NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Later on, in the early church, another writer gives us his interpretation of this parable. He writes: “Those ten virgins, whom the Lord compared with the kingdom of heaven, were set up as an example for all virgins. They went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. This means that they had received the grace of the Holy Spirit. They had come forth as virgins never stained by sin and had left behind earthly matters to meet Christ and the church. ‘But five were foolish and five wise. For the wise took oil with them along with their lamps. But the foolish did not take oil.’ Thus they were foolish because they were not prepared for the future but only for the present. Thus they were foolish because they did not have works of compassion. For the oil is compassion. But the wise took oil with their lamps. Thus they were wise because they took these things not on account of people but on account of God. Thus they were wise because they were virgins not for the sake of the present but the future. Thus they were wise because they had works of compassion. Thus they were wise because they were virgins in spirit and body.”1
Thus, Epiphanius’ exegesis is close to that of Augustine’s, except he uses “works of compassion” instead of “love” as the oil fueling the lamp. But, it is impossible to have compassion without love. So it would be easy to understand his use of compassion as a synonym for love, and that love would be what motivates the individual to do all they do for the kingdom of God. As Augustine pointed out by using Paul’s words, that no matter how committed we are to the work God gives us to do and the gifts and talents He blesses us with, if they don’t operate on the oil of love they are worthless to Him. With this thought in mind, then Jesus’ use of the term “extra oil,” we could take as representing “enough oil.” In that case, then love would certainly qualify as a symbol for the oil.
But Augustine adds this to his sermon: “Of these good works the Lord says, ‘Let your works shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.’2 Again He said to His disciples, ‘Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.’3 In the ‘girded loins’ is virginity. In the ‘burning lamps’ is good works.”4 And we may add, that the thing that makes these good works shine to the glory of God is the oil of love. So when the Groom comes, He will not be looking only for those who have lamps, or those who have kept themselves morally clean from the world, but those whose lamps are burning bright with the oil of love.
Verse 5: “When the bridegroom was very late, the girls could not keep their eyes open, and they all fell asleep.”
The first thing to notice is that Jesus attributes the dilemma of drowsiness as affecting all the bridesmaids mentioned in this parable. Over the centuries this has been a blemish on the church in that it grew cold and formal. This is the reason why there needed to be a Reformation led by Martin Luther in the 16th Century; the Puritan Movement led by John Winthrop in the 17th Century; a Revival Movement led by John Wesley in the 18th Century; the Holiness Movement lead by Edward Irving in the 19th Century; and a Pentecostal outpouring in Scotland, and in America led by the Azusa Street Mission in the 20th Century. But even today we see some of the most zealous churches growing weary of waiting for His return. So what great awakening does our Lord have in mind for this time period of grace?
As a matter of fact, those churches that have lost the vision of His coming, and are not convinced that it is even close at hand, have grown tired of going through the check list on how to stay ready. In some cases, that is why their worship services have developed into entertainment efforts, and their preaching has trended toward winning the whole world and setting up the kingdom of God now to take their minds off of the long wait for Christ’s appearance. But Jesus has given a clear warning, it will come when we least expect it. If we go back to what Augustine said about love being the oil in the lamp and what Jesus said to the church in Ephesus concerning they’re no longer loving Him the way they did in the beginning, we can see that loving the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves are still the greatest of the commandments.
When it comes to the fact that all the bridesmaids fell asleep, there is an interesting twist on the difference between napping and sleeping in Jewish literature. We find where one Rabbi talks about people who may fall asleep during the Passover meal: “If they napped — they may continue to eat, but if they fell asleep, then they may not continue to eat.”5 In his commentary on this section, Rabbi Maimonides states, “A person who slept in the midst of the meal and then woke up, does not begin to eat again. However, if some members of a company dozed in the middle of a meal, they may eat again. If they all fell into a sound slumber and then awoke, they should not eat. If they all merely dozed, they may eat.”6 So Jesus was using a well-known tradition to make His point. Could it be that the five foolish had fallen into a deep sleep while the five wise were only napping?
Verses 6-7: At midnight the call was heard, “The bridegroom is coming! Go out to meet him!’ Then all the girls woke up. They began to light their lamps. But the foolish girls said to the wise girls, ‘Give us some of your oil! The oil in our lamps is all gone!’”
