The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 is a remarkable literary construction, resonant with echoes and intertextual allusions in both directions of the Gospel’s narrative. A fairly straightforward exhortation to watchfulness, the parable functions in its context to emphasize through story what Jesus has just previously been communicating by direct address, namely, that the community of discipleship must be ready and alert for his (perhaps delayed, yet no less imminent) great and terrible coming. After offering my own reading of the passage, I will turn to a scholarly article to see what another pair of interpretive eyes discovers in it.
First, the wider literary context. Matthew 21:1-11 marks the decisive entry of Jesus the (potential) messianic figure and (perhaps) heir of David into Jerusalem, climaxing immediately in his cleansing of the temple (vv. 1-17) and cursing of the fig tree (vv. 18-22). From then on come the focused time of challenges brought to Jesus the (would-be) teacher of Torah, and he responds in pithy trap-escapes and subversive parables (21:23–22:46). Chapter 23 contains Jesus’ brutal polemical takedown of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees—in a real sense, the climax of Matthew’s own sustained polemic throughout the Gospel—which then leads directly into Matthew’s version of the “Synoptic Apocalypse” (24:1-51) and Jesus’ subsequent eschatological parables (25:1-46). What follows is the beginning of the end: Jesus’ final prediction of his crucifixion (26:1-2), the simultaneous finalization of the plot to kill him (vv. 3-5), the anointing for his burial at Bethany (vv. 6-13), and Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16). The cross which has loomed for so long over Jesus’ path finally comes into view.
Note especially the difference of audience between the polemic against hypocrisy and the eschatological discourse: in the former, Jesus is speaking “to the crowds and to his disciples” (23:1), whereas in the latter Matthew specifies that “the disciples came to him privately” with questions about the time and “sign of [his] coming and of the end of the age” (24:3). In short, all that Jesus has to reveal about the details of his Parousia and the Eschaton is strictly insider knowledge, shared with and for the disciples and no others.
The parable itself is fairly transparent. The disciples—and therefore the community of discipleship after them that is Matthew’s audience—are to be like those wise virgins who, dutifully and expectantly awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, prepared sufficiently for a delay in his arrival, such that when he tarried they had enough oil to keep their lamps burning. Unlike the virgins who had to go buy oil, they did not miss the bridegroom but went with him into the wedding banquet, whose door is thereafter closed to the foolishly unprepared virgins. As Jesus sums it up: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).
The parable is, first of all, positively bathed in sapiential language and themes. Apart from clear allusions to Israel’s canonical wisdom literature (note the similarities between 25:8, “The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out,’” and Prov. 13:9, “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out,” as well as Job 18:5, “Surely the light of the wicked is put out, and the flame of their fire does not shine”), the passage serves also as a kind of final gathering place of the various wisdom sayings and gestures throughout the Gospel. In 11:19, Jesus rebuts the accusations against him as being demon-possessed or a drunkard by saying that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” and goes on just a chapter later to claim that “the wisdom of Solomon” drew foreign royalty to come see him, “and see, something greater than Solomon is here!” (12:42). Moreover, in his visit to Nazareth he is recognized—albeit with resentment—by his “wisdom and . . . deeds of power” (13:54).
Jesus had much also to say about wisdom (and foolishness) in relation to his disciples. The programmatic set-up for the Gospel as a whole is found in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus pronounces whoever “hears these words of mine and acts on them” to be “like a wise man” (7:24), whereas whoever “hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man” (v. 26). Furthermore, in his sending of the Twelve, Jesus calls on his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). Fittingly, Jesus reserves the bitter (and forbidden!—cf. 5:22) title of “fool” (moroi) for the scribes and Pharisees (23:17).
Two suggestive word plays are worth noting. Early in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples “the salt of the earth,” but laments the loss of its taste. The word Matthew uses (moranthe), however, can also mean to become foolish or a fool, so that we might be led to hear from Jesus that for the salt of the earth to lose its taste translates as the disciples losing their wisdom and becoming foolish. But just what marks the wise (phronimos) character of Jesus and his gospel, after all? It is nothing less than the cross, as Paul discerned, unlike Peter—whose rebuke of Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering death is, according to Jesus’ response, the result of Peter “setting [his] mind [phroneis] not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).
