What makes the ‘foolish virgins’ foolish?

We know the story of the 10 virgins. A group of young women were waiting for the bridegroom. Five had brought oil with them and five had not. The bridal party was delayed and so the bridesmaids slept. In the middle of the night, the bridal party arrives and, as the bridesmaids prepare their lamps, the foolish young women asked the wise young women to borrow some of their oil. The wise young women did not share their oil and so the foolish young women left to buy some more but while they were gone the bridal party arrived and those who were ready went inside the house. When the bridesmaids returned the Lord would not let them into the celebrations. All this is well known. But, the parable does not necessarily answer why the ‘foolish virgins’ were, in fact, foolish. We commonly assume the young women were foolish because they did not bring enough oil but there might be another possibility.

The standard interpretation of this story goes something like this:

“The ten virgins belonged to the kingdom and had every right to the blessings—except that five were not valiant and were not ready when the great day came. They were unprepared through not living all the commandments. They were bitterly disappointed at being shut out from the marriage—as likewise their modern counterparts [members today who are not prepared] will be” (Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 8).

I think this is reasonable and I can accept it. In addition to this reading, I wonder whether there is another reason why these virgins might have been foolish.

We know the foolish young women should have brought sufficient oil with them. There is probably little debate about that. They clearly expected the bridal party to arrive earlier than they did and after falling asleep (like the wise young women) the foolish young women were unexpectedly left with too little oil to greet the bridal party. But once they realised they did not have enough they had a choice; and they decided that it would be preferable to purchase more oil and potentially miss the arrival of the bridal party rather than be certain of meeting the bridegroom even though they had no oil to trim their lamps.

Clearly returning later – even with sufficient oil in their lamps – was the wrong the decision because the Lord would not let them in. But what if the bridesmaids had waited there with unlit lamps until the arrival of the bridal party? Would the Lord have recognised them and let them into the celebration?

This is difficult to answer and probably requires some socio-cultural knowledge about bridal processions in this era. Acknowledging my ignorance on this topic,  I suspect it is not outside the realm of possibility that at times the oil ran out before the bridal party arrived and that the bridesmaids were still let inside to celebrate the marriage. (Of course, I am happy to be corrected and I am sure Talmage has said something on this topic.)

But, let’s assume that he would have let them inside. In this scenario, their error was not so much forgetting to bring oil but in misunderstanding what mattered most to the bridal party and the bridegroom in particular. In short, perhaps they were foolish because they went to buy oil instead of waiting for the bridal party to arrive. They were foolish because they thought the lamp mattered more to the Lord than the presence of the guests, who joyfully welcome them into the house.

This interpretation shares some similarities with the other two parables in Matthew 25, which also focus on preparing for the second coming of Jesus. The parable of the sheep and the goats and the parable of the talents both demonstrate that a person’s relationship with the Lord (i.e., how we understand Jesus) is important precisely because it shapes how they wait for Him to return. For example, in the parable of the talents, the servant with only one talent was inactive because he was scared of his master. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the sheep are those who serve God by serving the least in society. In the parable of 10 virgins, the bridesmaids without sufficient oil could have been wise if they had focused less on outward manifestations of their commitment and more on being present for the return of the bridegroom.

Taken together, these parables (including the parable of the 10 virgins) suggest that what we believe about Jesus will influence how we wait for his return.

Note: if you get this far and do not think this idea is merely incoherent ramblings then please read this post by Kristine. It is a much more eloquent description of some similar themes.

Comments

  1. I’m no Bible scholar but I like this interpretation. It tracks with my experience with the Divine.

  2. Ryan Mullen says:

    I have difficulty interpreting this parable because I don’t know if the bridegroom’s rejection at the door was an expected or unexpected response. Was this a ritual ceremony that it was rude to arrive late to, or a party at which the bridegroom was rude for rejecting the bridesmaids? Any insights?

  3. “what we believe about Jesus will influence how we wait for his return.”

    Wow. Yesterday in class someone commented that they thought this had to do with enduring to the end. So together it’s about how we endure to the end. Is the oil or the bridegroom more important? Interesting.

  4. If having oil in our lamps is given the traditional interpretation (that is, obedience to the commandments), then the foolish virgins’ mistake was that they tried to purchase their entrance by belated obedience. But what was the mistake in that? That they tried too late to obey, or that they supposed that obedience at all was sufficient to gain entrance?

    Maybe it’s a parable about being humble enough to accept grace and allow Jesus to cleanse us and make us worthy, and not keep trying to put off our reunion with Jesus until we have cleansed ourselves and made ourselves worthy, because that day will never come.

  5. Angela C says:

    What I love about parables is that they hold up to various interpretations, each one revealing some new insight. Like this one, I prefer interpretations that humanize the players in the parables by focusing on their feelings about whatever is happening. This is excellent. Thanks!

