Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 25.1-13
Proper 27 - Year A

Other texts:


For the final three Sundays of this church year, the gospel readings come from Matthew 25:

These are the conclusion of Jesus' fifth discourse in Matthew, which some define as 24:1-25:46 and others 23:1-25:46,

Matthew 24:1-36 is a very close parallel to the "Little Apocalypse" in Mark 13:1-32 (par. Lu 21:5-33); but then Matthew greatly expands the conclusion to the speech (24:37-25:46; compare Mk 13:33-37 and Lu 21:34-36). NOTE: The first parable of Matthew's conclusion (24:36-44) is the assigned text for 1 Advent A.

Our lectionary ends the Church Year with texts about the coming of the Son of Man, which leads into the new year's Season of Advent -- the Season of "Coming" -- both coming as the conquering Son of Man at the end of time and coming as the helpless infant in a manger.

Matthew's final discourse from Jesus deals with two major questions: "When will Christ return?" (Answer: no one knows, but there will be signs -- signs, which I believe have always been with us.) And, "What shall we do while we wait?" Matthew's expanded conclusion deals primarily with this second question.


I'm not sure that apocalyptic literature and its eschatological emphasis, speaks directly to people of today. Apocalyptic literature grew up to offer hope to persecuted people. Its basic message is, "You are suffering in this evil world because you are faithful. Be patient. Remain faithful and you will be rewarded at the end." (This is quite a contrast to prophetic literature whose basic message is, "You are suffering because you are sinful. Repent and change your ways and your sufferings will end.") For the most part, 21st century American Christians are not suffering, and when multitudes do suffer, as thousands are because of the devastation from hurricanes, we seldom blame it on our sinfulness or our faithfulness.

I think that the question, "What shall we do while we wait for Jesus to return?" does speak to Christians of today, who have been waiting much longer than Matthew's original hearers.


Literally, our text answers the question, "What shall we do while we wait?" with, "Make sure you have enough oil for your lamps." (This refers to olive oil, not WD40 <g>)

One difficulty is trying to figure out what the oil symbolizes.

Martin Luther thought it represented faith, but can you run out of faith?

Many modern commentators think that it represents good works and there is support for this interpretation.

A verb related to the Greek word for "lamps" is used in Mt 5:15-16 in reference to good works:

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [NRSV]

The verbal form for "foolish" is used in the preceding verse (5:13):

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste [lit. "become foolish"], how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. [NRSV]

The same words for "wise" and "foolish" are used in 7:24-27, where the difference between the two house-builders is whether or not they acted on Jesus' words:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall! [NRSV]

The same word for "wise" is used in 24:45, which implies doing the right thing at the proper time:

Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?

However, if the oil represents "good deeds," it leaves us with some puzzling questions about the parable: Can good deeds run out? Can one run to the store to buy more good deeds?

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes:

What preparation is necessary? What does the lamp oil represent, if anything? While some have attempted specific answers (good deeds, the Holy Spirit), in the absence of any particular indication, it seems that a generic reference to faithful and obedient discipleship as defined by the whole gospel is more convincing. (1) The context supports this. The maidens are to be like the slave (24:45-47) who actively, faithfully, and obediently carries out what he has been instructed to do. (2) The echoes of 7:24-27 (wise, foolish) point to this conclusion also. They are to "hear and do" Jesus words (7:24-27). (3) God's word is described as "a lamp for my feet" in Ps 119:105. [p. 486]

While I agree with Carter that the oil is not "good deeds," I think that it does represent the power that produces good deeds, e.g., the power needed to produce light (which in Mt 5:15-16 are the good deeds); or, in other words, the oil is the Word (or Spirit?) which leads people to either act or not act (as in Mt 7:24-26). Or, to use a slightly different image, there is support in this parable to interpret "oil" to be one's relationship with God, who is the source and power behind our good deeds (or "fruit-bearing" to use a common Matthean image: 3:8, 10; 7:16, 17, 18, 19, 20; 12:33; 13:8, 23, 26; 21:19, 34, 41, 43).

The word translated "bridesmaids" in NRSV is parthenoi, which, as noted in a footnote, can also be translated, "virgins" (as translated in NIV & TNIV). More literally, the word refers to post-pubescent girls who are not yet married. (It would be assumed that such young girls were virgins.)

Paul uses this word symbolically in 2C 11:2 in reference to the Corinthian church:

I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.

I think that Paul explains his meaning of this word in the next verse:

But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. [NOTE: the Greek word translated "pure" {hagnotes} is closely related to the word translated "chaste" {hagnos} in the previous verse.]

Especially in Hosea, but also in other biblical books, the image of a harlot is used to indicate unfaithfulness towards God. A virgin is certainly one way of depicting the opposite of a harlot. Using Paul's image, we might say that virgins are those who have a "sincere and pure devotion to Christ" rather than devoting oneself to other gods. Yet, the "virgins" in our text suggest that something is needed in addition to a "sincere and pure devotion to Christ." One has to be patient and prepared. One needs to be wise, not foolish. One needs to be known, not knowing.


Both the numbers ten and five occur in our text and also the parable that follows it. One slave is given five talents (25:15), and he makes five more (25:16, 20). This one with the ten talents is given even more (25:28).

I'm not sure if there is any significance to these numbers being in such close proximity in our two parables. There is a contrast in that in our text, the ten are divided into two groups of five -- thus become split. Concerning the talents, it is the coming together of two groups of five that create the ten. Ten is a number that can symbolize perfection.

