more. Si.milarly, much has been made of the fact that the bridegroonl was chi.otzitonto.s. Some regard chronizontos as proof-positive that the church was here at work explaining the delay of the Parousia.'"t is more probable that the only function of this detail is to set the stage in the parable for the upcoming crisis. Without the delay, all would have had sufficient oj.l! Verses 6-13 rehearse that sequence of events which was un- doubtedly known to Jesus' audience. Besides Jeremias' excell.ent dis- cussion of the details of such an event, it is only necessary to note that the "shutting of the door" would have had immediate theological sig~~ificance for the first-century Jew.?' It is often, said that the concluding exhortation to gt.2goreite is not compatible with the parable's description of the need for pre- paredness and 11.ence should be considered a later addition brought over from Mark 13:35. This necd not be the case, however, since the broach usage of grZgored can include the idea of being presently prepared as one is watching." The likelihood that the substance of this' parable was known in the early church is increased by a com- parison with Luke 12:35ff. An alternative to positing some sort of common tradition between these two passages or dependency of one ~ipo~l tlie other is to consider the probability that Jesus, as an apt teacher, could use similar imagery on different occasions with telling efleci. In strrnmary, the Parable of the ?'en Bridesmaids, in the form in which we have it in canonical Matthew, lays its greatest stress upon the preparedness of the audience. Since ail the virgins first dozed and the11 fell into sustained sleep, it is clear that the concIuding grdgoreile is lot to be understood in the narrow sense of rapt attention. Rather it stresses that sort of vigilant activity which resu!ts in preparedness at the eschatological appearance of the Bridegroom. The point of comparison which would emerge from such an uilderstanding of the parable might read: "When God is at work establishing His rule in, over, and among men, this activity brines about a present and future crisis in the lives of men in the same man- ner that the expectation of a bridegroom by virgins necessitates a tlloro~~gh aod adequate All of the vivid, dramatic detail of the Parable converges to undcl-score the absolute necessity of pre- paredness. While superficia1l\i all of the virgins responded with en- thusiasm at the bridegroom'; only the five with adequate oil acted in accord witli their ]lope. 111 a real sense, from their first response. the foolish viroins were derelict and destined to exclusion. Tlleir actions paralleled ;he of the idle servant (Matt. 25 : 34-30 3 who finds hilnsel f escluded from the master's presence. Thus, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is not aimed so much at a future eschatological day and the details which will attend it, as it is directed against the lethargy and lackluster response of Jesus' audi- ence to His pessoli and work. Jesus knew that the future eschatologi- cal consornmatio~~ was already anticipated in His own ministry. One's response to His person and work determines one's standing at the final cschaton. .I. M. Ford, "The Parable of the Foolish Scholars (Matt. xxv 1-13)," :Vol.rt~,i 7'c. "Zum Verst:cindnis \Ion Matt xsv 1-13," NolyLrnl Tcsrn- II~cII~~[I~), 11 ( 1958), pp. 225-327. R. Dultmann, liisro13: of: 11~c Sytroptic 1'1~aclition (New York: Harper & Row, 1963). p. 119. K. 1'. Donfried, "The Allegory of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25: 1-1 3) As ;L Surl~rnal.y of Matthcnn 3'heology," Jou1.1zcz1 of Biblical Litcr.ati11-e, XCJ11 (I 974)? pp. 4 15-428. C. H. Dodd, Tire I'c11.cb1c.r of tllc Kirrgrlonz (New York: Scribner, 