The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1–13)
From Celebrations, November 2002: “This parable is clear and simple. The time for choosing Jesus is now; therefore, the time for preparedness is now; the time for ‘packing’ whatever faith, grace, repentance, conversion of heart, good works, and loving responsiveness to God . . . is now. This parable is “not about mercy but about being decisive and prepared. God’s gift is offered, but we must take hold of it, do something with it. Even the message of unconditional love does not override our free choice to ignore God’s intentions for us. Real foolishness is possible . . .” This is not a parable about caring and sharing. It’s a parable about responsibility; about doing our job of being a Christian . . . no one else can do our job for us.
What does the ‘oil” represent? William Barclay says that “the oil signifies
1) a relationship with God; a person cannot borrow such a relationship, he/she must cultivate it himself/herself;
2) character, a person cannot borrow character . . .
3) Others simply say that the oil represents the wisdom and preparedness necessary for recognizing and welcoming the coming Christ . . .” We must be ready “to love the ways and will of God,” (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol II, 320, and Celebration, Nov. 2005)
From Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew:
This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel although there are ‘hints’ of it in Luke 13:25. It certainly reflects the community’s struggle over Jesus’ delay in not returning in ‘glory’. Matthew does not want the delay to be the cause of the people not truly living their faith in the here and now. “When Jesus calls on his disciples to keep watch, he is calling on them to take the reality of God so seriously that they can come to terms with its sudden appearance at any moment in their own lives . . . (467).”
Some points made by Pheme Perkins in Hearing the Parables of Jesus (104-110):
- It may be tempting to separate ourselves into the wise and the foolish. Note that the wise don’t resolve the situation or make a big effort to fix it. The foolish are simply caught in their habitual type of behavior.
- The foolish servants do not have any idea of what their real situation is. They persist in showing their attempts to bail themselves out at the last minute. Those attempts fail because it really is the last minute. (And see how Jesus uses humor to portray the wrong way to go about things as opposed to “wailing and gnashing of teeth”.)
- The foolish are excluded due to their own decisions and actions. They fall back on their old patterns. They might have done better to wait outside until morning rather than call attention to themselves by their banging on the door. Reflect on this situation: What if they didn’t go get the oil and waited without lit lamps? Would they have gone to the feast despite their “darkness”? Perhaps Jesus is calling us to be ready for relationship, not necessarily for perfection.
- We all know good, responsible employees who seem to waste vast amounts of emotional energy lamenting the behavior of others who are not performing their job as they should. The parable does not suggest that we should always bail such people out. It suggests that maybe we should voice ways to them of shouldering their own responsibility.
The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1 – 16)
This parable (again, unique to Matthew) is another illustration of the surprising and unsurpassing goodness of God and His kingdom. It was probably quite a challenge to Matthew’s community, whom no doubt struggled to understand the place of Gentiles in their community – and God’s kingdom. This was a highly Jewish group of people who were being stretched to accept and welcome ‘the late-comers’, the Gentiles. The ‘same wage’ is extended to all. Of course, it is not about wages at all, but about salvation. No one can get ‘more salvation’ than another. Can there really be ‘higher places’ in heaven, if it is really heaven (There are many dwelling places…)? All who work in God’s vineyard, God’s kingdom, get the same wage: fullness of life with God for all eternity – incredible generosity = truly Good News! (“Working with the Word”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
In Jesus’ culture, workers had to be invited to work; they could not apply or go looking for work. That was seen as dishonorable since you might be taking what belongs to someone else. To have a ‘patron’ was a particularly great blessing. A patron is someone who freely chooses to treat other people (always of a lower class) ‘as if’ they were family members. This is how God acts in this parable.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
It is important also to notice that the owner calls the ‘complaining worker’ at the end a friend, even though the worker never even addressed the owner with a customary title of respect. Discipleship is serious business; we need God’s insight and grace. Justice is only possible through love. This parable is a clear call to conversion for all of us. There is only one God, and we are not it! There is a place for us in God’s kingdom, but it is not on God’s throne! Our conversion is about seeing anew, considering a new world view. God is kind and faithful, but also surprising. We must stay alert and in relationship with our loving Lord if we do not want to miss what God is doing. Prayer and Scripture are ways for us to do just that. (Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 516-519)
Some questions to reflect upon…
What would be a modern example of the Ten Virgins? The Laborers? Why do you think Matthew’s community is so concerned about being prepared? Both parables seem to play at odds with one another…what are the underlying truths?