Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13     Ten Young Women –No Substitutes

This next parable addressed, yet again, the theme of the unexpected delay in the coming of the Son of Man.  It relied neither on Mark nor on the source that Matthew shared with Luke.  Given the number of verbal similarities with Matthew’s earlier collection of Jesus’ sayings, assembled in the Sermon on the Mount, it could well have been Matthew’s own composition, constructed from memories held by the community.

1 The kingdom of the heavens can be likened to ten young women
who brought their lamps with them
and went out to meet the bridegroom.  
2 Five of them were thoughtless and five sensible.  
3 The thoughtless ones brought their lamps
but did not bring oil with them.
4 The sensible ones brought oil flasks with them
along with their lamps. 

The Sermon on the Mount had mentioned lamps [5.14] and sensible and thoughtless responses to Jesus’ words [7:24-27].  The word translated here as young women is often translated as bridesmaids.  It is however a generic word referring simply to still unmarried young women.  The context suggests their possible, but not necessary, role as bridesmaids.

Exactly how weddings were celebrated in the culture is not known.  The parable gives some clues.  Certainly, betrothal occurred before marriage.  Officially, from the time of their betrothal, the girl belonged to the man, but they did not immediately live together.  The bridegroom’s bringing the bride to his home was occasion for a second ceremony.  

The bridegroom was delayed,
and they all nodded off and went to sleep.  
6 In the middle of the night, there was a cry,
“The bridegroom is here; go out and meet him.”

Matthew introduced explicitly the question of delay.

7 All the young women woke up and got their lamps ready.  
8 But the thoughtless ones said to the sensible ones,
“Give us some of your oil.  Our lamps are going out.”  
9 But the sensible ones replied,
“In case there is not enough for us and for you,
go off instead to those who sell it
and buy some for yourselves.”

The thoughtless young women had not counted on any delay.  The extended wait meant that their oil had run out.

In the life of the Church, there seems to have been a tendency for some members to rely on what they regarded as the surplus ‘merits’ of others.  Christian life is not a process of accumulation, but of growth in trust and love, empowered by the gracious God.  Whereas lamp oil is something that can be accumulated, faith, hope and love are simply lived, and grow deeper through practice.  No one can trust or love in place of, or on behalf of, someone else.

Matthew was not concerned about the incongruity of a celebration in the middle of the night, nor of the likelihood of the thoughtless young women finding merchants open to conduct business at that hour of night.

10 While they had gone off to buy,
the bridegroom arrived,
and the ones who were prepared
went with him into the wedding celebrations,
and the door was closed.  
11 Later on the other young women came along
and said, “Lord, Lord, open up for us.”  
12 But he replied, “Truly, I do not know you.”

Matthew was telling the story for his own community.  The thoughtless young women addressed the bridegroom as Lord, the community’s address of the risen Christ.

Already in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had warned: 

Not everyone who calls to me, “Lord, Lord”
will enter the heavenly kingdom,
but the one who does the will of my heavenly Father ...  
Then I shall publicly declare to them,
“I do not know you at all.  
Get away from me, you who do wrong” [7.21-23].
13 So be on the watch,
since you know neither the day nor the hour.

All ten young women failed to be on the watch.  That was not the problem.  The relevant issue was the thoughtless ones’ unreadiness for the delay.  They were not prepared for living the life of the Kingdom. 

Matthew’s Concern

Matthew’s story may sound quaint to modern ears.  Early Christians’ problem about the delay of the return of Jesus can also sound unreal.  It may be difficult to understand Matthew’s repeated insistence that disciples not take things for granted.

The reason for his concern, however, should stare contemporary readers in the face.   The Church has a mission to the world to bring to it the good news of the Kingdom, to invite people constantly to explore and to adopt the values of Jesus and his approach to people.  The world is the arena where disciples exercise and deepen their own faith, hope and love.  The modern world is the way it is – scarred by injustice, inequality, cruelty, oppression of the poorest, thoughtless destruction of the environment and violence on an unprecedented scale – partly because Christians have come to accept such things as normal, have felt little urgency to tackle the problems and to work tirelessly for change.

Matthew did not make explicit how his community members were to prepare for the delay, nor how they were to act during the delay.   However, his use of language from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount made clear enough how the community should live.

If Christians today took Jesus’ teaching in that Sermon seriously, many would live differently from the way they do, and the world would be a significantly better place.  Life might not be easy in the meantime, and their prophetic witness not welcome, but, at least, they would not be in danger of Jesus’ clear warning:  

"Not everyone who calls to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the heavenly kingdom,
but the one who does the will of my heavenly Father ...  
Then I shall publicly declare to them, “I do not know you at all.  
Get away from me, you who do wrong” [7.21-23].

Next >> Matthew 25:14-30