The Damnation of the Foolish Virgins

I’m always disappointed when a Mass reading has a perplexing or counterintuitive section, and the priest chooses to focus his sermon on the more obvious moral.  Luckily, I’ve got you commenters to turn to for exegesis, so maybe you’d like to take a crack at Matthew 25:1-13.

For the Gospel selection at Sunday’s Mass, the priest read Jesus’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  In the story, ten virgins go out waiting for the bridegroom but only five were wise enough to bring enough oil to last through the night.  All the women fell asleep, and when the bridegroom finally approached, only the five who had prepared has enough oil left to light their lamps.  I’ll let the text take it from there:

The foolish ones said to the wise, ’Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied, ’No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ’Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply, ’Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’

Jesus introduces this as a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven, but, I’ve gotta say, the response of the wise virgins seems a trifle unchristian to me.  This parable feels like the polar opposite of the Parable of the Onion from The Brothers Karamazov (I am aware that Dostoevsky isn’t technically scripture, though Tristyn of Eschatological Psychosis may disagree).

I’m not put off just because this scripture reads anti-universalist (though I’ve been persuaded by Richard Beck and others that universalism is at least logically compatible with Christianity and possibly logically necessitated by it).  It’s the coldness of the five women turning their backs on the others, jealously guarding their oil and light and then being welcomed by the Christ-figure while the others are cast out.

Anyone have an explanation or exegesis?  For bonus points, can anyone tell me if this parable is ever connected with the story of the miracle of Hannukah, where a tiny quantity of oil burned for eight days and nights?  It’s strange to contrast that story of Old Testament G-d’s mercy and abundance with New Testament Jesus’s rigidity.  (Especially when I usually think of those attributes going the other way round).

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • dbp

    I think it would be a mistake to take the behavior of characters in Jesus’ parables as models for direct imitation. The parable that comes immediately to mind is the parable of the dishonest steward, which is certainly not befitting a Christian if practiced literally, though it ends with the praise of the dishonest steward.

    So, looking a little more carefully at the parable, a few options are available: a) that the actions of the wise virgins are just a plot device to make the story ‘work’ as a contrast between wisdom and foolishness; b) that, after all, the behavior of the wise virgins is endorsed at face value as a model for direct imitation; or c) that there is other meaning to be found in the wise virgins’ behavior.

    If (a) or (b), there’s not a whole lot to talk about, although as you point out (b) has further implications on how much compassion is appropriate. Still, I suspect (c) is correct: that the wise virgins’ reaction is meant figuratively, and that there are truths to be uncovered here.

    The oil is key to the virgins’ participation in the wedding festivities–and, thus, their duty and their privilege of joining the wedding party is contingent on possessing it. As such, it is and ought to be their most prized possession. If they value compassion for the other virgins over their entrance to the feast, that’s their choice, but they would then have to face the consequences of their actions.

    And, of course, the symbolism of the ‘oil’ represents not a worldly good, but, again, our own highest duty and the only promise of eternal happiness that we possess: i.e. the spiritual preparation for and cultivation of sanctifying grace. Our freedom allows us to exchange that highest good for lesser goods, but at the cost of the forfeiture of eternal life.

    The ‘oil’, moreover, is neither ours to give nor capable of being given, so it might at first appear that that portion of the parable is less effective than it could be. But I think there’s a bit more to be found here. Because even if we can’t give up some of our grace to offer it to others, people very frequently are tempted to try to do just that. Young people, in particular, can be led to believe that they are having a good influence on a bad person (often a boyfriend or girlfriend, but friends or others, too), and make compromises with their own conscience in order to maintain the possibility of lifting up the other person. This is foolish and dangerous– not all sins thus incurred are necessarily mortally sinful, but there is the very real danger that initial, small concessions can lead to such. Thus, “for there may not be enough:” virtue is too important to start compromising in, even with the supposedly noble intention of imparting some on others.

  • dbp

    It occurs to me that there are a couple other interesting lessons.

    * If someone is sensible of their brokenness and open to conversion, they should go primarily to God (the figurative ‘merchants’ and source of the ‘oil’) instead of other people, however holy. Grace comes only from God, and others can only serve as facilitators of the encounter with Him.

    * People should always, first and foremost, be concerned with maintaining their own holiness, even if it comes at the cost of not trying to make others more holy. I think it is precariously easy to fall into preaching what is true but falling into deeply sinful action, as so many contemporary examples can illustrate. So any who would consider a life of public evangelization should take warning of this parable. (And if they decide to go forward anyway, they’d best imitate Paul: “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” (1 Cor 9:27))

  • deiseach

    If we take the oil as representing the grace necessary for salvation, then the response of the wise virgins means no more than that I cannot give you my grace. I can’t give you a ‘faith transfusion’ or a ‘holiness transplant’. It is your own faith that saves you, not mine, and if you don’t have it for yourself, I can’t give it to you.

