Historical Cultural Context
How does God behave toward us? “The reign of God” is like a first-century Mediterranean wedding (see comments on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). In this period of Israel’s history, families practiced what is known as patrilocal marriage. The bride moved to the groom’s home which would have been located in or close to the home of his father.
Anyone who has visited Peter’s house in Capernaum or seen reconstructions of the house plan recalls that a cluster of homes formed a complex in which Jonah and his wife and children, single and married, all lived. This included Peter, his wife and children (and mother-in-law), and his brother Andrew.
The ideal marriage partner in this culture is a first cousin, specifically, a father’s brother’s daughter (or son as the case may require). If Peter married his first cousin, then his mother-in-law was also his aunt. Middle Eastern families of antiquity and the present are close-knit units, and these wedding practices explain why.
The marriage was arranged by the fathers under the powerful influence of the mothers; it was ratified with a contract negotiated between the mothers but signed ultimately by the patriarch. The purpose of such a marriage was to join two families.
When the partners were old enough, the long marriage ceremony was celebrated. The highpoint of the ceremony occurred when the groom, accompanied by his relatives, went to the family house of the bride to transfer her to his home. It is here that the rest of the wedding ceremony and celebration took place.
The Ten Teenagers
This is the point at which Jesus begins his parable. The groom has gone to fetch his bride. Ten young teenagers, very likely the groom’s sisters and cousins, are awaiting his return. (“Bridesmaids” is not a good translation.) Five are clever and five are dull-witted.
The role of the teenagers in the ceremony is to greet the groom and the entire wedding party when it returns and to participate in the celebration as everyone waits for the consummation of the marriage and the display of the blood-stained bed sheet to demonstrate that the bride possessed physical integrity as required by Deuteronomy 22:13-21.
The clever teenagers were prepared for their roles, but the dull-witted failed to make adequate plans and found themselves shut out of the feast. They didn’t even know how to put the bridegroom’s delay to advantage.
As with all parables, so too does this one have a double meaning: it is about a wedding party but also about something else, namely about how God relates to human beings.
Dependence on the Patron
The image of God behind all the gospel parables is based on the Mediterranean institution called patronage. Each of us has a human father, but God was perceived in the Middle East as a father in the sense of a patron, a “godfather.”
A patron or godfather treats certain people “as if” they were family members. Middle Eastern people consider themselves very fortunate when someone chooses to be their patron. They do their best not to lose that privileged position but rather to strengthen it with the passage of time. Thus, they must be very clever, ever sensitive to the patron’s whims, fancies, and wishes. Dull-witted clients risk losing their privileged position, just like the dull-witted teenagers in the parable. The moral: strive to be clever in your relationship with God.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians awaiting his imminent return added verse 13 to his parable: “So keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” It ill fits the parable. All ten young teens fell asleep (Mt 25:5)! But it is good advice if one is thinking about the return of Jesus or the end of the world. The parable provides both positive and negative models. Which will you follow?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University