Too Late For The Date
Through the ages of human history the celebration of the love of a man and a woman in a form of marriage has been universal. Even when young people were used as pawns in arranged marriages, even when marriages were judged only by the number of sons born, and even when marriage itself is removed from th e sacred, men and women still hold to the act of marriage itself in some shape or form as something simply not to be missed. The parable Jesus spoke with the background of an imminent wedding party arrival, speaks to every age. This is something not to be missed!
Can't you see it now in our time - the news she has arrived, the congregation is upstanding, the wedding march music is playing, and graciously sweeping down the aisle in all her glorious attire is the bride! The marriage is happening - and we're there witnessing their own unique splendour.
The wedding is one of very few acts that connect us all. An act, though, that will show all the differences of one culture from another. This picture from our Lord needs to be understood in its own environment, too.
The Jewish Marriage
In the time in which Jesus spoke, the typical Jewish marriage was a three-part event, usually spread out over a number of years. Step 1 was a legal engagement contract, usually arranged by the parents and sealed with the payment of the bridal price. Step 2 was the betrothal period, begun by a formal ceremony in which vows were made and gifts exchanged. At this point, the girl could herself withdraw if unhappy with the choice for her bridegroom. The most prominent biblical example is Joseph and Mary. It was during their period of betrothal, while they were in the unique situation of being known as husband and wife and yet not having conjugal rights, a time period of up to a year, that Mary as the virgin became pregnant by the Holy Spirit and Joseph considered divorcing her quietly (Matthew 1:18ff). Because of the vows already taken, this was the way for Joseph to deal with what was considered as adultery (if indeed another man had been involved). Then there was the final stage - Step 3. This consisted of a wedding banquet, held at the end of the betrothal period. This banquet was normally held at the bride's home, and it was only after the wedding banquet that the bride went with her husband to his home, and the union was consummated.
The scene of the parable Jesus tells is this final stage of the marriage festivities. This was was a community celebration which could last as long as a week, and, like wedding ceremonies and breakfasts nowadays, was the highlight of the coming together of a man and woman. It was begun by the arrival of the bridegroom with his groomsmen at the bride's house, after having gone through the streets of the community, announcing to everyone that the wedding feast was about to begin. The bridesmaids would go out and herald his arrival, and then escort his party in. This was distinctly ceremonial, so that everyone was familiar with the pattern.
It took place usually at night and could take some waiting, depending on the distance and otherwise of the groom. It's an interesting contrast to a modern western wedding where the bride invariably has her own `traditional' time of arrival! And so it could become a real waiting game. People usually went about their ordinary work until the distinctively happy sound of the wedding party was heard, as it made its way through the town with its torches which did so much more than light the way. That was what they were waiting for, and they would all share in the joy.
The hour of midnight, however, was more than a little late for the start of any wedding banquet. Arriving this late, while it happened, meant the start would probably be postponed until the next morning.
The Detail is in the Difference
Comparing the picture of the usual Jewish marriage in the time of the 1st Century with what Matthew conveys of Jesus' parable shows up certain differences. For the folk of that time they are things `out of the ordinary.' That's why the Lord puts it that way. These details are meant to stand out.
The first difference is between the ten virgins themselves. These bridesmaids, much as they may have all been so beautifully prepared in dress and certainly be sharing all the excited mannerisms of young women around the wedding of their friend, are distinguished by a quality they have on the inside. “Five of them were foolish and five were wise”, verse 2 says. An inner difference which leads to completely contrasting expectations.
Simply put, the five foolish bridesmaids weren't expecting to wait. That they didn't have any oil with them clearly indicates this. What they had on them they obviously felt would be enough. `No worries!', or `She'll be Right!' could well have been their favourite phrase, because they weren't anticipating any hassles or delay - it was going to naturally fall into place. “It'll be a Dream!” was their theme - why would anything go wrong on this special day?
While it is tempting to draw out a similar meaning as the previous story of Jesus about the faithful and the unfaithful servants - one proving his faith and the other showing otherwise - the Lord is spelling out something in particular about “the kingdom of heaven” which He brings into the Olivet Discourse at this point. This is also a uniquely Matthean parable, not found in Mark, and while Luke covers a similar theme and subject matter related to a wedding banquet in relation to `watchfulness' in chapter 12, he lacks the detail and the correlation with this particular point in the Lord's ministry.
Drawing the Fine Line
Matthew draws us deeper into the covenant community with two parables and a concluding comment which point out that not all in the Church are in Christ. The way that the Ten Virgins begins this final part is clear. Following on from the verses 4 until 35 of chapter 24, spoken about the signs themselves, and then the verses 36 until 51, which speak of no one knowing the specific time and thus the need to be ready, the Lord now brings out what not being ready within His Church involves.
In the light of previously spoken parables about the `The Weeds' and `The Net' in chapter 13, it could be asked why Jesus speaks in such a way now. The Lord, though, is bringing out a most helpful guide for His Church in the period of the last times - the time we're in right now. While still generally spoken of there are yet indicators here - beacons - that can help light up the way for the Church, especially when she can seem in so much darkness.
That is shown by the foolish virgins with no lamps lit to welcome the bridegroom's party. Not only does this mean half the bridal party missing the ceremony, it also means that the final stage was not begun the traditional way, with at least the minimum ten virgins welcoming them in. The Jewish reader was well aware of the value of tradition - Jewish weddings today have continued certain essential elements - and this would be seen as a serious disruption.
Not only could we take the parable as a warning about short-term or superficial faith, but more so as a warning about what will endanger the Church in this waiting period. This is not just a retelling of `The Parable of the Sower', but a clear illustration of those disrupting forces within the Church, initially alluded to in chapter 24:10-13.
Does this parable mean Christ will come later than expected? It has been taken so in a secondary sense, but as the overall sense in the Olivet Discourse is one of the Church being in the last time, this would be incorrect. The Bridegroom is coming, however, and the Church shows the true character of the faith of those truly belonging to her as she stands always ready for Him. She has constantly on her lips the cry of the early New Testament church, “Marantha” - translated, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” (1 Cor.16:22).