Today’s Gospel Reading from the 21st Week in Ordinary Time happens to be a favorite of mine. It’s such a favorite, that while in graduate school at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I wrote an exegetical paper on it. Although this paper in the end was just over 4000 words, today I provide excerpts, with some minor changes, from my research.
Before proceeding, Read Matthew 25:1-13 (Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition). This text speaks about the kingdom of God and how the kingdom of God is like a marriage feast. Some questions that should be examined when studying this parable are: Who are the wise maidens? Who are the foolish maidens? Is the bridegroom a “type” of Jesus? Does the bride, even though she is not mentioned, represent the Church? How prepared are we Christians right now in our lives? Will we be prepared and ready? Will we be locked out when Christ returns?
Marriages have dramatically changed over the course of the past two thousand years. Today, in our secular culture, men and women who desire to marry one another go about the marriage preparation quite differently than they did in 1st century Israel. Often, in our modern culture, preparation of marriage lasts anywhere between from a few months to one year. Most couples prepare for the wedding reception instead of the more important, Nuptial Mass. Nowadays it’s all about the after party.
The Catholic Church stands as the counter-cultural institution that harkens back to 1st century Israel and prepares couples to understand the true meaning of marriage as a covenant. The preparation period in the Catholic Church includes a compatibility test, meeting with a priest/deacon who eventually would marry the couple, attending marriage preparatory classes/retreat and Natural Family Planning Courses. Most dioceses require at least six months of preparation, however, some dioceses are starting to do a nine-month preparation. In a few dioceses, it’s even a one-year process.
In 1st century Israel, there was a three-step process. The first step was the engagement period. It began with the fathers of both the bride and bridegroom coming together to set up a formal contract (Tasker, 232).
The second step was the betrothal period. It was usually done in the home of the bride’s parents. The intention to marry one another was professed by the bride and the bridegroom to show faithfulness to the other person (McBride, 146). The bridegroom and the witnesses would give gifts to the bride. This would be the “bridal shower” (McBride, 146). The betrothal agreement legally bounded the man and woman to one another. Between the betrothal and the third step, the bridegroom would pay the bride’s father a dowry that was often done by some form of service (Hendriksen, 180).
The third step was the marriage. This final step would occur one year after the betrothal. The bridegroom, dressed in his “Sunday best” and escorted by his friends, would go to obtain the bride. She also was well dressed and prepared. From her father’s home, he would lead her with a procession (Tasker, 232).
The torch light procession was part of the Jewish culture and required the necessary preparation time that would lead the bridegroom and the bride to the house of the wedding feast (Robertson, 140). As the procession arrived at the home of the bridegroom’s father, both sets of parents would accompany and lead the couple to a tent, where the marriage was to be performed – inside or outside of the house (McBride, 147). Once the marriage ceremony was completed, the wedding feast and supper would begin. Most Jewish marriages and the feasts that followed lasted for seven days or more (Hendriksen, 180).
The “maidens” (vs. 2) were most likely unmarried women that were focused on the needs of the bride. These “maidens” were waiting outside of the wedding banquet for the arrival of the bridegroom. More than likely this was a historical practice in 1st century Israel (Hagner, 1995, page 728).
The “flasks of oil” (vs. 4) are in reference to the wise maidens who were prepared with more oil to light their lamps for the rather lengthy delay of the bridegroom’s arrival. The foolish were unprepared because they did not think that the bridegroom would be delayed. J. Jeremias suggests the bridegroom’s delay is from dealing with the financial arrangements of the wedding banquet. Even though the wise maidens and the foolish maidens “slumbered and slept”, the wise maidens were not penalized since they brought enough oil to relight their flasks for the bridegroom’s arrival (Hagner, 1995, pages 728-729).
Verse 6 states that several hours have now gone by and the lamps are running low on oil. The word “cry” means that the bridegroom has come to the wedding banquet and that all the invitees, and especially the maidens, should come out to greet him. It does not mean to weep in the sense that something is sad. The wise maidens “trim” their torches. The word “trim” means that they cleaned and oiled their lamps so they would brightly shine for the bridegroom’s arrival (Hagner, 1995, page 729).
Verse 10 states those who are ready and prepared are allowed to enter the marriage feast. The marriage feast in scripture is often referred to the Messianic feast. The coming of the bridegroom refers to the coming of the Son of Man. The door shut to the foolish maidens means that if one is not prepared for the coming of the bridegroom (Jesus Christ), they be will locked out of the marriage feast and lost, instead of being saved and part of the marriage feast. The door will not be opened and no plea can be requested (Hagner, 1995, pages 729).
A nuptial motif runs throughout the entire Bible, especially the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament scriptures we hear the words, “bone of bones and flesh of my flesh.” These are covenant words, words that a bridegroom would declare to his bride. These words are full of meaning and love from one to another. We see Adam in the Garden speak these words to Eve (Gn 2:23) and we also see the people say this to David in 2 Samuel 5:23. See also Revelation 19:9 and Song of Songs 8:13.
Reading the Scriptures in the Literal Sense, the wise maidens were prepared and ready for the bridegroom to arrive and the foolish maidens were not prepared for his arrival. The words “all slumbered and slept” means that they all fell into a deep sleep, the type of sleep that occurs late at night. The words “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor hour” means that we must always be ready and prepared because we literally do not know when Christ will return.
Reading the Scriptures in the Allegorical Sense, the bridegroom is Christ and the maidens are the Church. In the Old Testament, God was the bridegroom and Israel his bride. We also see that David and Solomon are bridegrooms and the kingdom of Israel is their bride. Christ is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament “types” in the New Testament.
Reading the Scriptures in the Moral Sense, this parable begins with the words “all slumbered and slept.” These words morally mean that we need to be ready and not in a slumber when Christ returns. We need to be prepared and our lamps should be trimmed. We need to have our affairs in order to receive Christ when he returns again. The moral actions that we perform in our lives now should be done with diligence and prayer.
Reading the Scriptures in the Anagogical Sense, it speaks about how Christ will come in the Parousia (the Second Coming). This parable clearly speaks about Christ’s return and the Last Judgment. We do not know the day or the hour when the Second Coming of Christ will happen, but we must be watchful and prepared for it. We can hope that when Christ does return, we will be welcomed into the kingdom of God.
Hagner, D. A. Word Biblical Commentary. Matthew 14-28. Dallas: Word Books,1995.
Hendriksen, W. New Testament Commentary. Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973.
McBride, A. O. The Kingdom and the Glory. New York: Arena Letters, 1995.
Robertson, A. Matthew . Chicago: Moody Press , 1983.
Tasker, R. M. The Gospel According to St. Matthew. An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975.