I don't know if it significant at all, but how many of our congregations are more like the maidens -- groups of people split apart from one another for some reason or another, rather than like the slave with the talent -- doing all that is possible to invest and increase what the master had given him.


When the foolish virgins find the shut door, they cry out, "Lord, Lord, open to us." The response is, "Truly I am telling you, I don't know you." A similar scene is presented by Jesus in Mt 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?" Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.

Doing the will of the Father is more than prophesying, exorcising, or miracle-making. It requires being known by the Lord/bridegroom. In Matthew 7, the word for "know" is ginosko, which generally means "to come to knowledge about someone or something," but it is also used euphemistically of "knowing sexually". The word in our passage is oida. This word can simply mean "to have information about," but it also has the meaning, "to be intimately acquainted with or stand in a close relation to."

Perhaps rather than asking the question, "Do you know the Lord?" We might better ask, "Does the Lord know you?" or "How well does the Lord know you?" From that question, we can explore ways that we allow other people to know us. What does it take for us to enter into a close relationship with another person? How might that relate to how we pray and relate to God? For example: giving our names, occupations, histories, likes/dislikes, sharing our deepest secrets, confessing/exposing our darkest sins, etc.


In 1999, I was worshiping in a church in Dubuque, Iowa. I shared the peace with those around me. After the "peacing," the white-haired lady next to me asked, "Do I know you?" I responded, "I don't think so." As we talked further, she said that she had only recently retired from working at Wartburg Seminary. She was there in 1974 when I started my theological training. She did know me, although she couldn't remember my name. She knew me, even when I didn't know who she was.

In 1997 my son had the privilege of meeting and shaking hands with President Clinton when he attended Boys Nation. (We have a picture!) It's one thing for him to say, "I know the President." It's a whole different relationship if he could say, "The President knows me." Or, even a closer relationship: "Bill Clinton knows me by name."

Undoubtedly when I've been at a church event someone recognizes my name from these Gospel Notes. On one hand, they know me from my "sharing" in these myriad of paragraphs; but, on the other hand, they are meeting me for the first time.

How well does the Lord know you? How close is God's relationship with you? That seems to be a key element in this parable.


As an analogy of this whole eschatological section, I've talked about grandparents coming for Thanksgiving or Christmas. They are coming. We have to get the house (and/or guest room) ready for them. At the same time, there are ways that grandchildren can keep "in touch" -- keep the relationship current -- with their distant grandparents while they are waiting for their visit. They can make phone calls. They can send letters, pictures, videos, etc. Often in communicating with the distant relatives the children talk about what they have done. Even though those deeds aren't the basis of the relationship, they are part of letting the grandfolks know who their grandkids are.

If we understand "oil" as having a close relationship with God -- the power behind our lives -- the power that gives us a "glow" -- shining witnesses in the world -- it is possible to let that relationship "run out". When the bridegroom comes, it is too late to try and establish the relationship.

Although I tend to downplay American individualism, I think that this parable could be used to stress the necessity of having one's own personal relationship with Jesus -- to be known by Jesus. It can't be mediated through other people who have it, e.g., one's parents or grandparents or the pastor. If I were to take this approach, I would stress the "for-you-ness" of the sacrament, where God establishes a personal relationship with each communicant.


Another theme that I have used from this parable is the message that sometimes it is all right to say, "No!" The five wise maidens say, "No!" when the foolish maidens ask them to share their oil. (If they had said "Yes" to them, would they have run the risk of loosing their relationship with Jesus? Are there times when our "yeses" can undermine our relationship with Christ?) Three times Jesus said "No!" to the devil's temptations in the wilderness. Three times Jesus said "No!" to those who asked him to come down from the cross. Sometimes Jesus said "No!" to those who wished to follow him. I used this as an introduction to Edwin Friedman's fable called "The Bridge," which illustrates a situation where one can become so tied down with helping others, that there is no time for one's own self journey (or for nurturing one's own relationship with God).


One of the key images of life while we are waiting is "staying awake". The more frequent word for this is gregoreo, which is used in our text (25:13) and often in eschatological sections: Mt 24:42, 43; Mk 13:34, 35, 37; Lk 12:37. The other, nearly synonymous word is agrypneo, which is used in Mk 13:33 & Lk 21:36.

However, these words cannot be understood literally from our parable. Both the wise and foolish virgins fall asleep (v. 5). One does not even have to "keep watch" or "stay alert" (other translations of these words), because there is a loud cry that indicates that the time has come (v. 6). There is an eschatological "alarm clock." Thus these words need to be interpreted symbolically.

I like Boring's (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) interpretation of this word:

Matthew opposes the frantic quest for eschatological information, and he pictures faithful disciples as those who do their duty at appropriate times and are thus prepared for the Parousia whenever it comes. Such disciples can lay down to sleep in confidence, rather than being kept awake by panicky last-minute anxiety. Thus the Matthean meaning for gregoreo is "be prepared," not "keep awake"/"watch," and it might be so translated in this context. [p. 451]

We are to be prepared for the coming. I think that we do this by participating in and celebrating the many comings of the Son of Man: Jesus' presence in the Word; Jesus' presence in the Sacrament; Jesus' presence in the gathering together; Jesus' presence in our going out to make disciples; Jesus' presence as we minister to the "least of these". Such repeated connections with Jesus keeps our "lights" empowered for witness and service and lets Jesus know who we are.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364