The parable of the Ten Maidens appears only in Matthew's Gospel. Certain features of the wedding it describes seem realistic, others are strange. In ancient Palestinian weddings the marriage feast was at night; the bridegroom was met with lamps, and the bridegroom did delay coming for the bride. Certain details are not realistic. They include the length of the delay, the midnight arrival and the supposition that the shops would have been open for the sleeping maidens to buy oil (Luke 11:5-8).

The parable is an allegory of the delay of Christ's return in Matthew's community. Those awaiting the return of the groom are called "virgins." Virginity is commended because the unmarried person is concerned for the things of the Lord rather than the needs of the spouse (Matthew 19:10-12). The five virgins who are prepared for the return symbolize appropriate Christian discipleship during the delay of the return of Christ.

The five foolish maidens are not foolish because they slept, but because their lamps are not lit. Light in the parable symbolizes good deeds done in response to God's gracious initiative. In 5:14-16, Jesus exhorts his disciples, "Let your light shine before men and women that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven." In 13:43, Matthew's Jesus says: "The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." "Light" (see Mark 4:23; Luke 11:33) is a symbol of good deeds or proper moral disposition.

The return of Christ for Matthew will be a time that separates the good from the bad (13:36-43; 26:31-46). The five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins represent these two groups. In the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven... On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord.'... Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evil-doers." (7:22-23) In this parable, the bridesmaids cry out "Lord, Lord!" and the bridegroom answers, "I do not know you."

I have said that one of the answers the parables give to the question 'What is the kingdom of God like?' is this: "It shows up where you least expect it." In this case, it is the vision of a door slammed in our faces and permanently locked, a door that, for so long, was completely open to us. Every shattering of the illusion of endless time, every reminder of the ticking clock and our mortality is where the kingdom of God beckons.

I once led a yearlong spirituality class with about a dozen students committed to the practices of Christian prayer. Over the Christmas break, each student committed to read a particular book of the Bible prayerfully from beginning to end. One of my students, a young man in his mid twenties, recounted that after Christmas his wife had gone to visit her parents in another city for several days. That left him home in their apartment with their 2-year-old English beagle Sadie. Every night around 10 pm he would sit on the loveseat and spend half an hour on his devotional reading. Soon she got the notion that this was a good opportunity to pursue her own spiritual growth, so she began hopping up and sitting next to him on the couch and putting her head in his lap. One night he got caught up in watching the news and didn't go to the loveseat at the prescribed time. Sadie came over and began to pull at his pant legs. One night he was exhausted and went to be at 9:45. Just as he was drifting off to sleep he heard a whimpering and felt the blanket being pulled off the bed. Looking over the side of the bed, there was Sadie, his bedspread in her teeth, there to call him to prayer. He decided that some dogs were bird dogs and some dogs were sheep dogs, but that Sadie was a prayer dog. This parable of the Ten Virgins is a Sadie the Prayer Dog parable. It reminds us of the urgency in what seems to be an endless future.

As we live out our faith in an imperfect, troubled world, this parable can motivate us to take action in response to environmental abuse and injustice while effective action is still possible. In this parable Matthew retains the urgency of the return of Christ in his community, while acknowledging that it is not necessarily imminent. Christians have the responsibility to continue in good deeds in the extended present, in the knowledge that the time will come when they lose the opportunity for proper action. The servants in the parable of the unfaithful and faithful servants failed because they abused the time of waiting in evil deeds. The maidens in this parable fail by inactivity. They presume a gracious future without preparing for it by active discipleships. This is the definition of foolish for Matthew.

Sources Consulted

Craig L. Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Baker Academic Press, 2004).

Madeline Boucher The Parables: Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1981)

John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).