This Sunday and the next two all deal with the return of the Messiah. The parable for today is the wise and foolish young women.
In those days the kingdom of Heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Phillips
We should note that chapter 24 was all about the end of times and the return of Jesus. In that chapter Jesus told of the coming destruction of the Temple as well as his coming death. In 25:36, we read, But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. NIV That is the summation of chapter 24, but 25 continues the theme.
Five bridesmaids were wise enough to bring plenty of olive oil for their lamps and five did not bring any extra. Looking at the picture above, you can see that the amount of oil will be small, especially when you understand that the lamp is only a bit larger than the palm of an adult hand. Olive oil was the oil of choice—as it still is today—because it burns brighter than other oils and much cleaner than all others, about 99% smoke free. Just for reference, such a lamp will produce about 10 lumens of light compared to 13 lumens from a modern candle.
But why were the lamps so important to the story?
Weddings in the Middle East, not just Jewish ones, involved negotiations between the two fathers about what each family would bring to the marriage. The negotiations took days, weeks, months until they were down to the last details. A date was chosen, and the fathers met that afternoon to sign the covenant of marriage.
If you have traveled in that part of the world you might know that negotiations are a blood sport and ‘no’ is never the last word. If the bride’s father agreed earlier to ‘pay’ ten goats to the groom’s family, the groom’s father might try to pick up a couple of more goats, perhaps in exchange for a nicer carpet for the bride’s room. The haggling could last for hours, as it seems to have happened in Jesus’ parable.
Once the contract is signed, the groom and his men start for the bride’s house, but not in a straight line. In a village, they would go down every path and alleyway, singing and inviting all to come to the great event. While it is not mentioned in this account, everyone in the village would know the wedding date and would be waiting in their houses with their best clothes on to join the festivities.
Once the groom arrived at the bride’s house, she and her maids would join the procession, each carrying her lamp. No woman would enter a street without a lamp, not even today. That would suggest corrupt morals. They also held the lamps up to shine on their faces so that everyone would know who was there.
The five who’s lamps had run out of oil had to find some more oil, likely going to their homes to get it. But it was too late. They were barred from the wedding and had to listen to the fun outside.
Everyone who heard Jesus tell this tale would have known the scene, for it happened several times a year in most villages. While they might have thought that the foolish girls would likely have been able to get some oil and get into the wedding, they would have understood the meaning and would not have questioned Jesus on the seeming harshness. The knew that it was a parable. Parables are not perfect examples of the more complex ideas they illustrate.
The parable shows what can happen if we are not ready for the Messiah when he does come. For followers of Jesus in the first decades the message was likely more intense than it is for us. After 2,000 years, we find it easy to assume that we will have a few more days, weeks, or even years to prepare ourselves.
There is a reason Matthew wrote two chapters telling one fact. But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
Be righteous and do good.