    The other response – that the five wise share their oil with the five foolish – sounds better, but in practice it would mean that all of them would only have enough oil for half the watch, so that all their lamps would burn out and be dark when the bridegroom came, and no-one would get in.

    Finally, being Christian does not mean being nice and kind. It means believing in Christ as Saviour. Yes, that sounds cold, but the purpose of religion is not social work, it’s the salvation of souls. No-one needs to be a believer to live according to the four cardinal virtues or to live a moral/ethical life. Religious faith is something more and something different.

    • Tex

      Actually your nearly entirely wrong about the purpose of religion, only Christianity is concerned with the salvation of souls from sin. Other religions have other purposes, for example, Buddhism is concerned with finding enlightenment, Santeria and the other Yoruba type religions are focused on finding the path that you are supposed to fallow.

      Getting back to the parable, even reading it where the oil is representative of ones soul, the virgins ending up getting locked out of heaven after attempting to fix their mistake by getting more oil (which would seem like a metaphor for cleansing their souls for god) and still getting locked out is not a very forgiving message. Im not seeing a compassionate and loving god in this one.

  • Annabelle

    I was wondering this same thing, but a little blurb in my Magnificat cleared it up for me: “Why do the five wise virgins not share their oil with the five foolish ones? Because it is something that simply cannot be shared. The oil is our personal virtue”.

    Although I haven’t read a lot of universalist literature, I don’t think it is compatible with Christianity. This text and many others (“Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven.) Have you ever read “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis? It is not exactly a theological book but it does explain how a God of infinite love could coexist with hell.

    God Bless and I hope this helped!

    Annabelle

  • Michael H.

    If you see the oil as something you have that’s non-transferable (which it essentially is in the story, as the wise virgins couldn’t give it up without missing the wedding themselves) – like personal spiritual growth, for example – it becomes a simple impossibility to lend the oil, not an example of cold-heartedness. This is the way I’ve mostly heard it.

  • Gilbert

    There may be a translation issue here. Where the American version says “No, for there may not be enough for us and you”, the German version has “Dann reicht es weder für uns noch für euch” which in English would be “Then it suffices [or: will suffice] neither for us nor for you”. That is, what the wise virgins only fear in the American version is a certainty in the German one. I don’t know which version is wrong.

    • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

      Gilbert, I think the German is more correct. I don’t know what translation Leah is using, but the NRSV says “there will not be enough for you and for us,” and the Greek transliteration says “certainly there would not be enough for us and for you.” If Leah is using the NAB, it is a notoriously bad translation.

      • leahlibresco

        I’m using the translation that was available on the USCCB’s Daily Mass Reading page.

        • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

          I just cross-referenced with my NAB and it is not the same as the USCCB translation, though both the USCCB and the NAB use the “may” construction and not the more definite “will.”

          Hey Leah, what happened to the mention of your boyfriend in your blog’s subtitle?

          • leahlibresco

            No longer one to mention.

          • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

            sad :(

          • http://www.thelostcoin.org Marc

            yes, sad

  • Maiki

    Also, keep in mind that when the foolish virgins asked this, the wise ones had no way of knowing when the bridegroom would show up. They don’t know that the foolish virgins don’t have enough time to buy more oil. I don’t think they are intentionally trying to be malicious — at the same time, they did plan ahead and the foolish virgins did not. In any case, the central message of the parable isn’t God’s mercy or God’s Charity (messages for another time), but the virtues of constancy, faith, and prudence on our part, in order to attain the Kingdom of God.

    It does tie into the idea of universalism, in a way, actually — I’ve heard the following attribution to St. Maximus the Confessor: “One should pray constantly for Apokatastasis [universal salvation] to be true, but one would be foolish to teach it as doctrine.”

  • Iota

    Here’s another take on the same story. :-)

    1) The Catholic Church doesn’t (AFAIR) accept universalism (the notion that everyone HAS to be saved). So far as I understand (check with a good priest or theologian!) Catholics are at best “allowed” to HOPE for everyone’s salvation. The Church prays for all (including all sinners) but doesn’t say everyone WILL be saved.

    2) ” It’s the coldness of the five women turning their backs on the others, jealously guarding their oil and light and then being welcomed by the Christ-figure while the others are cast out.”

    a) First, let’s keep in mind parables, like all analogies, are supposed to highlight a specific point.

    b) But let’s assume that would be a real situation and not a parable – would the “wise” virgins make bad Catholics? :-)

    In Catholic moral theology (AFAIR) you have duties first towards yourself and those closest to you. So, for example, it isn’t exactly a sin to save yourself from drowning if your other choice would be to help another person but likely drown out of exhaustion yourself. It would he heroic to self-sacrifice but I haven’t (I believe) heard anyone say it’s necessary in such a situation. Because that would imply it’s always necessary to choose even the most fleeting chance of a greater good (If I have a 1% chance to save both of us, and a 99% chance that I’ll drown, I still HAVE TO try saving both of us). Which, I guess, could lead to a lot of drowned people.

