As we saw at the start of St Matthew’s gospel
in the case of Mary and Joseph, engagement was
taken very seriously. It was usually arranged
by the elders of the family, and often within
the tribe or family. The parties were usually
young by our standards, perhaps thirteen for the
male and twelve for the female. Betrothal took
place in the home of the father of the bride and
involved a contract and bride-price, but there
could be subsequent haggling also, as might have
delayed this marriage. The marriage ceremony was
the signing of the contract followed by the bringing
of the bride from her father’s house to that of
The bridesmaids’ role was to accompany this journey,
so they perhaps went down the road some distance.
[In the original they are described as ‘maidens’,
not as ‘bridesmaids’]. The lamps would probably
have burnt olive oil. The five are foolish because
they did not consider that the bridegroom might
be delayed. The flasks were jugs with handles.
Trimming the lamp involved removing the burnt
wick, filling with oil and relighting, so that
the lamps would burn more brightly. The wise maidens
are faced with a dilemma: both groups may end
up without enough oil. I do not know you here
means “I will have nothing to do with you (because
you are not ready for the wedding feast)”.
This is a parable about waiting and watching,
so that we should not be distracted from the main
point by devoting too much attention to other
details. For example, it is not about sharing,
so the failure to share the oil is not a factor.
Note also that everybody fell asleep: the parable
is not about going to sleep. That response Stay
awake is better seen as a warning about the passage
of time and the need to be on the watch, to be
Who is the bridegroom? In the Old Testament God
is identified as the husband of Israel [Isaiah
52,5; Jeremiah 31,32; Hosea 2,16]. In the New
Testament Christ is the bridegroom: “Can the wedding
guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with
them?” [Matthew 9,15]. What applied to God in
the Old Testament applies to Jesus in the New.
In the background is the notion of the Messianic
Banquet at the end of time.
• Time is passing. Would I rather not think
about it since I cannot control it? If it is
time given to prepare for the coming of the
Lord, is it not an opportunity rather than a
source of anxiety?
• “Did we not prophesy in your name, cast out
demons in your name, do many deeds of power
in your name? Then I will declare to them: I
never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers”.
[Matt 7,23] “Only the one who does the will
of my Father will enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Does the parable of the bridesmaids suggest
that the Lord will not recognise me if I am
not a source of light, by loving God and neighbour?
• “Wisdom walks about looking for those who
are worthy of her . . . in every thought of
theirs coming to meet them”, the first reading
reminds us. The wisdom of God is within my reach.
Watching and staying awake is not just a problem
for the end of time and for judgment, of fear
lest ‘I fall into the hands of the living God’
[Hebrews 10,31], but being alert and awake enough
to meet the One who is searching for me. Today.