In any case, like so many of the crucial gravitational passages that mark the high points of Matthew’s narrative, the parable of the ten virgins serves both to elucidate its immediate context and to encapsulate the paradigmatic vision of the kingdom as set forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus, on the one hand, at the conclusion to the parable (25:13) Jesus repeats verbatim his command in 24:42 to “Keep awake therefore” (gregoreite oun), not only recapitulating his message in 24:36-44, but also foreshadowing ominously the disciples’ inability to stay awake and alert in Gethsemane (26:36-46). On the other hand, just as Jesus promises in the Sermon that “for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (7:8), the disciples here have already knocked and so must be not only ready but faithful in “[doing] the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21; cf. 25:14-46). For “[n]ot everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (7:21), foreshadowing the foolish virgins begging, “Lord, Lord, open to us” (25:11). Jesus’ question then stands as a haunting but unmistakable charge: “Who then is the faithful and wise [phronimos] slave, whom his master [kyrios] has put in charge of his household?” (24:45).
In an article written more than three and a half decades ago (“The Allegory of the Ten Virgins [Matt 25:1-13] as a Summary of Matthean Theology,” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 , 415-28), Karl Paul Donfried offers a succinct but masterful reading of this passage. His approach is methodologically precise: following Quentin Quesnell, he takes up the text through five stages: alone unto itself; in its immediate discursive context (chapters 23–25); in the context of the entire Gospel; in the context of the New Testament writings; and in its immediate cultural and religious context (p. 416). In doing so, he offers a vigorous interpretation of the passage, but one no less scholarly for that.
Much of Donfried’s analysis is a simple demonstration of why a “naked” reading (like that offered above), however beneficial, is not always sufficient to the task. His first point is at once the most simple and the most opaque to my original reading: according to Donfried, this pericope is not a parable but an allegory (pp. 418-19). I simply took it at face value that an analogical narrative told by Jesus just is a parable; yet this has been a hot topic for discussion in Matthean scholarship for decades. This fact renders a “straightforward” interpretation highly problematic.
I caught most of the connections between the allegory and its place in the last of Jesus’ five teaching discourses, such as watchfulness, faithfulness, separation, eschatological judgment, and the like (pp. 420-21), and Donfried similarly finds thematic mirroring between this, the last discourse, and the first (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount; pp. 422-23). One seemingly obvious link that I somehow missed which Donfried helpfully notes is what Jesus has to say in 5:14-16 about lighting a lamp and letting it shine before others, defining the light directly as “good works,” thus hinting at this early literary moment what the allegorical “oil” to come is meant to signify.
After demonstrating from elsewhere in Matthew how the bridegroom is definitively identified with Jesus—a point I took for granted—Donfried goes on to make the first of his three most pressing points: that the sleeping and rising of the awaiting maidens is nothing less than “the death and resurrection of the virgins” (p. 425). Taking the allegory seriously, the use of these terms elsewhere in Matthew combined with analysis of his redactional habits leads to no other conclusion. Though Donfried does neglect the connection to the scene of the sleeping disciples in Gethsemane, his reading is enhanced by the next point, taken from comparison with the rest of the New Testament, that “the church is the parthenos which meets her bridegroom at the wedding banquet,” the term on the whole, “just as in Paul, refer[ring] to all Christians in the interval before the marriage which will occur when Christ returns at the parousia” (p. 426).
Finally, the remaining mystery of the allegory of the ten virgins is the intended referent for the mysterious “oil” so central to the brief tale’s plot. Donfried provisionally suggests reading it as the “good works” of the light to be shone before others in 5:16, but waits for confirmation in the form of “external identification . . . which would be congruent . . . with the general religious environment in which Matthew’s Gospel was written,” which indeed is exactly what he finds (p. 427). For “in the Midrash Rabbah to Numbers,” it there “comments that” “the phrase ‘mingled with oil’ in Num 7:19 . . . ‘alludes to the Torah, the study of which must be mingled with good deeds, in accordance with that which we have learned.’” Thus the oil ends up making perfect literary and thematic sense in its use, as the public moral rectitude of the to-be-resurrected church living faithfully as a community of discipleship in the interim between Jesus’ comings.
Donfried happily proves that biblical scholarship need not be stiff or one-note, but can instead be generative, focused, and open-minded while attentive to text and context, interpretation and history. Though his reading does not close off others, much less decide the correct ascription of genre once for all, any Christian reading of this passage -- that is, of the parable/allegory of the ten virgins -- would benefit enormously from his article.