The Parable of the Ten Virgins: It’s About the Wait

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten young women took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those young women got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet, and the door was shut. Later the other young women came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13)

If necessary, I am pretty sure that I could prove that every generation of Christians from the very beginning has seen itself as the last generation before the end of the world. Sometimes this involves detailed calculations derived from the apocalyptic books of the Bible (Daniel and Revelation). Sometimes it involves sophisticated readings of the “signs of the times” such as wars, rumors or wars, and earthquakes.

Apocalyptic eschatology is woven into the fabric of Christianity. The whole religion doesn’t seem to work without it. Mostly, it makes us act like idiots because we imagine that Jesus will swoop down and get us out of whatever messes we get ourselves into. Debt ceiling negotiations fail, and we default on our bonds? No big deal; the Big Guy will be here soon. Climate change? Fuggedaboutit. It’ll be plenty hot at Armageddon. No money in the Kirtland bank? Pshaw Jesus is our security. There is no consequence so great that it won’t be neutralized by the immanent eschaton..

I like to think that Jesus anticipated this kind of irresponsible reasoning, and that is the reason that, immediately after giving his apocalyptic prophecies in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24), he gives the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 1:1-13), whose entire message is that we shouldn’t expect God to come and solve all of our problems for us. Unfortunately, this is also one of the parables that people misread the most.

The misreading goes like this: the wedding represents the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Bridegroom represents Christ—so the ten virgins are waiting for the coming of Christ. The oil in their lamps, then, represents the things that they will need when Christ comes: a testimony, a righteous life, a store of scriptural knowledge, and so on. The wise virgins represent those who will be prepared when Christ comes. The foolish virgins are those who will be unprepared. And the overall message we are told to draw from this parable is something like, “you never know when the Second Coming is going to happen, so you had better be prepared at all times.”

This reading, I think, undervalues the plain sense of the text. Lamp oil is not something that would have been useful in a wedding feast. That is the sort of thing that the bridegroom provides. They didn’t need the oil to use when the got to the feast; they needed it to wait for the feast, and to use during the journey. The Parable of the Ten Virgins is not a parable about what will happen at Christ’s second coming; it is a parable about what we should do while we wait. And what we should do is take care of temporal stuff like keeping the lights on.

The foolish virgins came without oil, I think, because they thought that the bridegroom would sooner than he did. And they thought that the bridegroom’s coming would solve all of their lighting problems. So they failed to take care of an important temporal responsibility (buying oil) because they were so focused on a future event. They didn’t think they had to take care of the small stuff while they waited for the big return.

Read this way, the Parable of the Ten Virgins is a necessary corrective to the common notion that Christ’s coming will ever be so immanant that we won’t need to take care of stuff in the meantime. I have known people who declined to attend college or train for employment because they were absolutely certain that the end of the world would happen before they got through. I have had other people tell me that there is no point in trying to solve serious social problems because the current social order won’t be around long enough to make solutions necessary or even possible.

This has been a distressingly common opinion for 2,000 years, and it has never been right. But it has caused a lot of people to do a lot of stupid things and ignore a lot of serious problems. Smart virgins should factor the end of the world out of their moral and practical calculations, both personal and public. It’s the only way to get there with lamps full of oil.


  1. You’re putting this stuff in a book next year, right?

  2. I am pretty sure if there is a millennium, it will be because we have made it. I cannot see Jesus as dictator, executing his foes leaving only 144,000 righteous left. Ugh.

    If this is the way it is, the millennium may be many millennia away. Depending on all sorts of things. After all we are at the mercy of Mother Earth and Father Sun and all sorts of space junk. And our own stupidity.

  3. The parable of the ten virgins calls to my most practical, pragmatic self. In order to emulate the women with oil in their lamps, I forego any debate about what the Second Coming means, when it will happen, and whether it will solve any or all problems, and instead act and choose as though the waiting period will be all of my lifetime and all of the lifetime of my children and grandchildren. That seems to be a long enough horizon over which to keep the lamp burning that I feel I have to get busy.

  4. I’ve been thinking lately why 10 virgins?

    Wouldn’t it be the 10 lost tribes? How could we assume that the Jews weren’t thinking about these 10 tribes that disappeared in the conquests 800 years earlier?

    Surely the Jews must have been thinking and talking about them, wondering how or if they’ll be united and when? Josphesus wrote of them.

    Considering that, here you have Jesus talking about the groups that will be registered back into the fold at the time of his kingdom of heaven is established. Five of the tribes will be ready to meet and follow him. Five will not.

    You can insert all the other interpretations about oil etc still, but viewing the 10 virgins this way connects me with how the Jews must have been thinking about their scattered ancestors and how they’ll become whole as Israel again after a millenia of various oppressors.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “They were prepared for the wedding, but they were not prepared for the wait.” Bingo, slam dunk.