Again, let’s make note that all of the bridesmaids woke up. It wasn’t that only the five wise awoke and took off leaving the foolish asleep on the ground. They were all awakened when the call went out that the groom was on his way. They all then began to light their lamps, no doubt because it was in the middle of the night. It was at this point that five of them discovered their foolishness by not bringing along extra oil. So let’s see what the Jewish listeners to Jesus may have thought about this lack of oil.
Jewish scholars tell us that based on what the Psalmist says, that the Commandments are what gives us light to understanding His will.7 But in order for a lamp to shine, it must have oil, and in their eyes oil is equivalent to truth. It was Baruch ben Neriah who wrote: “For at that time the lamp of the eternal law shone on all those who sat in darkness, which announced to them that believe the promise of their reward, and to them, that deny, the torment of fire which is reserved for them.”8 Therefore, the more truth, the brighter the light.9 In fact, it was Solomon who said: “Your parents give you commands and teachings that are like lights to show you the right way. This teaching corrects you and trains you to follow the path to life.”10 So in the case of these bridesmaids, five of them took the coming of the groom very seriously and were prepared. The other five did not take it that seriously and were caught unprepared when it happened.
One Rabbi said: “The path of life is taken to mean the result of punishment;”11 and in another place he said: “Result of punishment is the way of life.”12 In other words, life is more than just walking along leisurely, enjoying all the good things with no interruptions, obligations, or responsibilities. That’s the kind of life many Christians want in this world, and unfortunately, many try to arrange their spiritual walk with God that way. Likewise, Job’s friend Bildad had this to say: “The light of those who are evil will go out. Their fire will stop burning…The lamps next to them will go out.”13 So there is some reason to believe that while Jesus was talking, some of those in the group understood His use of oil in this context. But our Lord continues:
Verse 9: The wise girls answered, “No! The oil we have might not be enough for all of us. But go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
Were these five bridesmaids who brought extra oil being selfish and unfair by not sharing? The answer comes from what they gave as their reason. Why should all ten of them not make it because everyone’s lamp went out? At least, by their readiness and preparation, some would be able to meet the groom. But they just didn’t walk off and leave the foolish bridesmaids in tears. They told them to go to where such oil may be purchased. Keep in mind, the groom had not yet arrived. It was only that the call had gone out that he was on his way.
Early church scholars had their own interpretations of what happened here. Epiphanius gives his understanding: “The blessed apostle, Paul, declared, ‘For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.’14 So those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. But the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ Their spiritual virginity was running out and failing because they did not have works of religious devotion and compassion. But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ For on the day of the resurrection and judgment, however, much anyone might be rich in holy works, he will fear for himself, lest he does not have enough.”15
But taken that way, good works becomes the oil that allows those who died to be resurrected to meet the groom in the air. Augustine gives another opinion: “But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ This is hardly the voice of those who give counsel but rather those who rebuke. Why are they scornful? Because they were wise, because wisdom was in them. For they were not wise by anything that belonged to them. Rather that wisdom was in them of which it is written in a certain Scripture that wisdom will say to those that despised her when they have fallen upon the evils which she threatened them, ‘I will laugh over your destruction.’16 No wonder the wise mock the foolish virgins.”17
As we can see, even for those who lived a few hundred years after our Lord told this parable it was very difficult for them to decipher its meaning by taking it apart. There is certainly nothing wrong with exploring our Master’s teachings to discover new truths. But in the end, the purpose of the whole story is what comes at the end. Those who were ready got in, and those who were not ready got left behind.
1 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 36
2 Matthew 5:16
3 Luke 12:35
4 Augustine: Sermon 93.2
5 Rabbi Yose in the Mishnah, op. cit. Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Pesachim, Ch. 10:8
6 Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Zemanim, Tractate Chametz U’Matzah, op. cit., Ch. 8, Halacha 14
7 See Psalm 119:105
8 2 Baruch, op. cit., 59:2
9 Proverbs 13:9
10 Ibid. 6:23
11 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 23:5, p. 476
12 Ibid., Piska 27:2, p. 553
13 Job 18:5-6
14 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
15 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 36
16 Proverbs 1:26
17 Augustine: Sermon 93:8-9