  6. Ron Madsen’s, “A ‘May-Day’ Reading of Matthew 25,” is my favorite possibility for this parable. https://themormonworker.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/a-may-day-reading-of-matthew-25/

  7. John Mansfield says:

    The father of the bridegroom in that other wedding parable three chapters earlier had complicated dealings with the guests. “Go to the highways and invite everyone you find.” “No wedding garment? Outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth for you.” So, how would the bridegroom in the latter parable receive virgins lacking oil? Interesting question; depends on the needs of the parable, I guess.

  8. Dovie, I am no biblical scholar either and I am lazy. I’m sure someone will turn up in a moment to show me that this is completely incorrect.

    Ryan, I honestly do not know.

    JKC, that is interesting reading. I like that a lot.

    John, that is a fair point. There are clearly strict requirements at play (the Bridegroom could have let them in once they had returned with oil) and so this is not to say that mercy is the only thing at play here. My preference is usually to read the parables as discrete stories unless they have been grouped by the author specifically.

  9. That is interesting. The non-parable story in Luke 10:38-42 popped into my mind while reading this. Jesus tells Martha that, more important than getting the house cleaned up right now, is having Mary there, listening. Yeah, there’s work to do, but that can be taken care of another time, when the Savior is Not. Right. There. It would seem foolish to abandon the opportunity to sit at His feet to go do some dusting.

  10. Angela C says:

    Anyone else think the 5 wise virgins are a little bit like the Mean Girls? Also, they plant the seed of insecurity about not having enough oil by suggesting they go to the sellers rather than just sticking around.

  11. Kristine says:
  12. It’s always been my understanding that they couldn’t have showed up without oil because how would they have been able to get there in the dark with no lamp? But this is a really interesting question and gave me something to think about as I was doing the mind-numbing work of painting the dining room.

  13. Everyone (Dan, you will really like this) should read Kristine’s post. I am a little embarrassed to missed your post Kristine but thanks sharing it with me now.

    Jenny, that may well be true. I have certainly heard people say that but am not entirely convinced it is accurate.

  14. The parable of the virgins cannot be read in isolation. Do not forget the preable: “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins….” Then in verse 14, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man traveling into a far country….” He was painting a picture of a place and a situation which can only be described by parables. Neither parable can be taken alone, both can be supplemented. The first suggests that folly is not a heavenly virtue and cannot be made up by other’s goodness or forgiveness. There are requisites for the kingdom.

    The second suggests that the kingdom is full of self-motivated and inventive people who are working for a good thing. And that God wants us to be the talents which are multiplied. As to being a hard master, just look around you at the Darwinian world which God has created, where kids with machetes hack villagers to death. God is tough and insistent that we deliver improvement in the face of disappointment and fear. Heaven is not for the faint of heart.

    So, he is a master of the art of parabolic Expressionism. To paint a scene with a few strokes to suggest the totality of vision. Each brush stroke is not meant to convey exact meaning but taken as a whole, to express something with greater vitality than to try to express the inexpressible with exactness.

  15. Very interesting. Thanks, Kristine and Aaron!

  16. It’s not my favorite parable either for the reasons stated. I used to think the virgins who would not share their oil were jerks.

    What always stuck out with me (did this come from Talmage?) was the teaching that the virgins really could not share their oil at the time of the coming of the bridegroom. Neither could the virgins who lacked oil borrow someone else’s.

    In a way, the idea that our faith and works will be judged individually and that we cannot rely on the works or faith of others was meaningful to me. Like the poem, we are the masters of our fate/captains of our souls. It’s a good motivator.

    It also gets rid of our cultural tendency to believe we get extra credit from coming from pioneer stock, being related to general authorities, etc.

  17. Carey Foushee says:

    I feel like I had been staring at one of those 3D Pictures, and no matter how much I squinted or crossed my eyes I still couldn’t see it. Then, suddenly after reading this and Kristine’s piece the hidden picture jumped out at me, even though it had been there along. Such a great feeling! Thanks for sharing with me some of your oil and helping me experience this.

  18. This is why I love parables. There’s always a way to find new meaning.

  19. For what it’s worth:

    Clay lamps. You pour in the oil, and within a half hour, all the oil has soaked into the clay and the lamp will appear empty. Pour in more oil, and most of it will soak in, so you’ve got a thin coating on the inside. Pour more oil in, and now you’ve got enough to add a wick. As the wick burns, the heat will drive oil back out of the clay. A tiny lamp with a one ounce capacity might require three ounces of oil to fill it up.

    So, the request to “pour some oil from your lamp into mine” would just leave two people without light. I don’t intend to disagree with the most excellent thoughts above, just providing some context that might have been more obvious to someone two thousand years ago.

  20. If we look for the symbolism in the parables we can gain some good insight. Oil is symbolic of the Spirit and Light is the result of lighting the oil. Light is symbolic of knowledge…or in this case knowing where you are going. If we put time into seeking the Spirit to teach us what to look for, we will know when the coming of the Lord is near. The talents parable is symbolic of developing your gifts, to make yourself useful while here. The 3rd parable about the goats and the sheep points to the the fact that service is critical to receiving Divine approval.