Parable of the Ten Virgins

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The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1822) by William Blake, Tate Gallery.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins, also known as the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is one of the well known parables of Jesus. It appears in only one of the Canonical gospels of the New Testament. According to the Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13, the five virgins who are prepared for the bridegroom's arrival are rewarded, while the five who are not prepared are disowned. The parable has a clear eschatological theme: be prepared for the Day of Judgment.[1]

It was one of the most popular parables in the Middle Ages, with enormous influence on Gothic art, sculpture and the architecture of German and French cathedrals.

Narrative[edit]

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus tells a story about a party of virgins, perhaps bridesmaids[2] or torchbearers for a procession,[3] chosen to participate in a wedding. Each of the ten virgins is carrying a lamp or torch[3] as they await the coming of the bridegroom, which they expect at some time during the night. Five of the virgins are wise and have brought extra oil for their lamps in case they must wait longer than anticipated. Five are foolish and have only brought their lamps.

At midnight, all the virgins hear the call to come out to meet the bridegroom. Realising their lamps have gone out, the foolish virgins ask the wise ones for oil, but they refuse, saying that there will certainly not (Greek ou mē)[4] be enough for them to share. While the foolish virgins are away trying to get more oil, the bridegroom arrives. The wise virgins then accompany him to the celebration. The others arrive too late and are excluded.

"Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, "Most certainly I tell you, I don't know you." Watch therefore, for you don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."

— Matthew 25:1-13, World English Bible

Interpretations[edit]

The parable is one of a sequence of responses to a question in Matthew 24:3:

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

— Matthew 24:3, King James Version

Other parables in this sequence include the parable of the budding fig tree (Matthew 24:32–35) and the parable of the Faithful Servant (Matthew 24:42–51). The parable of the Ten Virgins reinforces the call for readiness in the face of the uncertain time of this second "coming."[2] It has been described as a "watching parable."[5] Like the parable of the Lost Coin, it is a parable about women which immediately follows, and makes the same point as, a preceding parable about men.[6]

This painting by Hieronymus Francken the Younger (c. 1616) gives a moralistic interpretation of the parable.

In this parable, Jesus Christ is the bridegroom,[2][5] echoing the Old Testament image of God as the bridegroom in Jeremiah 2:2 and similar passages.[2] The awaited event is the Second Coming of Christ.[2][5] R. T. France writes that the parable is "a warning addressed specifically to those inside the professing church who are not to assume that their future is unconditionally assured."[2]

The parable does not criticise the virgins for sleeping, since both groups do that,[3] but for being unprepared. It is not clear exactly what form this lack of preparation takes: the foolish virgins may have taken insufficient oil or, if they light their lamps or torches for the first time when the bridegroom arrives (having slept through the previous hours of darkness), they may have brought no oil at all[4] (it is also unclear as to whether the foolish virgins succeed in purchasing any oil that night:[7] most shops would not have been open[8][9]).

The parable is not written in praise of virginity,[5] and indeed Louis of Granada, in his The Sinner's Guide of 1555, writes "No one makes intercession with the Bridegroom for the five foolish virgins who, after despising the pleasures of the flesh and stifling in their hearts the fire of concupiscence, nay, after observing the great counsel of virginity, neglected the precept of humility and became inflated with pride on account of their virginity."[10]

Authenticity[edit]

While "a considerable number of exegetes in fact suppose that the parable of 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins' ultimately goes back to Jesus,"[11] some Bible commentators, because of its eschatological nature, doubt that Jesus ever told this parable and that, instead, it is a parable created by the very early church. A large majority of fellows on the Jesus Seminar, for example, designated the parable as merely similar to something Jesus might have said or simply inauthentic ("gray" or "black").[12] The work of the Jesus Seminar has been criticized, however.[13][14] Other scholars believe that this parable has only been lightly edited, and is an excellent example of Jesus' skill in telling parables.[15] The parable occurs in all ancient New Testament manuscripts, with only slight variations in some words.[16]

Liturgical use[edit]

In the Catholic Church, the parable is the Gospel reading for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle A. The parable is the Gospel reading for the 27th Sunday after Trinity in the traditional Lutheran lectionary. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the parable is read in Proper 27 (32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time).[citation needed]

In the Armenian Orthodox Church the parable is the main theme of Holy Monday. A special Church service enacting the parable of the ten virgins is celebrated on Tuesday evening of the Holy Week.[citation needed]

In the arts[edit]

This parable has been a popular subject for painting, sculpture, music, and drama.

Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1838–1842 (detail), Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main.

Painting[edit]

The parable has been depicted in several paintings, including altarpieces in Northern Europe. A recent example, from 1954, is by Tove Jansson. In the 19th century, the artists of the Nazarene movement also took up this theme.

Sculpture[edit]

Numerous sculptures of the wise and foolish virgins appear on French cathedrals, including:

Three wise virgins appear with Christ on Strasbourg Cathedral.

Depictions of the virgins are equally common on German cathedrals, including:

The virgins are also depicted on cathedrals in Switzerland and other countries.

The ubiquity of such sculptures has inspired fictional descriptions, such as the carvings on the doors of Kingsbridge cathedral in Ken Follett's novel World Without End, set in the Late Middle Ages.

Music[edit]

Several religious musical compositions have been inspired by the parable. Its message was formed into a hymn, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme", by Philipp Nicolai, which Johann Sebastian Bach used for his chorale cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140. The parable forms the theme for several hymns, including the 19th century hymn "Behold the Bridegroom Cometh" by George Frederick Root, which begins:

The five wise virgins together with a personification of the Church (c. 1400), St. Annen Museum, Lübeck

Our lamps are trimmed and burning,
Our robes are white and clean;
We’ve tarried for the Bridegroom,
Oh, may we enter in?

Keep your lamp trimmed and burning is a gospel-blues song based on the parable. It has been recorded by such artists as Blind Willie Johnson, Rev. Pearly Brown, and Rev. Gary Davis (aka Blind Gary Davis).

Non-religious music has also used the parable as a theme, such as the ballet "The wise and the foolish virgins" by Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg (1887–1974), written in 1920.

A reference is made to the parable in the 2002 Johnny Cash song "The Man Comes Around," which draws heavily on the Bible.

On the 1974 album by Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a reference to the parable is made in the song The Carpet Crawlers: "and the wise and foolish virgins giggle with their bodies glowing bright."

American composer Emily Freeman-Brown has also composed an oratorio based on the parable.[citation needed]

Drama[edit]

From early Christian times, the story of the ten virgins has been told as a mystery play. St. Methodius wrote the Banquet of the Ten Virgins,[17] a mystery play in Greek. Sponsus, a mid-11th-century play, was performed in both Latin and Occitan. The German play Ludus de decem virginibus was first performed on 4 May 1321. There was also a Dutch play of the late Middle Ages.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Barton, The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-19-875500-7, p. 878.
  2. ^ a b c d e f R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An introduction and commentary, Eerdmans, 1985, ISBN 0-8028-0063-7, pp. 349-352.
  3. ^ a b c Ben Witherington, Women in the Ministry of Jesus: A study of Jesus' attitudes to women and their roles as reflected in his earthly life, Cambridge University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-521-34781-5, p. 43.
  4. ^ a b John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A commentary on the Greek text, Eerdmans, 2005, ISBN 0-8028-2389-0, pp. 1006–1008.
  5. ^ a b c d Catholic Encyclopedia: PARABLES.
  6. ^ The parable of the Lost Coin follows the parable of the Lost Sheep and this parable follows the parable of the Faithful Servant.
  7. ^ John R. Donahue, Hearing the Word of God: Reflections on the Sunday Readings: Year A, Liturgical Press, 2004, ISBN 0-8146-2785-4, p. 134: "We never know whether they found it, but when they return, the feast has started and the door is barred."
  8. ^ Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, Eerdmans, 2009, ISBN 0-8028-6498-8, p. 597.
  9. ^ J. Dwight Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in life from the Master Teacher, Kregel Publications, 1998, ISBN 0-8254-3458-0, p. 150.
  10. ^ Louis of Granada, The Sinner's Guide, 1555.
  11. ^ Jan Lambrecht, Out of the Treasure: The parables in the Gospel of Matthew, Peeters, 1991, ISBN 90-6831-161-1, p. 204.
  12. ^ Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels. Harper:San Francisco, 1993, p. 254
  13. ^ Birger A. Pearson, The Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar.
  14. ^ N.T. Wright, Five Gospels but No Gospel, originally published in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, ed. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans. Leiden: Brill, 1999, 83–120.
  15. ^ Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus, Eerdmans, 2008, ISBN 0-8028-4241-0, p. 505.
  16. ^ United Bible Societies, The Greek New Testament, 1983, p. 24.
  17. ^ Banquet of the Ten Virgins