The Wisdom of Fools

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is one of the most well known and repeated parables by Jesus, yet it is only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. While popular, it is also deeply disconcerting to many. Were the five virgins who refused to give oil to those that were without truly “wise”?

In the short homily recorded at La Sierra University Church last November, I present an alternative interpretation of the familiar story, paying close attention to Matthew’s Gospel in an attempt to remain faithful to the original evangelist’s overall message.

A cry was heard that night in Palestine. “Look! The bridegroom is coming! Hurry!”Ten bridesmaids, drowsy and frightened at their slumber, rushed to prepare their torches to be relit. They had slept when they should have awaited. One of the girls looked outside. It was already midnight. Why had the bridegroom been delayed? In their drowsiness, a crisis soon became apparent.

All ten of their flames were nearly gone, nearly extinguished after the many hours of waiting. Five of the bridesmaids had brought extra oil. Five had not. They had not expected something so strange as a bridegroom’s delay to his own feast. In desperation, the five turned to their fellow sisters, women of the community, begging that they share some of the oil so that their flames would not go out. The five with oil shook their head. If they were to give any to these five, there was a chance that there would not be enough for them. “Quick, go and buy some. The merchants are still open. Hurry!”

The five who had nothing, faced with terrible odds, decided to take the risk. Their flames were still burning, if only barely. All hope was not lost. They would not be found by the bridegroom lacking. In devotion and haste, they ran off down the streets to where the merchants sold their goods. In the meantime, the wedding procession eventually arrived and the five who had extra oil joined. Their flames bounced with the wind and they felt incredible joy. The bridegroom was here! The feast that awaited them would be spectacular. As they made their way to the doors of his house and entered, the five who had been wise to bring more oil looked back outside. There was no sign of the others. They shook their heads. “It was their own fault,”they chided. The door soon shut. They never told the bridegroom that there were five more, still coming.

Finally, having bought more oil for their torches and lit the flames anew, the five (who were earlier without) made their way to the doors of the bridegroom’s house. They were ashamed that they were too late. For all their effort and anxious breaths, they had not made it. They knocked on the door. “Lord, Lord,” they cried. The door opened, revealing the bridegroom himself. “Truly, I tell you, I do not know who you are.”The door shut. The five stood outside, flames bouncing in the wind. They stood outside the feast. They stood alone. But yet, they stood. And they continued to, regardless of not knowing what they should do next.

Let’s Make It Personal

For countless centuries, Christians have interpreted this parable in respect to the oil which the five “wise” virgins brought but the five “foolish” did not. The crux of the entire message of this parable has been derived from this one detail and the message from the pulpit has remained practically unchanging: do not be like those foolish virgins who were without enough oil.

But how does this make you feel? Do you feel compassion toward these five? Do you agree with the pragmatism of the five wise? Should they have shared their oil and risked their security for the sake of solidarity? We’ve long been told by society that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and all are left to fend for themselves. Is this the “good news” of this gospel’s parable? Do we have any right to criticize those of us we see who look at the homeless but do nothing? Those who say “God Bless” but offer no solution? Are they not merely following the example set forth by these wise virgins?

If they need help, the logic of this parable seems to suggest, let them get it themselves – in other words, DIY (Do It Yourself). We know all too well that is the gospel of unbridled capitalism, the gospel of first-world economies and Wall Street. It is a gospel that brings good news for some and home foreclosures, homeless shelters, spilt blood and child labor to others. But does this sound like the gospel of the bridegroom?

Have Christians since the death of Christ, those who risked and often lost their lives to help the sick and poor of their community, been mistaken? Have those of us in our congregations who take time to volunteer at homeless shelters, food drives and community centers merely “misunderstood” the true intention of Jesus? Have we failed to model ourselves on the example of those whom this parable so clearly tells us are wise?

Let’s explore this further. The word used to describe these women is translated as “virgin,” a term in the Greek used to denote not the older women often seen in medieval paintings or even women in their early twenties,  but girls who are under the age of thirteen. Yes, this parable speaks of children. Let that sink into your imagination. The five foolish and the five wise are both around the age of twelve. Does this small detail change anything for you? Do the five standing outside alone and in the dark with their torches touch your heart when you see your little sister, small cousin or niece among them? Do the actions of the five wise seem as justified? Do they seem quite as wise?

