A first-century Jewish wedding began after nightfall. The bridesmaids, after spending time with the bride, would go out to meet the bridegroom. Since it was dark, they would carry an oil lamp or a torch made of oil-soaked rags. They then escorted the bridegroom to the bride. The party then made its way through the village, usually taking a long and meandering route in order to share their joy with as many of the townspeople as possible. They eventually went to the bridegroom’s home, where a great banquet awaited.
The parable of the 10 virgins takes place within this festive and joyful context, yet the final message is a sober exhortation to be properly prepared. The virgins are apparently the bridesmaids who were to escort the bridegroom to his home and the banquet. They awaited the arrival of the bridegroom, but he was “long delayed.”
It is striking that all of the virgins “became drowsy and fell asleep,” but that half of them, upon awaking, needed oil. Those five desperately demanded that the five wise virgins share some of the oil they had brought in case of a delay. However, if the wise virgins shared the oil, the fuel would be quickly consumed and they would risk meeting the bridegroom without the light.
On another level, the refusal of the wise virgins makes even more sense. The 10 virgins are commonly understood to represent disciples of Jesus, the Bridegroom. “These five [plus] five virgins are all Christian souls together,” wrote St. Augustine. The oil signifies good works, an interpretation drawn from the connection made by Jesus between the lamp that shines before men and good works (Mt 5:15-16). Augustine said the oil signifies charity, “the gift of God.” There is no contradiction between the two, because our good works are nothing without love (see 1 Cor 13:1-3). The wise virgins couldn’t give their oil to the foolish virgins because no one can borrow the good works of others to make up for what they’ve failed to do. Each person must, St. Paul wrote, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
Augustine further identified the drowsiness and sleep of the virgins with death. This makes sense because chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel are focused on the last things, including final judgment. In fact, the moment of death is the moment of judgment. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ.” In the words of St. John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (No. 1022).
Because the five wise virgins were perfected in good works and charity, they “were ready” and so “went into the wedding feast with him.” And then the door was locked. The cry of the foolish virgins — “Lord, Lord … !” — brings further into focus the meaning of true discipleship, for it echoes Jesus’ earlier statement from the Sermon on the Mount: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7:21).
In light of this, Jesus said, we must stay awake — that is, be spiritually vigilant and mindful that the Bridegroom will indeed come. For now, we live in a “time of waiting and watching” (Catechism, No. 672).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.