25 October 2021

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story.

Matthew 25.1-13.

The Five Stupid Teenagers Story is also called the parable of the virgins, of the maidens, of the bridesmaids; of the wise and foolish virgins, or of the 10 virgins. Usually they’re called virgins ’cause that’s traditionally how people have translated παρθένοις/parthénis: A girl, or unmarried woman, and women back then used to marry mighty young. Like as soon as they attained legal adulthood, so 13 years old. Since they were unmarried, the usual assumption is in that culture they’d be virgins, which is a reasonable assumption. But parthénos was sometimes used in Greek literature to describe young women who weren’t virgins, like in the plays of Sophocles and Aristophanes.

Maiden is alternately used to describe them, but maiden historically means the same thing as virgin. And in either case I’m not sure Jesus’s point had anything to do with their virginity nor marital status. More like with their youth. You know how some kids can be wise and clever, and some kinda dense and foolish? And how some kids can sometimes be one and sometimes the other? So, that.

So my translation focuses on their age as well: These are young teenagers, old enough to be responsible for themselves, but not all of ’em were necessarily mature enough. Kinda like Jesus’s own students. Kinda like newbie Christians.

Like all Jesus’s parables, this story’s about his kingdom, and since it’s part of his Olivet Discourse he’s talking about his second coming. Unlike dark Christian interpretations which are all about doom, tribulation, death, and hellfire, Jesus’s parables are about encouragement: He’s not returning to destroy the world, but save it. Get ready to join his entourage! Otherwise you’ll miss out on the fun parts.

We don’t know when Jesus is returning, and he instructs his kids more than once to stay awake and be prepared. This is one of those times. Dark Christians insist it’s about missing the rapture and going to hell. But the stakes are nowhere near that high in Jesus’s story.

Matthew 25.1-13 KWL
1 “Then heaven’s kingdom will be like 10 teenagers
who come out to meet the husband, bringing their own lamps.
2 Five of them are morons, and five wise,
3 for the morons who bring their lamps don’t bring oil with them.
4 The wise teens bring oil in flasks, with their lamps.
5 During the husband’s delay, all the teens fall asleep, and sleep.
6 In the middle of the night, a loud voice came:
‘Look, the husband! Come to meet him!’
7 Then all those teenagers rise and get their own lamps ready—
8 and the morons tell the wise teens, ‘Give us some of your oil,
because our lamps are out.’
9 In reply the wise teens were saying, ‘Likely there’s not enough for us and you.
Instead go to the oil-sellers and buy your own!’
10 And as they went away to buy, the husband comes,
and those who were ready, enter the marriage feast with him.
He closes the door.
11 Later, the remaining teenagers also come to the door,
saying, ‘Sir, sir, open it for us.’
12 In reply the husband says, ‘Amen, I promise you, I don’t know you.’
13 So be awake—because you don’t know the day nor the hour.”

First-century wedding parties.

I’ve heard a lot of weirdness about how Jewish wedding ceremonies were performed. A lot of ’em come from Messianic Jews who want to highlight the coincidental similarities between Jewish wedding customs and the book of Revelation. I say “coincidental” because most of the customs they preach about, arose in the middle ages. Not the first century. Some date from the first century, like the husband arriving in a procession to the wedding feast. The rest come stem from Christians holding a wedding ceremony, with vows and such; and Jews borrowing our traditions and making ’em Jewish… and Jewish Christians claiming, as they do, that the Jewish traditions all came first. Not all.

First-century middle easterners “married” by simply living together and having sex. I know; various Christians insist they totally had marriage or betrothal ceremonies. And if they had money, yeah they did: The new couple’s families felt obligated to work out the dowry and finances, and sign contracts, and make sure nobody got exploited—least of all themselves. But if they were poor, they usually just started living together.

If they had some money, they’d also throw a wedding feast. That’s what Jesus is describing here. It was held at the husband’s house; this is his place the teenagers are waiting outside. The husband would go to his new wife’s house, collect her and her stuff (and her entire family, ’cause they were coming to the party), take everything to his house, and they’d spend about a week eating, drinking, and schmoozing with loved ones. And of course the new husband and wife would go off in private and have sex, ’cause they could do that now.

So these teenagers were waiting for the husband, ’cause he had to unlock the house. Party couldn’t start without him. But the newlyweds were taking way longer to return than expected. Probably had to pack one more thing. Or a thousand more things.

Jesus says five of the girls are μωραὶ/morí, “dull, stupid, slow to react,” KJV “foolish.” Our word moron comes from this word, and originally it was a medical term for someone with an 8- to 12-year-old intellect. Sounds about right.

The others were φρόνιμοι/frónimi, “in their right mind, sensible, prudent, thoughtful, discerning,” KJV “wise.” Proven by the fact they brought oil. All of them brought lamps, which back then were basically a dish with a handle, and you put a piece of straw or cloth in it as a wick, filled it with olive oil, and burned the wick. It wasn’t any brighter than a candle, but it didn’t need to be. But it did need to have enough oil to last the night—and the morons hadn’t planned ahead.

