Sunday sermon 15 March 2015 – the wise and foolish maidens

Reading: Matthew 25:1-15


Weddings have various cultural peculiarities and traditions. Luckily you don’t have to do them all if you don’t want to – the legal side of getting married is less complicated than the complexities of “what has always been right”. One thing that is unusual in weddings – certainly the ones I have attended – is for the groom to be late. It’s only happened once to me as a marriage officer. The poor bride was left driving around in a car for 40 minutes. One can only imagine the conversation later that day.


The process was very different in bible times. In this incident they are nearing the end of that process. And a torchlight procession late at night was not unusual. In this parable there are ten bridesmaids on duty, as it were. The word translated as “bridesmaids” by some translations really means “virgins” or “maidens”. Either way, they had to go out in the dark with their torches lit – at the right time!

Jesus gets straight into it as he talks about the future and the Kingdom. Listen again:  Mat 25:1  “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Mat 25:2  Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

If the foolish ones had been smart, while their more organised sisters were sleeping, they could have gone off to get oil. They managed later. Cleary this was available at the equivalent of the Four Square late night superette.

Like any group (or church) you get both kinds – wise and foolish. What’s also interesting is that the wise ones don’t lend to the foolish ones. Those torches only burned, we are told, for about 15 minutes. They knew what their responsibilities were and stuck to the task.

Of course we tend to fall back on the well-known song when we read this parable. You may know – “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning to the bread of day” – with all its verses! (Joy, love, peace in my heart, petrol for my Ford, wax on my board – keep me surfing to the break of day!). We tend to link the oil with strength to cope, or the power of the holy spirit.

The more central issue is being watchful and prepared. And the consequences of not being ready (being unwise therefore) are quite serious. Verse 10 begins to sound disturbing really. “And the door was shut”. Here’s the whole verse: Mat 25:10  “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

The unprepared girls are locked out later – when they show up “organised” with their oil supply renewed. Jesus is quite matter of fact as he continues: Mat 25:11  “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ Mat 25:12  “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

We tend to allegorise these stories. I found one sermon by the famous JC Ryle which was 36 pages long! Okay it was large print, but you can make a lot of these parables. If we do – then we have to talk about the oil. What does this mean for us? If it’s about salvation, you’ve got to get your own.

The more interesting question is this: how should we be wise rather than foolish as we await God’s coming into our lives and world today? And the last verse is the key point: Mat 25:13  “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” 

Of course no one knows it. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36   “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And for a long time people have been waiting and hoping.


One writer has suggested that waiting involves faithful living and living faith. The whole of Matthew spells out the kind of people we should be – going back to our previous salt and light sermon, through the Sermon on the Mount, and the other parables in part of the gospel – following Jesus requires faithful living and a living faith.

Another commentator writes this: The parable invites us to live our lives in celebratory anticipation, not sleepy apathy. It encourages us to stock up on lamp oil, despite the darkness of the night and the seemingly endless delay of the guest of honour. The parable dares us to be awake, vigilant, and, most importantly, hopeful.

Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 8932-8934). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Perhaps you would like to consider these thoughts as well through the week ahead:

  • It’s not about getting tired – they all fell asleep (like the disciples in Gethsemane). We all run out of steam at some point and need oil in our lamps in that sense!
  • Think about being wise or foolish What is wisdom for us in our generation? Is this alertness and preparedness also about having an eye for the Kingdom? This is a Kingdom parable. Is it about focusing on what really matters?
  • Is the ending harsh? The door is shut on them – He does not know them. You may remember this verse in Matthew as well:  Mat 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Mat 7:22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Mat 7:23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Is their fate harsh in this parable? Or is this another serious warning – for the people of the day and for us too?

Tom Wright’s comments are worth closing with today. It’s hard to say this any better:

“There is one other aspect to this particular story which has roots deep in the Jewish context and has given rise to a tradition of hymn-writing about the coming of the bridegroom. Already in Matthew’s gospel Jesus has referred to himself as the bridegroom (Matthew 9.15). In a previous parable Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being like a king making a marriage feast for his son (Matthew 22.2). Mention of a bridegroom hints again at Jesus’ messiahship, which was of course a central issue in the previous chapters, ever since Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.

This highlights the fact that the parable isn’t just about the very end of time, the great and terrible day for which the world and the church still wait. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was coming as Messiah to his people, Israel. They were the ones invited to the wedding feast. They, in this story, are divided between the wise, who know Jesus and make sure they keep alert for his ‘coming’, and the foolish, to whom at the end Jesus will say ‘I don’t know you’ (verse 12, echoing 7.23). Just as the Sermon on the Mount summarizes, not Jesus’ teaching to the subsequent church, but Jesus’ challenge to the Israel of his own day, so these parables, towards the close of the final great discourse in Matthew’s gospel, should probably be read in the same way, at least in their most basic meaning.

It is tempting to move away from this conclusion, because saying that parts of Jesus’ teaching related particularly to a unique situation in his own time might make it look as though they are irrelevant for every other time. But that’s not so. It is because what Jesus did was unique and decisive, changing for ever the way the world is and how God relates to it, that we have entered a new era in which his sovereign rule is to be brought to bear on the world. And in this new era, no less than in the unique time of Jesus and his first followers, we need as much as ever the warning that it’s easy to go slack on the job, to stop paying attention to God’s work and its demands, to be unprepared when the moment suddenly arrives.”

 Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 134-135). SPCK. Kindle Edition.


About robinpalmer

I am a Presbyterian Pastor living and working in Browns Bay on the North Shore of Auckland in New Zealand. We moved here at the end of March 2011 after spending five years in Wellington the capital city. I am passionate about what I do - about communicating and writing. I also enjoy my counselling work, especially with young people.

Posted on March 15, 2015, in Sunday Morning Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Reblogged this on Robin Palmer's space and commented:

    A series from at the beginning of 2015.

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