    There are situations when you’d have to self-sacrifice (e.g. if saving yourself actually involves drowning someone intentionally). In roughly the same way I think the wise virgins would have been awful egoists if:

    - they foresaw that the “foolish” virgins wouldn’t make it back in time (it really isn’t obvious – remember the person they are awaiting is VERY late already, so it’s not completely silly to assume He’s going to be late some more).
    AND
    - they foresaw that, had they shared, all would have enough oil to enter the feast.
    OR
    - they foresaw that had they shared and NOT had enough oil between them, they would ultimately face no consequences, because the groom would rush to help (but that sort of spoils the parable as it is and makes it more like the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where ultimately the landowner is more generous then would be normally expected, effecitvely focusing on the mercy of God.

    If both of those things aren’t true at the same time then the “wise” virgins aren’t obliged to help the “foolish” ones. They have to make a reasonable choice between helping the “foolish” ones (can they be sure that if the split the oil they won’t actually all use up all the oil and later have to all go to the merchants?) and the next best option (here: advising the “foolish” ones to go buy oil form the merchants and hoping they make it back on time).

    The “wise” virgins, who don’t really know what will happen next, aren’t awful because they don’t self-sacrifice. The “foolish” ones are “foolish” however, because they have put themselves in a situation they could have avoided. The “wise” virgins are rewarded simply for not failing in their duty while the “foolish” virgins sort of “punish themselves” – because they are not adequately prepared and they could now be saved only by someone else’s intervention.

    c) A similar parable could have been made to illustrate the value of sacrifice and mercy (the wise virgins take extra oil, foolish virgins run out of oil, they are given some by the wise virgins, the groom arrives before all the oil is spent, all enter the feast). But that would a shift in emphasis – the story would no longer be about “how to not be a foolish virgin” but rather “how much good can you do once you are a wise virgin and you trust the groom”. Which is a different story. :-)

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Hey, I’m learning a lot from all these responses. What good biblical exegetes you have collected here, Leah!

    I’ll just point out one thing I learned by looking at the Greek. The wise virgins are characterized as “phronemoi” which means “wise in practical matters.” These were very practical women. They know what will work and what will not, and they recommend the best course of action to the foolish women that they can. Unfortunately second-best just doesn’t work out.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com Benjamin Baxter

    These are really good questions, Leah. Much obliged.

    First: “At that time” precedes the parable. Look to the previous chapter for what time we’re talking about — i.e., the judgment. From here, think that climactic chapter of “The Last Battle.”

    Second: He’s not instructing the wise, but admonishing the foolish.

    Third: Parables come one after another, each elucidating a different angle on the same thing. This parable is not the whole story and must not be taught as such. The first question we must ask: How does it fit with the other parables? Which is stressed here and absent elsewhere?

    Fourth, and perhaps most cogently: What is it that we have in preparation for the bridegroom? Is there even an analogue? It isn’t like by collecting 100 drops of oil we gain a new life. Turning the inward part of ourselves is not something we can do for anyone else. They must. More properly, they must have already. Moreover, once judgment comes, it does no good for us to cast what we have towards them, for they have trained themselves not to recognize it.

    • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com Benjamin Baxter

      Everyone else said pretty much the same thing. Disregard, please.

  • Charles

    Admittedly I was at a Mass set aside as the one to bring children to, but my priest explained it as such: Think of the virgins like bears or squirrels preparing for winter. When the time comes to hibernate and the squirrels that didn’t fatten up ask the ones that did to share their fat they couldn’t even if they wanted to. We can not share our preparation for salvation with others even if we would like to. Then he went on to explain that we prepare by doing good works, which to me is one major positive the Catholics have over various protestant denominations.

    • taosquirrel

      !!!!
      Where do you live? I NEED to move to a parish where the priest mentions squirrels in his homilies.

      Anyway, in the interests of contributing something substantive, I know that everybody else has already answered the question, but I’ll just add that a bunch of Church Fathers agree with them: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/CAMatthew.htm#25

      Hilary does something I thought was neat though, by comparing the merchants in this parable to the poor, who “sell” a consciousness of good works in exchange for the alms of the faithful. Chrysostom adds, “You see then how great merchants the poor are to us; but the poor are not there, but here, and therefore we must store up oil here, that we may have it to use there when occasion shall require.”

  • FCCG

    I think the last sentence of the reading is mostly the point: “You do not know the hour.” or something similar. This parable is clearly not about charity or compassion or forgiveness or sharing. Simply, I think, it is meant to say that one should not put off virtue thinking there will always be time to get it later…a direct response to the idea of “Lord give me chastity, just not yet.” The foolish virgins asking for the extra oil is thus just a rhetorical devise to make the story move.

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