Five girls knew they’d be partying all night long, and brought enough oil in case the husband didn’t have enough. Five had only the oil already in their lamps. To be fair, they were kids. Not every kid plans ahead. Even the “wise” ones likely had parents who told them, “And bring extra oil!” Plus extra olive oil always came in handy. The ancients used it to condition their hair. Plus, if you didn’t care for the salad dressing, you could mix it with vinegar… Anyway, it’s just a good practice to have spare oil.

What made ’em stupid.

Not having enough oil with them, actually isn’t what made five of these teenagers stupid. What made ’em stupid was this:

Matthew 25.9-10 KWL
9 “In reply the wise teens were saying, ‘Likely there’s not enough for us and you.
Instead go to the oil-sellers and buy your own!’
10A And as they went away to buy, the husband comes…”

Yep. These girls left the husband’s house and went to town to buy oil. At midnight.

Many an interpreter looks at this story and says, “Well you gotta be ready. You can’t show up at Jesus’s second coming unprepared.” Um… but that’s not what Jesus says. You kinda can. If the five girls hadn’t left, and stayed there in the dark to wait for the husband regardless, you think he would’ve responded, “Oh, you don’t have oil for your lamps; you can’t come in”? Of course not. It’s a party; the more the merrier! Their lack of oil would be forgiven without a second thought. Or even a first one—“Oh, you ran out of oil? I didn’t notice. Did you try the brisket? It’s delicious.”

So what’s with their fixation on our preparation? Duh; works righteousness. Too many commentators, too many Christians, think Jesus’s second coming is only for the deserving. For those people who were good, and merit heaven. Five girls didn’t have oil, so this must represent how they didn’t merit heaven. Make sure you have oil—and then they tell you what “oil” represents to them. Orthodoxy and bible trivia, usually. Sometimes good works. Seldom, but sometimes, fruit of the Spirit.

The five “wise” teens, who cattily told the others, “Omigod, you don’t have enough oil? You’re gonna have to go buy some,” and then after the five foolish girls ran to town, “Omigod I can’t believe they fell for it.” Again, was lit lamps a requirement for getting into the wedding feast? Nope. They totally could’ve donated their oil. Could’ve donated all the oil, and sacrificially did without. Jesus used oil in his metaphor, so we’re not talking about a commodity—like some personal storehouse of good works—that’s inherently unsharable. They coulda shared it. They didn’t. So while these might be wise girls, they aren’t generous girls, or gracious girls, or even good girls. But then again: God’s kingdom isn’t granted by merit!

Anyway, the sad consequence is these five stupid girls didn’t get to join the party: They came back to find the door shut. With crime the way it was in Jesus’s day, the husband wasn’t gonna open it for anyone he didn’t recognize.

…Well, not till morning, anyway.

Oh you didn’t think about that, did you? Jesus’s listeners would have. These girls weren’t gonna be shut out forever. This isn’t an analogy for sending them to hell! It only means they missed out on the husband’s reception. When Jesus returns to take over the world, Christians are gonna rejoice, and join his procession, and his team. The rest of the world, not so much—but Jesus’s reign over the earth is next gonna include them too! Same as this wedding feast will eventually include these five girls too—as soon as dawn comes and the door opens. They missed out on the initial fun… but they can still enter in, if they want. Jesus will still accept new followers after his return, y’know. It’s not judgment day yet!

Stay alert.

Fixating on the oil, and what the oil might mean, totally misses the point anyway. The point is entirely in Jesus’s punchline:

Matthew 25.13 KWL
“So be awake—because you don’t know the day nor the hour.”

Be awake doesn’t mean “make sure you have enough oil.” It means be there. When the Son of Man returns in his glory, be there to receive him. Be following him. Don’t be off somewhere else, distracted by stuff we think we gotta have first. Don’t fall for the old deception, “I can’t follow Jesus yet; I’m not ready; I need to be prepared for it first.” No, you simply need to start following. Pick up equipment as you follow.

Stupid Christians worry we’re gonna disqualify ourselves because we’re not ready for Jesus’s second coming: We’re not holy enough, or knowledgeable enough, or haven’t racked up enough good karma, or don’t believe hard enough. And it’s not that we shouldn’t pursue holiness, knowledge, goodness, and faith. But God’s kingdom runs on grace, not those other things. All you gotta do to get in, is be there. Welcome Jesus with open arms, instead of shying away ’cause you’re short of oil.

There are gonna be a startling number of Christians who will freak the f--- out when the second coming takes place—“No! I’m not ready yet!”—because they think they gotta earn it first. I worry this unaccepting attitude might translate into they don’t accept Jesus, which means they won’t get to join him when he takes possession of his kingdom. That’s gonna suck.

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