Monday, November 6, 2017

Pity the Fools

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 25:1-13, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are always welcomed.  

Just to do a little contextual and literary criticism from the outset: The 25th chapter of Matthew is a continuation of a discourse that began in c.24 with Jesus’ comment that the temple would be destroyed and the disciples asking when such a thing would happen and what would be the sign of Jesus’ coming and the end of the age. One interpretive decision that the reader must make is whether these are two separate questions or whether the destruction of the temple in 70 CE was thought to be the beginning of the return of Christ.

Matthew’s 24th chapter is parallel to Mark’s 13th and Luke 21st chapters and it is always worthwhile to do a side-by-side reading of those three chapters just to see how each of the Synoptics is interpreting its moment. Most critical readers of the NT would agree that Mark’s gospel was written first and probably near the time of the destruction of the temple. If, as many suggest, Matthew and Luke were written a decade or so later, the imminent expectations of Jesus’ return will be undergoing some recalculating. The parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave at the end of Matthew 24 is not in Luke or Mark, so already in the previous chapter we see Matthew’s own interpretive perspective emerging.

Our pericope this week is unique to Matthew, as is the third parable of this chapter, the parable of the sheep and goats. My take on this parable – with relation to its literary context and the historical moment in which it was probably written – is that we see Matthew “doing theology” in light of one of the critical interpretive challenges of his day – the delay of Jesus’ return (the parousia).

Enough. On with the text!

1 Τότε ὁμοιωθήσεται  βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν δέκα παρθένοις, αἵτινες 
λαβοῦσαι τὰς λαμπάδας ἑαυτῶν ἐξῆλθον εἰς ὑπάντησιν τοῦ νυμφίου. 
Then the reign of the heavens will be likened to ten virgins, who having taken their lamps went out to a meeting of the bridegroom.
ὁμοιωθήσεται: FPI 3s, ὁμοιόω, 1) to be made like  2) to liken, compare  2a) illustrate by comparisons
λαβοῦσαι: AAPart npf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
ἐξῆλθον: AAI 3p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
1. In spite of someone along the way making it the beginning of a new chapter, this pericope begins with the word “then.” It is a genuinely temporal word, not a connecting conjunction. What I mean is that it carries more of a “at that time” sense than an “and after that …” sense. As such, it refers to the moment signified in the previous pericope, Matthew 24:45-51, or perhaps going back to v.36.
2. I always wonder about the significance when Jesus-in-Matthew begins a parable with the passive voice, “the reign of the heavens will be likened,” rather than the simply indicative voice. The same passive voice begins the parable of the king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, in 22:1-14. There the verb ὁμοιόωis in the aorist passive form; here it is in the future passive voice. Still, I am convinced that the purpose for the passive form in c.22 was to say that Jesus is not endorsing the parable as an apt way of understanding God’s reign. At least not if the answer is revenge, instead of trusting in the stone that is rejected returning to become the chief cornerstone. Likewise, here, I’m wondering if the passive voice signifies a distance between Jesus-in-Matthew’s view of the reign of God and the view that is often presented of the reign of God. I wonder how many different arguments were in play among Matthew’s community over the delay of the parousia.

2 πέντε δὲ ἐξ αὐτῶν ἦσαν μωραὶ καὶ πέντε φρόνιμοι. 
Yet five of them were morons and five of them wise.
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. So, “morons” may not be the best term in a final translation, but in the literal phase it’s fun to use transliterations.
2. “Phronesis” is a philosophical term that often denotes practical wisdom. It is the adjective used in the parable at the end of c.24 also. There, the “faithful and wise servant” was found hard at work when his master returned, not drunk and abusive toward those whom he was to oversee. In that parable, the alternative to “wise” is much more mean-spirited than simple foolishness or imprudence.

