August 27, 2010

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus’ parables: The wise and foolish women

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

Last week’s column was about the parable of the wedding feast so this time I will write about the parable about the bride’s attendants, sometimes known as the wise and foolish virgins. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25:1-13) is the only one with the parable.

The wedding customs during Jesus’ time were much different from ours.

Jewish weddings were composed of two parts: the betrothal, when the couple exchanged vows and became man and wife; and when the groom, at a later date, claimed his bride and took her to his home. The wedding feast accompanied the second part of the wedding. (Mary, by the way, became pregnant after the betrothal, but before she began living with Joseph.)

It was common for the bridesmaids to await the arrival of the groom. In our parable, the groom was delayed in arriving. In fact, he didn’t arrive until midnight, by which time the bridesmaids had fallen asleep. There being no electricity in those days, the oil in their lamps burned out.

Half of the 10 women (their virginity seems irrelevant) had been wise enough to bring extra oil, while half were called foolish for not having done so. When the foolish attendants asked the wise ones to share their oil, the wise ones refused for fear that all their lamps would go out. The foolish women had to go out and buy more oil (apparently there were 24-hour stores even during Jesus’ time).

While they were gone, the bridegroom arrived, the wedding party entered the house, and the wedding feast began. When the foolish women returned, they knocked at the door but were refused entrance. Jesus ended the parable with, “Therefore, stay awake for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

For those who point out that both the wise and foolish women fell asleep, let us just acknowledge that Jesus (or Matthew) should have said “be prepared” instead of “stay awake.”

For all the talk about a wedding and the customs in Jesus’ day, this parable actually had nothing to do with a wedding. It was just a framework for the truths that the parable was meant to teach. Jesus was talking about his own coming, both at the end of time and at the death of each individual.

Jesus told this parable toward the end of his earthly life. He had talked about the end of Jerusalem and the end of the age. A little later in this chapter he would talk about the last judgment. Now he was telling us to be prepared because we never know when our death—which is the end of the world for us—will occur.

This was not the first time that Jesus contrasted the wise and the foolish. In Mt 7:24-27, he told the parable of the wise man who built his house on rock while the foolish man built his on sand. Rains caused the foolish man’s house to collapse, but not the wise man’s. The wise man heard Jesus’ words and acted on them. †

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