The parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is told as part of Jesus’s discourse on the end of days. Having left the Temple, he talks of its destruction, leading the disciples to ask, ‘Tell us, when will this be?’ (Matthew 24:3). Although ultimately, the answer to this question is ‘only God knows’, Jesus’s reply constitutes the remainder of chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel, as well as the whole of chapter 25. He enumerates the signs of the second coming, and gives the first suggestions about the need to be prepared, of which the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens will be the clearest illustration.
Before he gets to that, though, he explains how those present, ‘will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory’, and that, ‘he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call’ (Matthew 24:30–31), precisely as illustrated by Hermann tom Ring.
Matthew 24 ends with a renewed emphasis on the necessity for watchfulness. It is the good servant, he says, who is always ready to serve his master. As the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens comes immediately after this, at the beginning of Matthew 25, it should be understood in the light of the good servant, implying that we should, certainly, be watchful for the signs of the bridegroom’s arrival, but above all should be ready, whenever it should be.
In John Melhuish Strudwick’s The Ten Virgins, the pile of leaves at the door implies that the foolish have been gone for too long: effectively, it says that their unpreparedness was a way of life. For the wise maidens, being well equipped with oil, and therefore in terms of the meaning of the parable, being well equipped spiritually, was clearly ingrained. But it does also remind us that Jesus’s parables are specific to the lesson he is teaching at that point in his ministry. It is earlier in the Gospel that he says, ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you’ (Matthew 7:7), but that was in the context of behaviour towards others, here we need to pray that our faith is strong. For ultimately, while we should not judge (Matthew 7:1–2), Jesus will. In this case, if we have not made whatever preparations we can for the arrival of our Saviour, it will be too late to knock.
Both Hermann tom Ring and Erhard Küng place the parable within the context of the Last Judgement. For tom Ring, the wise and the foolish are, quite simply, the blessed and the damned, led happily to Heaven holding their flaming lanterns aloft, or thrust into Hell with their extinguished lamps downturned. In Bern, often seen as the last of the great medieval Judgement portals, their presence flanking the doorway makes the entrance to the church the entrance to the marriage feast and reminds everyone on entering that they must be prepared not just now, but at all times.
The inclusion of the maidens as part of the Last Judgement is explained more fully by the continuation of Matthew 25. Our parable is followed by the parable of the Talents—an equivalent, which implies that we must invest in a good spiritual future (in much the same way that the wise maidens’ investment in the oil of faith led them to be rewarded with entry to the marriage): ‘for to every one who has will more be given’ (Matthew 25:26). Christ then explains how the sheep will be placed at his right hand and the goats at his left—just as we see the blessed and damned being separated both in the painting and above the portal. The chapter ends with the homily that establishes what would later become known as six of the Seven Acts of Mercy, so it is entirely fitting that Hermann tom Ring has one group of the elect personify these virtues.
The meaning of this particular parable has never been considered obscure, and is expounded with clarity in these three works. If we want to enter into eternity in communion with God—represented on earth by the body of the church—then being prepared for the arrival of Christ should be the habit of a lifetime, for we do not know when we will be judged.
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.