3 αἱ γὰρ μωραὶ λαβοῦσαι τὰς λαμπάδας αὐτῶν οὐκ ἔλαβον μεθ' ἑαυτῶν 
For the morons having taken their lamps did not take oil with them.
λαβοῦσαι: AAPart npf, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
1. In my continual experience of raising four children, none of them would take extra oil without my spouse or me reminding them at the last minute to do so. It is maddening, but more a product of immaturity than ill-will.

4 αἱ δὲ φρόνιμοι ἔλαβον ἔλαιον ἐν τοῖς ἀγγείοις μετὰ τῶν λαμπάδων ἑαυτῶν. 
But the wise took oil in the flasks with their lamps.
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
1. The difference here is that the morons did not and the wise did take extra oil. Extra oil would be a way of staying prepared to respond, even if the bridegroom’s return is delayed. At this point, that’s the difference between the two groups. I make this observation in order to lead to n.1 of the next verse.

5 χρονίζοντος δὲ τοῦ νυμφίου ἐνύσταξαν πᾶσαι καὶ ἐκάθευδον. 
Yet at the delaying of the bridegroom they got drowsy and were falling asleep.
χρονίζοντος: PAPart gsm, χρονίζω, 1) to linger, delay, tarry 
ἐνύσταξαν: AAI 3p, νυστάζω, 1) to nod in sleep, to sleep  1a) to be overcome or oppressed with sleep  1b) to fall asleep, drop off to sleep  2) to be negligent, careless  2a) of a thing i.e. to linger, delay
ἐκάθευδον: IAI 3p, καθεύδω, 1) to fall asleep, drop off to sleep  2) to sleep  2a) to sleep normally  2b) euphemistically, to be dead  2c) metaph.  2c1) to yield to sloth and sin  2c2) to be indifferent to one's salvation 
1. What does not distinguish the morons from the wise is that the morons drifted off to sleep while the wise stood ready. The “they” here seems to indicate all ten of them, getting drowsy and falling asleep because that’s what people do at night after waiting a long time.
2. The fact that both the wise and foolish are sleeping means that this parable – perhaps in its original form – has a different point than the teaching in 24:40-44: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” None of the virgins of this story is awake and watching.

6 μέσης δὲ νυκτὸς κραυγὴ γέγονεν, Ἰδοὺ  νυμφίος, ἐξέρχεσθε εἰς ἀπάντησιν αὐτοῦ. 
Yet in the middle of the night a cry has come, “Behold the bridegroom, go to meet him.”
γέγονεν: PerfAI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
Ἰδοὺ: AMImpv of εἶδον (to see) a particle serving to call attention 
ἐξέρχεσθε : PMImpv 2p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of
1. I continue to see practices around weddings that are completely unfamiliar to me: The virgins are to get prepared by taking a lamp, letting it burn on low until hearing this call, which springs them into action to trim the light and accompany the bridegroom to the wedding feast.

7 τότε ἠγέρθησαν πᾶσαι αἱ παρθένοι ἐκεῖναι καὶ ἐκόσμησαντὰς λαμπάδας 
Then all of those virgins were awakened and prepared their lamps.
ἠγέρθησαν: API 3p, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise 1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake
ἐκόσμησαντὰς: AAI 3p, κοσμέω, 1) to put in order, arrange, make ready, prepare  2) to ornament, adore  3) metaph. to embellish with honor, gain honor 

8 αἱ δὲ μωραὶ ταῖς φρονίμοις εἶπαν, Δότε ἡμῖν ἐκ τοῦ ἐλαίου ὑμῶν, ὅτι αἱ 
λαμπάδες ἡμῶν σβέννυνται. 
Yet the morons said to the wise, “Give us out of your oil, because our lamps are extinguished.”  
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Δότε: AAImpv 2p, δίδωμι, 1) to give
σβέννυνται: PPI 3p, σβέννυμι, 1) to extinguish, quench  1a) of fire or things on fire  1a1) to be quenched, to go out  1b) metaph. to quench, to suppress, stifle 