Understanding the ages of those involved helps us potentially as much as it challenges us. In this same gospel Jesus says that no one is to stop the children from coming to him. He warns in 18:6 that “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Could it not be argued that the five wise virgins cause the five foolish to stumble when instead of helping them they sent them off to the merchants? Did they not do this when they failed to tell the bridegroom they they were coming? There are many other difficulties with this parable besides the ages of those involved.  The five virgins whom Matthew calls wise, appear to disregard the bridegroom’s own words earlier in the same gospel, when in Chapter 5 verse 42 Jesus says to“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” Do not the “wise” virgins fail to do this very thing?

The Banquet or the Feast?

Perhaps, it is with strange irony, that when Matthew wrote this parable of Jesus down, the only gospel to record it, he explicitly spelled out the meaning of the story.“Therefore stay awake.”Note carefully that he did not write, “Be prepared” or “Have your oil ready” or “Those without must fend for themselves.”No, he wrote “Therefore stay awake.” Three words that fundamentally change the entire way in which we read this story.

In identifying the moral of the parable with the act of falling asleep, Matthew has done something quite unexpected. He has condemned the five virgins whom he previously called “wise.” He has told his readers that regardless of the ten virgins, both wise and foolish who fell asleep, his readers, the Christian community, must not. This causes our eyes to turn from the crisis over oil in verses 6-12 to the act of sleeping in vs 5 when the bridegroom was initially delayed. Why would Matthew do this? Why condemn the wise if they indeed were exactly that: wise.

The word in Greek for wise that Matthew uses here is Phronimoi, a word which unlike the Greek word Sophia (used of the Holy Spirit), speaks not of heavenly wisdom but worldly prudence or practicality. Intriguingly, this same word in the Greek is used by Matthew in the parable right before this one. There, in Matthew 24:45 we read of a “wise” and faithful slave who is put in charge of the other slaves and tasked with giving them those things that they need. However, this “wise” slave according to Jesus is in fact wicked because when the Master of the house is delayed, he does not give those things he needs to to those slaves who are dependent upon him.

Intriguingly then, we have two parables, side by side, that speak both of a wise slave and wise virgins, both of which experience a delay and both of which fail to give to those in need. The only difference? The parable of the wicked slave ended with his death as punishment. The parable of the wise virgins ends with them entering the banquet. Do these similar parables contradict one another? Or are we asking the wrong question? Does entrance into the wedding guarantee a place at the table for the feast?

According to Matthew elsewhere, no. A couple chapters earlier in Matthew 22 we read of a King who invites guests to a wedding feast, but when the guests refuse he orders his slaves to invite anyone they find on the streets. The new guests flood the home and the King, according to the parable, spots one person not wearing “wedding garments.” The King orders his servants to “Bind him hand and foot and throw him into the outer darkness.”Entrance into the wedding party does not guarantee a place at the table for the feast.

So then are we entirely safe in the traditional interpretation that the story ends when they enter into the house? Is that truly where the story ends? The answer comes later in the chapter in the conclusion of Matthew 25:31-46. Here, Jesus describes that when the Son of Man comes in the clouds of glory, he will gather all the people of the earth beside him at his throne. Like sheep and goats they will be put at the right of the throne and the left. Then, he will turn to one side and say these immortal words:“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”Then he will turn to the other side beside him and tell them that they did not do these things. When both ask when they did these things to him, he will say:‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Least of these. Children. Family. Solidarity.

The Wise Made Foolish

Jesus ends his parables with a conclusion of hope for those five children outside in the dark, both those in the parable and all of us who find ourselves stumbling in the night of this world. There WILL be a reversal. There WILL be a restitution. There WILL be a feast. He has not forgotten their burning torches outside, nor has he forgotten ours. The fact that the five wise virgins did not tell the Bridegroom about them will by no means prevent them from the feast!

The message of Matthew at the end, “Therefore stay awake”is a warning to us as much as the five virgins. They cared more about the wedding procession to come than those in need at the present. The Gospel’s good news is not that we must all fend for ourselves. It is that God’s good news is for those who have been wronged, even if by their own mistakes. The bridegroom has come to save us from OUR wisdom, which as Paul puts it, “is foolishness to God” (1 Cor. 3:19).

The parable, rather than a message of preparation, is a daring call for action. It challenges us as much as it provokes thought. Will we, who know this good news, the gospel of the bridegroom, live it out? Will we give to those in need in spite of our own needs? Will we risk our security, our comfort and stand in unity with those of Christ’s family? And perhaps most important, will we avoid the mistake of equating the wisdom of this world for the unspeakable grace of Jesus?

