The opening words (“At that time”) tie this parable to the previous chapter, where Jesus speaks about his return at the end of time. The bridegroom therefore stands for Christ, and the bridesmaids are those who profess to be, and outwardly seem to be, disciples. Their role very likely was to light the path of the procession for the wedding party when the groom arrived at his bride’s house to then take her and the guests back to his house for the wedding banquet. They were all clearly invited to the banquet and were expecting to be there, no doubt they were all dressed up, and the shock is that five of them are excluded.
“The bridegroom was a long time in coming”, we are told. It is that fact that means that proper preparation is vital, and it’s his late arrival that reveals the true preparedness of the bridesmaids. Having sufficient oil was the way they were to show themselves to be prepared. No clue is given as to the significance of oil per se, and though some try to interpret it as referring to good deeds or whatever, I don’t think we should try to give it particular significance: the focus rather is on having sufficient oil and therefore being prepared. No blame seems to be attached to falling asleep here, that simply heightens the sense of a long delay and the unexpectedness of the arrival (the unexpectedness of the hour is an important theme in the preceding verses – eg 24:42,44,50).
The plea of the five foolish virgins to the others that they share their oil seems fair enough, and the refusal might seem rather cruel, but as they say in verse 9, if they did share out what they had then the likelihood would be that all their lamps ran out of oil and the wedding party would be totally without light. A lesson might be of our individual responsibility to be ready, we can’t rely on the readiness of others.
The wise virgins – those “who were ready” (v.10) – enjoy the presence of the groom and all the joy of the feast: a lovely picture of heaven. The others, though late getting there, assume they will be allowed in and were no doubt as surprised as we are to hear groom say “I don’t know you”. Their folly is seen not only in their lack of proper preparation, but also their presumption – both that their friends would share with them and that they could be let in once the door was shut. When Christ returns it will be too late then to get ready. Till that point all might have assumed the groom knew them, but their lack of proper readiness showed otherwise, it revealed their hearts.
How to apply this? Clearly we need to hear the punch-line in verse 13. “Keep watch” in the sense of be prepared; even if Christ’s return is to be a long time still, the true disciple has that day in view and seeks to ensure they are ready for it. In one sense the previous parable and the next two parables (one of which we will study next time) explain how we are to live in readiness, but it would be worth trying to unpack here what it looks like – and don’t be content with superficial answers, of the kind a foolish bridesmaid could give.