9 ἀπεκρίθησαν δὲ αἱ φρόνιμοι λέγουσαι, Μήποτε οὐ μὴ ἀρκέσῃ ἡμῖν καὶ 
ὑμῖν: πορεύεσθε μᾶλλον πρὸς τοὺς πωλοῦντας καὶ ἀγοράσατε ἑαυταῖς. 
Yet the wise answered, saying,No, lest there is not enough for us and you; rather, go to those who sell and buy for yourselves.”  
ἀπεκρίθησαν: API 3p, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
λέγουσαι: PAPart npf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἀρκέσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀρκέω, 1) to be possessed of unfailing strength 1a) to be strong, to suffice, to be enough  1a1) to defend, ward off  1b) to be satisfied, to be contented 
πορεύεσθε: PMImpv 2p, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer
πωλοῦντας: PAPart apm, πωλέω,1) to barter, to sell  2) sellers 
ἀγοράσατε: AAImpv 2p, ἀγοράζω, 1) to be in the market place, to attend it
1. Most first graders will wonder why the wise ones do not share and many-a-commentator seems all-too-happy to concoct an answer. Or, we could just take the parable’s terms as they are given. There is nothing here to suggest that the wise are being greedy or unhelpful. Their claim is not disputed at all and their suggestion is, in fact, what the morons do.

10 ἀπερχομένων δὲ αὐτῶν ἀγοράσαι ἦλθεν  νυμφίος, καὶ αἱ ἕτοιμοι 
εἰσῆλθον μετ' αὐτοῦ εἰς τοὺς γάμους, καὶ ἐκλείσθη  θύρα. 
Yet while they were going away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding feast, and the door was closed. 
ἀπερχομένων: PMPart gpf, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart 
ἀγοράσαι: AAInf, ἀγοράζω, 1) to be in the market place, to attend it 
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
εἰσῆλθον: AAI 3p, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter 
ἐκλείσθη: API 3s, κλείω, 1) to shut, shut up  
1. This may or may not be a good place to note that in 24:38 one of the signs of not being ready for the return of Christ is that people are marrying and giving in marriage. This a parable based on a practice that itself was a distraction to being ready.

11 ὕστερον δὲ ἔρχονται καὶ αἱ λοιπαὶ παρθένοι λέγουσαι, Κύριε κύριε, 
ἄνοιξον ἡμῖν. 
Yet later the other virgins also came saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.”
ἔρχονται: PMI 3p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
λέγουσαι: PAPart npf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ἄνοιξον: AAImpv 2s, ἀνοίγω, 1) to open

12  δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ οἶδα ὑμᾶς. 
Yet he having answered said, “Truly I say to you, I have not known you.”
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
οἶδα: PerfAI 1s, εἴδω, The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, εἴδω and ὁράω,of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
1. Matthew 7:21-23 reads, “‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

13  Γρηγορεῖτε οὖν, ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἡμέραν οὐδὲ τὴν ὥραν. 
Therefore, watch because you do not know the day or the hour.
Γρηγορεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, γρηγορέω 1. watch, to keep awake, to watch 
οἴδατε: PerfAI 2p, εἴδω, The tenses coming from εἴδω and retained by usage form two families, εἴδω and ὁράω,of which one signifies to see, the other to know.
1. This conclusion is an echo of 24:36, “‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

I have to say that, for reasons that I have tried to address in my comments along the way, I do not see how this parable holds together with the conclusive “therefore” remark in v.13. None of them watched. All of them were awakened by the crier. The difference between those who entered and those who did not was due to being ready and being prepared adequately. It was not due to some of them watching and others not watching. And foolishness is different from viciousness, such as the abusive slave in the preceding parable.

It also seems to me that this parable and the conclusion are more about a Matthean concern than Jesus’ concern. (It is a concern that Matthew shares with Mark and Luke and Paul, but this parable is only in Matthew.) My sense is that this parable is an amalgam of themes from the parables in c.24, which are brought together – not terribly neatly, IMHO – to address a specific nuance of the delay of the parousia that faced Matthew’s community.