1958, pp. 171-174. Joachirn Jcrernias, %-l)c Pt-rr.nDlc.r of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1963), pp. 51-53. I>anfried, op. cit., p. 428. Also M. D. Goulder, Midrasli LIII~! Lpctiotl ~IL Matrllcw (London: SPCK, 1974), pp. 438-440. Jeremias, op. cir., p. 174. Herman L. Strack. unci Paul Biilerbeck, Kott~nzenfa~ Zum N~r~erl Testcc- merit, 1 (hliinchen: C. H. Heck'sche, 1926), pp. 501-518. Besides the cstensive bibliog~aphy in Jeremias, op. cit., n. 72, one can mention the recent article on "Marl-iage" in the B~lcyclopedin Jrddaictr, IT (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), pp. 1026-1 051. A. W. Argyle, "Wedding Customs nt the Time of Jesus," l'lle Expository l'inzcs, LXXXVI (1975), pp. 3 .I 4-21 5. K. Stendahl, "Matthew," in I-'~alie'.s Cornmetztury otl the Bible, eds., M. Black and H. H. Rowley (London: Nelson, 1962), p. 792. The five dis- courses are: Matthew 5-7, The Sermon on the Mount; Matthew 10, The Commissioning of the Disciples; Matthew 1.3, Eschatological Parables; Matthew 18, Ecclesiastical Admonitions; Matthew 24 and 25, Eschatologi- cal Admonitions. Possible allusions to this parable or employment of its imagery by the other synoptic acthors will be discussed later. Eschatological themes, which permeate this discourse and play a part in our parable include: a Separation Thenle-"Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left" (Mt. 24:40, 41 ); "Throw that worth- less servant outside, into the darkness . , ." (~t. 25:30); the Coming of the Master Theme-Mt. 24:30-3 1, 24: 37-37, 24:50-51, 25: 19-20, 25 :3 1 - 33, the Delay Theme-Mt. 24:48, 2515. Cf. Danfried, op. cit., p. 421. Mnsimilian Ixrwick, Biblicrzl Greek, (Rome: Scripts Pontificii Instituti Biblici, i963), p. 22. Cf. also Jeremias, op. cjt., pp. 100-102. Strack-Billerbeck, op. cii., p. 970. Jeremias, 011. cit., p. 172. On this page he also posits that another plausible explanation for the delay of the bridegroom's arrival would be a lengthy dispute over the marr.iage settlement. F- C. Burkitt, "The I'arables of the TeIl Virgins," 3our.tliil of Theological Stlldies, XXX (1.929), p. 268. Otto Michel, Irripnn~n~, Theologicai L>ictio,zar)~ of tlre ATew Tes!ri1?7erzt, VII (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. 19GS), pp. 625-626. Jeremias, op. cil., p. 51. Jeremias, op. cir., p. 53. Jeremias, oy. cit., p. 172. 'The Rabbinic interpsctation of Dt. 33:2 is cited here. Joachim Jeremias, ~~utjiphc, 'L'ileologicul L)ictioticlry of lllc Xe~v Testn- menf, Vol. IV (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eel-dman Publishing Co., 1967), P. 1101. One very late and insignificant reference has been found. Cf. Jeremias, Yn~.uijlc.y, p. 52. n. 13. I want to thank Professor Douglas Judisch for- bringing lo my atlention another exception. Psalm 45, in speak- ing of the Mcssiatr (cf. Hebrews 1 : 8-I)), emp].oys tlie imagery of a wedding (vv. 10-1.1, 12-1 4) and. tho~~gh it nowhere uses tile term "bl-ideg~-oon?." ciearjy views ihe Messiah in that role. John L. McJLenzie, "Knowledge of Ciod jn Hozea." Jor11.1lal O! Uiblictrl Litei~nrzut.c I.,XXIV (1955), pp. 22-27. Jeremias believes this lo be a scholarly for~nula by which n pupil was denied access to the teacher for seven days. Jeremias, The Pat.ables, p. 175. C. H. Dodd, TIlc Pn,.clhles of the Kingdom, (New Yosk: Charles Scsibnes's Sons, 1961), p. 136. Most recently, K. Donfried, op, cif., p. 423, suggests that the el nit lo?^ sepl-esents good works and the lut?zpades nse the equivalent of the public display of good works. Jeremias, Tile Parnbles, p. 51. Cf. the textual note on this verse. Albrecht Oepke, gt.Fgorc6, l'heologicui Dictionnt.y oj the 1Vov Te.srntnent, I1 (Grand Itapids: Wni. 13. Eerdmans, 1964), pp. 338-339.