Verses 1-13: The Parable of the Ten Virgins
How does the parable relate to that given in Matthew 24:45-51?
We know little about marriage ceremonies in Palestine during Jesus’ day. Indeed, we can assume that the customs varied from one place to another in Palestine, making it even more difficult to recover them. Most of what we say about such things is really a description of customs 200 years or more later. Perhaps those later customs reflect what happened in Jesus’ day, but we cannot know that they did, and the tremendous social upheaval resulting from the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. may well have interrupted the continuity of traditions.
Nevertheless, we can infer some things from this parable itself: Wedding feasts seem to have been held at night, otherwise there would be no reason for the bridal attendants to bring their lamps or torches. (Ulrich Luz makes good case that these were torches rather than oil lamps: Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary on Matthew 21-28 228-29). It seems that the bride’s attendants went out to escort the groom to the wedding feast, presumably held at the bride’s house. It may be that the groom did not arrive at a particular time, but the tarrying of the groom in this parable might be for the story rather than because it was a custom.
How do the scriptures use the symbols “bride” and “groom” in other places? (See, for example, Matthew 9:15 and 22:2-14, as well as John 3:29. For another example, see the first several chapters of Hosea.) What do they stand for? Given that symbolism, who might the ten virgins, the bridal attendants, stand for?
Do the lamps and oil represent anything in particular? If so, what? Does John 11:10 suggest a possible meaning of the lamps and oil?
Does the parable criticize those who slept while they waited? Is their sleep symbolic? Whom does the parable criticize and for what?
Why do the wise virgins refuse to share their oil with the foolish ones (verse 9 )?
Why might it be such a big deal that the door is shut (verse 11)? Do you think it would have been normal to lock the door at a village wedding feast? If so, why? Might there be a practical reason that guests could not expect to be admitted after the door was shut and barred? If not, what does Jesus perhaps signify by introducing something that is not part of what his hearers would expect?
Why would this parable have been particularly important to the disciples at this point in Jesus’ life?
What would verse 13 have meant to them? What does it mean to us?
Two ancient interpretations of the parable:
1. Tertullian: foolish women, five bodily senses; wise women: understanding, knowledge, obedience, endurance, and mercy.
2. Origen: wise women, those who keep themselves from evil and can see divine reality; foolish women, the unenlightened; bridegroom, the Word, the Son of God who restores to the senses their “virginity.”
Verses 14-30: The Parable of the Talents
As you can well imagine, this parable has had numerous, very different interpretations for as long as people have been reading the New Testament. Are the talents the word of God, given to the servants to spread to others? Does the servant who buries his talent represent someone who is so fearful that what he does will turn out badly that he does nothing? Do the servants stand for the authorities of the Church and the talents the members given over to them for their care and nurture? Or do the talents perhaps represent levels of spiritual understanding? Or does the parable picture the members of the Church in their relations with the world? There are many ways to read the parable. Do any of these strike you as interesting or helpful? Can you think of others?
A talent is a weight, supposedly the weight you could expect a laborer to carry. It represented a large sum of money, about 90 pounds of silver, and since silver was relatively more scarce in biblical times than our own, it was probably also more valuable. In the Word Biblical Commentary (33b:734), Hagner says that a talent was worth about 6,000 days work for a common laborer! If the Hagner is right, that is easily $10,000,000 in today’s terms.
To understand the story better, remember what it is about: A very wealthy man is taking a long trip. Before he leaves, he takes his property and divides it among each of three stewards (who were his slaves), commanding them to take care of that property until he returns. Since the property is his to begin with and the servants are his slaves, when he returns everything that he gave them will still be his, as will any profit they have made on his money. (This circumstance, giving money to slave-stewards and expecting them to make a profit, was covered in Roman law.) Given Jewish law, perhaps the profit was not interest, but profit from land or commodity speculation. Only verse 27 mentions interest. However that reference suggests that the fictional lord whom Jesus has in mind is a Gentile, which would make interest a possibility.
What kind of return does each servant but the third get on the money that the Lord gives him? Is the return low, normal, or high? What does each servant receive from his Lord? Why does the Lord take from the slothful servant what he has been given? It seems unfair to take from those who have not and to give to those who already have (verse 29). Is that what is going on? How are we to understand this? What is it that those who receive already have? What is it that the others do not have and is taken away?
To understand the parable better, also think about its context: To whom does Jesus teach this parable? Given that audience and the fact that the parable is sandwiched between two parables about the Second Coming, what would you say is its point? To the disciples as they listened to this parable, what would the talents have represented? If the point of the parable of the 10 virgins is that the disciples must be prepared for the Second Coming, what does this parable teach them about the Second Coming? What does it teach us?
Verses 31-46: The Last Judgment
Is this a parable about the last judgment or is it about the criteria for entering God’s kingdom?
In what sense was the kingdom prepared before the world was founded or created?
What kinds of works does Jesus mention in verses 35-37? Are they obligations or duties?
Why are those speaking in verses 38-39 surprised? How do you account for the fact that they don’t know when they did the things for which they are rewarded? What does that teach us about our motivations for doing good works?
Those who are condemned are equally surprised. Why? What might have given them the confidence that they did minister to the Lord when they should have?
Who are “the least of these” (verse 40 and verse 46) to whom Jesus was referring at the time he gave this parable? (“Least” is a good translation, but “smallest” would also be a good one.) Who might “the least of these” be to us? Is it easy for us to recognize “the least”? Why or why not?
This parable seems to suggest that the only important thing in the gospel is the love of one’s neighbor. How do you square that with the Restoration emphasis on covenants and ordinances—as well as love of the neighbor?
Please comment at Feast upon the Word.