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. learningworshiper says:

    This certainly made me think and dig into my Bible!

    I would argue for the traditional interpretation, however. Two reasons:

    1) A further analysis of the word wise that you dissected: Earlier in Matthew, the same Greek word “phrónimos” for wise/prudent is used positively by Jesus in Matthew 7:24, Matthew 10:16, and Matthew 24:45, but as soon as the servant who becomes wicked starts to assert himself in the Master’s place in Matthew 24, he is only described as wicked, never wise again. He is an antithesis to what Jesus considers being wise, and an example of what not to do. Wisdom is equated to faithfully waiting for the Master/bridegroom to return “who is the wise and faithful servant?”

    2) The return of Christ, represented by the Master returning and the bridegroom coming, is going to be a time of not only joy, but judgment, where some will be shut out, which is discussed following the talents parable right after the 10 Virgins parable in Matthew 25:31-46.

    So why did the Bridegroom tarry? All of 2 Peter 3, but especially vs 9 tells us why:
    “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”

    This is the proof of God’s grace towards our world, which is the grace and love of the Father I know, and which I hear in your voice you long to tell people of and are trying to use this passage to do. But that grace must be given with truth, as Jesus always wielded together perfectly, which is that one day, there will be a day of judgment, for which we must all be prepared.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    1. Matt Reeves says:

      I’m glad that my sermon could encourage you to open your Bible. My goal for the homily clearly succeeded if it managed that.

      The argument I gave for this message was incredibly simplified and shortened. My goal is to write my Master’s Thesis on this issue and so as you might imagine, there is plenty I did not say nor that I could try to condense in this reply that convinces me that my alternative interpretation is correct.

      To answer just your points you raised, I actually wrote my final Greek exegesis paper on the word in question examining it in both the LXX, NT and NT Apocrypha. I can’t condense the near 20 pages of research here but I can briefly state that the word is almost wholly negative in the NT. Paul, as our sole witness of the earliest Christian usage of the word, uses φρόνιμος a total of five times, all of which are explicitly negative or build off the assumption of the negative meaning (1 Cor 4:9; 2 Cor. 11:19; Romans 11:25; Romans 12:16). Outside of Paul, the term is only used in Matthew and Luke. Matthew 7:24 is not positive, but at best neutral. It does not describe morality but practicality. It is prudent to believe Jesus just as it is prudent to build a house on rock. It doesn’t mean that the fool who builds on sand is morally wrong, just dumb. So Jesus’ use of the word does not make the word positive as much as it makes it better in contrast to foolishness. In Matthew 10:15 is close to being positive but not quite. Jesus admonishes people to be as wise as the serpent but balances this statement by saying that they must also be harmless as doves. The implication is that to be φρόνιμος is to potentially if not expectedly be harmful. More interesting, in the LXX of Gen. 3 the serpent in the Garden of Eden is called φρόνιμος and so when Jesus alludes to his followers being φρόνιμος as serpents, it is a direct reference to Satan. Not positive by association or exactly by usage. Luke 16:8 likewise uses φρόνιμος as a negative, showing how wicked managers are φρόνιμος and yet still know how to do right in order to benefit themselves. It’s a self-serving wisdom.

      So finally, when Matthew 24:45 uses the term, it is clear that φρόνιμος describes the servant both as what elevates him to his position as well as what ends up causing him to fall. The usage of the word throughout the NT and in some places in the LXX makes this clear. It is not a positive term. And as such, when it is used to describe the five virgins, early Christian readers would have had an ambivalent view of them at best.

      Again, that’s an extreme simplification of a much better written argument that won’t be published for a few years.

      Secondly, in my sermon, I didn’t disagree with the idea of judgment. In fact, I ended my sermon on judgment. Matthew 25 is very clear about that. I just argued that the one’s being judged are the φρόνιμος virgins who acted not in accordance with Christ’s orders in Matthew 5:42.

      The other important point that I didn’t mention in this sermon is that Matthew explicitly states that the meaning of the sermon was to “stay awake” and that all ten virgins failed this. Commentary after commentary since Augustine has attempted to explain this fact away or ignore it. Some even argue to this day that Matthew must have been wrong when he wrote it (there is not one commentary I’ve ever found that argues that Matthew was right). My interpretation starts from the perspective that Matthew “is” right and that if he is right, what does that mean for the five φρόνιμος virgins if they are also in the wrong?

      Hope that helps explain my view a bit better, even if it doesn’t answer every question you might have!

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