The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Parable of Five Catty, Hard-Hearted, Virgins?

We’re supposed to be thinking about the bridegroom.

by Lauren F. Winner

Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

For Sunday, November 6, 2011: Year A – Ordinary 32

If my biblical commentaries are any guide, I am supposed to be telling you about the oil—that it might represent good deeds, or faith, or charity, or the Holy Spirit.

But I find I am more interested in the women than in the oil they did or did not tote along with them. I am especially interested in the behavior of the five women who get into the wedding feast—at the expense of their five friends.

“Wise” Women?

At the risk of flagrant eisigesis: every time I read this parable, the behavior of the five “wise” women makes me think about how women are taught to interact with one another today.

Supposedly, somewhere, there’s a sisterhood, and supposedly women are more empathetic, and relational, and naturally inclined to share. But really, when it comes down to it, many women are taught to compete with other women. We’re taught that our precarious place will be unsettled by another woman’s presence, that our success will be threatened by another woman’s flourishing.

Case In Point

As my colleague, Amy Laura Hall, has put it:  we’re taught that there can only be one prettiest girl in the class.

Case in point:  IF I were a member of the sisterhood, I would relish in this opportunity to promote the brilliance and insight of my beloved sister, Dr. Hall. But I’m only, like, barely in my sisterhood novitiate. The sisterhood voice in my head is not very loud.

Another, louder voice tells me that there is not enough power and smarts and accomplishment and goodness to go around, that I shouldn’t show off another woman’s insight in the middle of my own lectionary post!

Those wise virgins were not, it seems to me, behaving in an especially sisterly manner. Read through the complicated socialization of women today, it might appear that they were protecting their own position rather than, in the interest of helping other women, risking it.

Catty or Covering Up?

In my imagining of the story the wise virgins aren’t just wise, they are also catty.

They not only don’t share their oil with the other five women, they laugh and gossip about those other women being cast into outer darkness and then preen self-righteously about their own virtue.

We do that; we preen, to cover up the jangling of our nerves, to distract from how worried we are about the security of our own position.

Drawing a Line

If you think that drawing a dashed line from the behavior of women in a 2,000-year-old parable to the socialization of women today is a bit of a stretch, I will note that there’s precedent.

In 17th-century Italy, plays based on the parable were staged in convents; they aimed in part to foster in the women who saw them the virtues of the wise virgins. In one such play, the women were subtly named things like “Taste” and “Hearing” (in Italian, of course). The not-so-subtle lesson was: use your senses for holiness, not frivolity. Your ears should be used for the hearing of Scripture; you should not be listening to frivolous song and chat.

In 1737-38, Jonathan Edwards preached a nine-part sermon series on the parable. He took the parable’s nuptial setting as an opportunity to comment on the proper ordering of Puritan households.

It seems that the church has, for a long time, put this parable to work in conversations about how we want women to behave.

Same Jesus, Different Ending?

Maybe you can imagine our same Jesus telling a parable that ended differently.

That the wise virgins shared with the foolish virgins—and then, in fact, no one had enough oil—but the bridegroom welcomes them anyway because in the kingdom of heaven there is no lack and things are multiplied when you offer them to your neighbor; in the kingdom of heaven lack is converted to fullness and those wise women who shared their oil with whoever asked were (as per just a few verses later) seeing Christ in the one who came to them and asked for something. The wise virgins were, you might even say then, doing a Pauline backflip over worldly ways of thinking about wisdom and foolishness.  Whew!

The Hardest Question

However, I realize we have the parable we have and not the one we’d prefer. I’d prefer.

Though, for the record, it seems that Thomas Merton prefers another ending, too. His poem “The Five Virgins” pictures five rowdy women running out of gas as they motor up to the wedding feast, but “since they knew how to /Dance/They were told to/Stick around anyhow….There were ten virgins/At the Wedding of the Lamb.”

In the face of a text that seems unconcerned about the Lord’s blunt rejection of well-meaning, if “foolish,” women, how can we best call for the disciples to be people who always—radically and foolishly—share their oil with whoever asks?

Lauren F. Winner is a deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God, and, soon, Still: Noted on a Mid-faith Crisis.


  1. Leslie Clark says:

    Hey Lauren, thanks so much for the thoughts.

    Do you know of anywhere that Merton poem is published online? A Google search wasn’t fruitful.

    If not, can you provide the name of the book or collection the poem is in?

    thanks and blessings,

    Leslie Clark

  2. Caleb Fairday says:

    As the self proclaimed “side show attraction” worship leader/youth director of an extremely conservative and seniorized congregation I love to push the envelope week after week by doing exactly what you have done here with this parable and really looking at the characters. I think I may take this approach on Sunday and we will see if I still have a job come Monday!

    Keep moving forward in God’s grace!

  3. Dummermuth says:

    Leslie, here’s what I found:

    The poem is translated from the French original (“Les Cinq Vierges”) by Anthony J. Saldarini. It can be found on p. 178 in his article: Absent Women in Matthew’s Households, pp. 157-195, in: A Feminist Companion to Matthew, ed. by Amy-Jill Levine, Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

    In a footnote he writes:

    “The poem was called to my attention by Dr Mary Celeste Rouleau, RSM. A Colleague at Santa Clara University, Dr Douglas Burton-Christie, located the source. See The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions, 1977). The poem in French is on p. 819, and the translation by William Davis on pp. 826-27.”

  4. Susan says:

    Wow! I hate this parable, and it’s because I’ve always empathized with the foolish virgins and felt like the so-called wise virgins were selfish. It’s like the homecoming queen and her princesses vs. the ordinary girls. So, I love your take on this. I’m preaching it this Sunday and I was worried that maybe I was the only one that doesn’t like the wise virgins. Your Idea of an alternate ending really appeals to me. What if the wise virgins had shared? That seems more Christlike.

    And where is the bride in all this? Other mss include her. But would she be inside or outside sharing her oil?

  5. Lauren says:

    Sorry for my belated reply! The Levine, ed., Feminist Companion mentioned above was my source for the poem. The article in which it appears is M. Rosenblatt’s “Got Into the Party After All” — it is a fabulous, brilliant article. The whole volume, actually, is very helpful.

  6. Linda Noonan says:

    I had to search a long time to find this, but here’s the poem (originally in French, with two places of differing translation)

    The Five Virgins

    There were five howling (or scatter-brained) virgins

    Who came

    To the Wedding of the Lamb

    With their disabled motorcycles

    And their oil tanks


    But since they knew how

    To dance

    A person says to them

    To stay anyhow.

    And there you have it,

    There were five noisy virgins

    Without gas

    But looking good

    In the traffic of the dance. (but well-involved in the action of the dance)


    There were ten virgins

    At the Wedding of the Lamb

    Thomas Merton, Collected Poems

  7. Kevin Scott says:

    Thank you for this Lauren.

    Just struggling with sermon prep!

    So many times this liturgical year I have found myself saying: ‘I don’t believe Jesus really said this’ …


  1. [...] check out some great takes on this gospel, first Lauren Winner’s reading, which is spot on about the passage being wrong, and then check out David R. Henson at his blog, [...]

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