I also have to say that this Bridegroom simply cannot be an image of God. God the lurker; God the waiter-until-some-people’s-oil-is-spent; God the “gotcha! master”; God the forgetful – these are such unworthy ways of imagining God. I beg people to remember that despite all of the “watch” and “wait” language of Matthew cc.24-25, the larger corpus ends with another uniquely matthean parable of the sheep and goats. The point there is that watching and waiting is not a conscious activity, but an activity of serving others in which one does not even realize that they are, in fact, serving Christ in the mean time. That last parable changes everything.

One possible specific matter that Matthew may be addressing is suggested by Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt: “The dynamic underlying the Ten Virgins parable is not external persecution, and its polemic does not seem directed at outsiders who are persecuting the virgins or the community. It is a story about women who failed the community itself, according to the perspective of the narrator.” That synopsis seems fairly abrupt, so I recommend attention to Rosenblatt’s entire article. (“Got into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Feminist Companion to Matthew, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, p.183).

I do like the reminder from Robert Capon that the ultimate point here is that a party is happening: "Watch therefore," Jesus says at the end of the parable, "for you know neither the day nor the hour." When all is said and done—when we have scared ourselves silly with the now-or-never urgency of faith and the once-and-always finality of judgment—we need to take a deep breath and let it out with a laugh. Because what we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun (“The End of the Storm,” in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002] p.501).


  1. As usual, thanks for your comments and observations.

    I'm also struck by the language of death/resurrection in the parable. Delay/absence a la Jesus and Laz, sleep, the call/cry, the girls are raised (passive), they are invited to go out for the meeting/arrival, and they go 'with' the Groom.

    It's a typical Matthean parable: various responses, but a sorting out in the end. Are the moros those who go off looking for something else instead of waiting? Do the goodies in the community encourage the morons to go off because they are not as good as us in the watching game? Does the story, as story, in fact get more and more ludicrous? And does that also include the shut door? I too think the Judgment Parable later is a useful key to this one. All intriguing really.

    1. Hi Rick,
      I've not thought about death/resurrection with this parable before. Hmm...
      Thanks for the note,

    2. See Douglas Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, for a corrective to the death/resurrection interpretation.

  2. I've run across some commentaries that want to make the oil in this parable symbolic of the Holy Spirit, and then run with it. Matthew uses the word ἔλαιον three times in this parable, and nowhere else.

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  4. I'm beginning to think that there is one simple point to the parable (obviously, v13) and to focus on allegorical interpretations of details such as the oil is to run the risk of missing that one, crucial, point. The story itself has no other function than to shock the audience. Almost nothing in the story is what would 'actually happen'. That's what people (us too?) also think about the coming/arrival ('return' is a misleading term). It's no more likely to happen than a groom rocking up in the middle of the night, bridesmaids running out of or not sharing oil, the 'Lord' of the wedding shutting the door etc. Well, says, Jesus, you're in for a shock. The Son of Man will arrive, there will be a separation/judgment,so be prepared by being faithful, bearing fruit, feeding the hungry etc. The Groom is already here but we don't recognise him in the hungry, thirsty et al. Don't lose sleep over it but be watchful for him.

    Probably, that's my preaching line for Sunday!

  5. I’m wondering if this is a story about intimacy and commitment. Someone once said, “Intimacy without commitment is cheep grace.” Perhaps the wise want the intimacy that comes from being a part of the wedding party; therefore, they come prepared. The unwise desire the intimacy but do not prepare and therefore are not fully committed. The kingdom of heaven will grant us intimacy when we are fully committed to Christ’s mission within it.

  6. I preached about how this is really a parable about what the kingdom of God is not like. It looks more like the kingdom of privilege where serving women can be asked to work impossible hours and still be bright and alert for whenever they are needed. It is about how the need to please can divide rather than unite. Whereas the kingdom of God is already here and still (be)coming and Jesus is present whenever we gather in peace and love. Thanks for giving me a new insight into this problematic passage/


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