Research Associate Peter King asks whether the Kingdom of God is really like the world of the Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins, which is set in the RCL for Sunday November 12.

I have to admit that the Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins leaves me perplexed. It appears to commend selfish behaviour on our part and to portray a God who seems only too ready to exclude. Is this really the same God who elsewhere calls us to share what we have with those who have none and who goes in search of the lost sheep?  

But what is perhaps most disturbing about the parable is its opening words, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this ‘. Really? As one online commentator puts it:

Truly, I can think of nowhere else in the Bible that we have afforded such selfish behavior such an exalted place. No, they say, we cannot share with you because we might not have enough for ourselves. We’re not sure, but just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have.

* * *

And then, what are we to do with this bridegroom, this apparent Christ-figure who acts so uncharitably, who tells the industrious foolish bridesmaids to go away? Is this the same Jesus, the shepherd who leaves the 99 to search for the lost one, the woman who leaves no stone unturned in search of a lost coin?

If this is what the Kingdom is like, then where does that leave those of us who take seriously the words of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes and, indeed, Jesus’ own life and actions as we read about them in the Gospels?

Charles Ricketts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It takes self-professed atheist Philip Pullman to pose the question head-on as he explains why he rewrote the parable in his novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ  (Canongate, 2017):

‘I changed the account of the five foolish virgins simply because I cannot believe that the Jesus who on one occasion taught selflessness and not concerning yourself with tomorrow, could on another occasion praise these rather mean and greedy little virgins who didn’t give their oil to anybody else; praise them for looking ahead and being so prudent. That’s a Thatcherite vision that the first Jesus would have condemned utterly. I can’t believe they both came from the same mouth. So, I’ve changed the story of the girls with the oil to make it rather closer to what I believe Jesus would have said.’

Elsewhere, another commentator recalls a performance of the parable as a musical play where ‘all the ten women entered the stage as friends’ and the wise virgins ‘had gloomy faces towards the end when they [the foolish] did not make it to the banquet.’ He concludes with the suggestion that in different hands the parable might read very differently:

This enactment suggests that, if it were women recording their own stories, representing their own experience and narrating it in their own language, the parable may have had a totally different meaning to it.

For many readers the parable presents a vision of God’s realm which seems strangely out of step with what Jesus teaches about it elsewhere, and therein lies the problem as we seek to address this text in our Sunday sermon. Posing its own unique problems, November 12 is Remembrance Sunday in the UK, and so many preachers may turn elsewhere for their text, but for those who stick with it, and struggle with it, what then can we say?

The Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins is found only in Matthew’s gospel, and in the context of an ongoing concern with preparedness, running from the beginning of Matthew 24, becoming more focused from verse 36, and culminating in the Parable of the Talents, which follows on immediately after our parable, and then finally the Sheep and the Goats. Commentators tend to identify the bridegroom with Jesus, and the bridesmaids / virgins with the church. The parable is usually interpreted as being a warning to be prepared for the second coming of Christ. 

But what are we to make of the way in which it communicates this warning? Is the medium actually eclipsing the message, and if so, does it matter ?  

N.T. scholar Barbara Reid reminds us that we are dealing with metaphors here, and that there ‘is always an “is” and an “is not” to metaphors’ such that

One could say that the violent language and imagery in the Matthean parables are not literal descriptions of divine eschatological violence but metaphors that make vivid the extreme seriousness of the choice to imitate God’s graciousness or not. As Matthew attempted to depict how awful it would be at the end-time for those who are unrepentant evildoers, he employs familiar imagery from the biblical tradition. The burning of the city in Matt 22:7, for example, recalls the images of fire and judgment used by the prophets Amos (1:4, 10), Ezekiel (38:22; 39:6), and Malachi (4:2).

Barbara Reid, ‘Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Nonviolence’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66: 2 (April 2004), p.  254

So what the parable is saying to us is that the stakes are high and it is important that we stay alert. That is the take-home message and the rest is merely a story told to get us to this point, drawing on images which would have been powerfully familiar to the parable’s original audience. 

Anonymous Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On this basis, it may be that we can choose to focus our preaching more on the message than the medium, setting out the importance of living each day conscious that we are accountable to God and responsible to others for our actions. We are all familiar with the ways in which quite dramatic and brutal stories (such as Fairy Tales) can be used to put across a message, and this is just another example. Once we have extracted the message we can discard the story and focus on what it is saying to us.  Yet, we are still left with the opening words, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this …’

I am not sure that I have an answer to this quandary, but I do believe that we should be honest about our questions, and encourage others to be so too. So here are a couple of suggestions for how we might approach the parable in our preaching if we too are bothered by these opening words:

Focusing on the story itself, one way in which we might engage with the text for a congregation is to ask whether the story offers for them a glimpse of the Kingdom and, if not, what would have to happen in the story for it to do so. In this way we can encourage our hearers to imagine what it might mean to be followers of Jesus in the situation described by the parable.

By contrast, focusing on the message, another way in to the text with a congregation might be to ask how we could retell the story with the same message, being alert and ready, but more in keeping with what we believe about  the Gospel. What would be different about the story retold in this way? How would the actions of the wise virgins and the bridegroom differ from how they are presented in the parable?

I’m sure there are other ways to approach and to engage with the parable, and I look forward to reading your ideas in the comments below. In the meantime, elsewhere on the CSBV website you can read my group study guide to the parable, which explores these questions in more depth.  

In the end, although we might not satisfactorily resolve our questions about the parable, it raises for us all a wider question about the medium and the message.  Are the ways in which we share the Good News, in word, in song, in action, in who we are and what we do as individuals and as a community, consistent with the Good News itself? Or does the medium sometimes contradict the message?

Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.  Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.

The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this?

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