At the first wedding I ever performed, I forgot to say, “You may kiss the bride.” Talk about the unpardonable sin! A near rebellion broke out in the congregation, so the deed did get done, but no thanks to me.
There are certain things that must happen at weddings — traditions so sacrosanct, or at least “culture-sanct” that everyone knows them whether they’ve seen a wedding in person or not. And because every culture is unique, it is often interesting to research biblical wedding traditions to enrich our understanding of texts like the wedding at Cana (John 2). But is it necessary in all cases?
Take the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) for example. Will Jesus’ point remain unclear unless some scholar acquaints us with the ceremonial traditions of His day? In this case, no. Understanding Jewish wedding traditions, while adding color to the drama, turns our attention inward on the story’s details rather than outward toward the surrounding context where its ultimate meaning and application are found.
Let me explain by revealing one common mistake we make when approaching Jesus’ parables. Then we’ll look at one helpful tip for more fruitful Bible study.
A Common Mistake
Most parables should not be treated as allegories in which each element represents something else. There are exceptions such as the Parable of the Good Soil about which Jesus Himself tells the disciples what the elements, such as the seed, the stony path and the thorns, represent. However, the best way to view most parables is to look at the whole picture they paint. When a parable begins, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” everything that follows — the entire scene, not any one particular element — portrays something about the nature of the kingdom.
So rather than trying to figure out what the oil symbolizes in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, or whom the two groups of five virgins represent, we should step back and look at the big picture. Here’s what we see: of the ten virgins in the story, one group of five remained in a state of readiness and the other group of five did not. Period. It may be interesting to have a Bible scholar color in the story with wedding traditions regarding the lamps, the oil, the waiting for the bridegroom, but you don’t have to know those things to get the point: living in a state of readiness — especially over the long haul — is crucial.
The rest of the parable with its troubling conclusion — the five unprepared virgins miss out on the wedding celebration — simply provides dramatic urgency to the importance of readiness.
Now, having identified the sobering point of the parable, it’s time to ask the question: What is the nature of this state of readiness?
A Helpful Tip
This leads to the helpful Bible study tip: Pretend there are no verse and chapter markers in the Bible when you’re studying a passage. The Parable of the Ten Virgins provides a good example of the importance of following this practice. Notice that it comes at the beginning of a new chapter. That’s often a problem. It’s almost impossible for your mind not to think that a new chapter signals a break in the action and a new thought has begun. That is sometimes true, but often it is not.
Again, the Parable of the Ten Virgins is a prime example. When you erase the chapter division and go backward into the previous chapter or two, you will quickly see an overarching theme: A time is coming, sometimes referred to as “the day of the Lord” when everything wrong is made right, when the tables are turned on the unjust, and when the self-righteous will be dismayed to discover the evil vanity of their religious pride and posturing. The warning is severe. Beware. Keep watch.
However, in those preceding chapters, especially Chapter 24, a paradox drives a sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the day of the Lord. We are urged repeatedly to watch carefully for signs that the day is coming, but the specific time is unknown and will occur when you don’t expect. The chapter ends with advice to be “faithful and wise servants” (v.45 CEV) and a horrifying picture of what happens to those who neglected their master’s wishes and were caught off guard by his return:
“The master … will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:50-51).
Immediately after, Jesus tells the parable about two groups of virgins who found themselves waiting much longer than expected, five of whom were prepared for a long wait and five who weren’t. It’s clear that the parable follows seamlessly from Chapter 24, as it makes the same point and shares a similar horrifying conclusion: Those who neglected to do what they should have done are rejected.
Then the very next verse begins with the word “again” signaling a continuation of the flow of thought. Because there is no break, we should let what comes in the rest of the chapter illuminate what “readiness” means. Both the Parable of the Talents (25:14–30) and the Sheep and Goats (25:31–46) that follow return to Chapter 24’s concluding idea of performing works that advance the master’s concerns. Jesus has created bookends around the Ten Virgins’ theme of readiness. As if sharpening the point beyond any doubt, Jesus brings it all down to the issue of who does or does not offer meaningful help to the hungry and thirsty or unclothed, the stranger and prisoner, or the sick. That’s the master’s business.
If we focus our attention on the parable’s internal symbolism of wedding traditions involving oil, lamps and virgins to find the meaning, we’re likely to fall into the trap of looking forward to end-times speculation. But when we look at the surrounding context, our attention is drawn, not upward toward future Christ events, but downward toward present compassion emergencies. And that’s the ultimate paradox: You’ll be most prepared for the day of the Lord by keeping the oil of mercy and grace flowing in these days of the Lost.
Doug Newton is the co-director of the National Prayer Ministry of the Free Methodist Church – USA and the author of 12 books. He served for 30 years as a senior pastor and for 15 years as the senior editor of this magazine. Visit dougnewton.com to read more from him and to order his books.