  6. anitawells says:

    Loved learning a new interpretation of this parable recently on the At Last She Said It podcast from a Lutheran pastor, about not thinking of it as a preparedness/scarcity lesson, but that they were foolish for leaving the bridegroom and listening to the others. Seeing the story through the lens of a God of abundance and grace who will light the way if we trust in him and don’t listen to the world:

  7. I wonder if the real problem wasn’t that the women weren’t prepared for the wait, but rather that they weren’t willing to wait in the dark?

    In my experience, faith can be fickle. Sometimes my lamp burns bright. Sometimes (maybe even more than sometimes) my lamp is oilless and the darkness enfolds me. Does that mean I need to go somewhere else to find oil? Not necessarily. Though the dark can be disconcerting, I’m learning to become more comfortable in the darkness. God created light and dark, after all. Why should we always expect there to be light?

    Perhaps the five women whose lamps went out should have said, “eventually, the wedding feast will open and there will be more light that I need. So… I’ll just wait for a bit in the dark… that’s ok.”

  8. But they got there to the wedding feast. Why the harsh reply? And how do we reconcile the harsh voice of the bridegroom with a Lord of abundance? This parable deeply troubles me. I love what you are trying to do with it. I need some way of reading it. Can you comment on why their failure to prepare for the wait would justify the harshness of reneging on his covenant to them and casting them out?

  9. John Chrysostom offers a beautiful interpretation of this parable. Virgins are righteous people. They are symbols of purity. Today we would call them worthy members, keeping all the commandments. Oil here is synonymous with mercy and charity. It is the balm that the good Samaritan pours on the wounds of the unfortunate traveler. In fact, the whole chapter of Matthew 25 is about Charity: the last part is explicit about it. When we’ll meet Christ, what will make a difference? If we had Charity or not. So says Mormon: “Charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endures forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:47).

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    I rather agree with the old, common way of reading it. It seems to me difference is in how the oil is seen, and that the oil is a mystery The things you’re using to define the oil, even something internal such as testimony, are in fact common to all the virgins. The oil represents a kind of gnostic knowledge that is not obtained by the obedience practised by all. In other places it is called things like ‘the knowledge of the Lord.’ It is interesting to me that the oil is necessary to make the lamp work, that it is necessary in order to gain the capacity to light one’s own way. It isn’t till the telling moment that those who lack become cognizant of their lack. Perhaps they thought that being kind, or trying really hard to obey, was sufficient. The motivation should be to understanding, not to obedience except in so far as obedience leads to understanding; see, for example, Eve. Understanding, knowledge, precedes charity, since actual love follows true vision.

    Over and out. :)

  11. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’d edit to add that I think the parable has little to do with the Second Coming.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Yeah, interesting interpretation but doesn’t fit the text. The foolish took no oil with them (not that they ran out) and it wasn’t until the Bridegroom arrived (and they were to go out to meet them) that either the wise or the foolish trimmed their lamps (they were all slumbering until then).

    I agree with your conclusion (I tend to think that the Lord likely will not come in my lifetime — these things always seem to take longer than expected) but this parable isn’t support for that position.

  13. Thomas, you said, In other places it is called things like “the knowledge of the Lord”. I think this is accurate and consistent with Jesus’s repeated message throughout his ministry. However, what does he mean by “Knowledge”?

    His response to the 5 virgins is similar to the harshness shown in Matthew 7:21-24 where he says” Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

    Jesus, speaking to the prevailing and self proclaimed “Holy” people, exclaims, “I never knew you”. In Matthew 9, he cites Hosea 6:6 in response to the Pharisees question; Why do you spend time with sinners? Jesus responds by quoting Old Testament scripture, “I wanted you to have mercy, not to sacrifice”.

    If the oil in the lamp is “knowledge of God”, then “knowledge” must mean something other than intellectual buy in, admiration or acknowledgment of God’s existence. The word “knowledge” throughout scripture is almost always the same translated word “Ginosko”, which is the intimate form of the word, meaning something has penetrated my soul, and become part of me. It’s experiential knowledge. I would say that the “knowledge of God” referred to is Jesus’ request for mercy, not piety, ritual, or personal purity.

    I would say, his harsh response to the 5 virgins is for the same reason he gives in Matthew 7, “I never KNEW you”, or my merciful quality has failed to become part of your being.

  14. I think this interpretation is better than the one we hear over the pulpit, but I still find it problematical. I believe it is about the wait, but in an entirely different sense, as I explain here:

  15. Joseph Stanford says:

    For all the Christians and non-Christians waiting for the end of the world, I highly recommend reading The End of the World, Plan B, by Carlos Inouye.

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