Verse 1. Then. Then when the Lord shall appear suddenly. The meaning depends on the former chapter. He teaches the same thing in the two parables of the Ten Virgins and the Talents; the same thing in the parable of the Servant (25:45), &c.
Shall be like. That is, what does not appear now, while the good are joined with the evil in the Church, will appear then. The same thing takes place in the kingdom of heaven, that is, the Church; as if the ten virgins received the lamps to go out to meet the bridegroom, as explained in Matt 15:16. To what the whole parable tends is clear from the conclusion (verse 13), that we ought always to watch, always to be ready, as the Lord will come in an hour we know not of; and always to prepare by good works for His presence. The argument of the last chapter is followed up in this.
The parable consists of fifteen portions:
1. The Bridegroom, who, beyond doubt, is Christ, as has been explained Matt 11:15; 22:2. The words, and the bride, are not found in the Greek, nor do S. Basil, S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, or Euthymius read them, but they are found in Origen, S. Hilary, S. Augustin, and the Syriac. They should, therefore, be read: if not of necessity, yet on account of their antiquity, and the authority of the above early Fathers. S. John (Apoc 21:2) shows that the Church triumphant, like a bride, will come forth with Christ to judgment.
2. The second part of the parable is the Ten Virgins, on which there is a threefold question: (1) Why they were virgins; (2) Why the kingdom of heaven is compared to ten; (3) What the virgins signify.
Origen and others think that the kingdom of heaven is compared to virgins rather than to others, to signify the integrity of faith, which has its parallel in purity of the body. S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Euthymius say, that as virginity is the highest point of perfection, so Christ declares that no one ought to trust to his own good, because not all virgins, though of the most spotless purity, entered into the marriage, that is, the kingdom of heaven. Others, more modern, whose opinion seems preferable, say that the kingdom of heaven is specially compared to virgins only, because it was the custom of virgins before others to carry torches and to conduct the bride and bridegroom to their house.
As to the number ten, S. Jerome, S. Augustin, and others say that it shows the five senses; they who rule them well being wise, and they who do otherwise foolish. So say S. Jerome and Bede (in loc.), S. Augustin (Ep. cxx. 33), S. Gregory (Hom, xii. in Evang.). Thus there are ten. It would rather appear that this number was chosen to show a great number of persons, and that universality was meant. So Gen 31:7, 41; Lev 26:26; Num 14:22. Thus the kingdom of heaven is said to be like ten, that is, to many. By ten virgins, S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, S. Augustin, S. Gregory, as cited above, think that all who were truly virgins are meant, but this is too forced a sense, perhaps. S. Hilary and The Author, on the contrary, hold that all mankind are intended, the faithful and unbelieving alike, with a meaning perhaps too extended; Origen and S. Jerome (in loc.0, and, as appears, S. Ambrose (Serm. xiv. on Ps. cxviii.), neither of all men, nor of virgins alone, but of all the faithful, and of these alone. Their opinion seems good first, because it is plain that Christ speaks only of those who had received lamps, which only the faithful have: for the lamp is faith (Ps 119:105); secondly, because Christ teaches that faith without good works does not satisfy for salvation.
Another part of the question is the meaning of the five wise and the five foolish. S. Hilary says that the five wise include all the faithful, and the five foolish all the contrary. The Author makes the wise all spiritual men, and the unwise all carnal; or, by the former, all who are, as S. Paul says (1 Cor 7:34), virgins both in body and spirit; by the latter, those that are virgins in body but corrupt in soul. S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, and, perhaps, S. Ambrose (Serm. xiv. on Ps. cxviii.), by the wise, all who, besides the true virginity of mind and person, have also mercy and charity, and show them in giving of alms largely; by the foolish, all who, though virgins, are not merciful, that is, have no oil in their vessels, and, therefore, do not works of almsgiving. S. Augustin (Ep. cxx.), S. Gregory (Hom. xii. on Gospels0, and Bede (in loc.) make the five wise all virgins who have, as is said, a good intention and seek praise for their virtue, not from men, but from God; the others are such as seek after human praise and flattery. Origen, S. Jerome, and S. John Damascus, or whoever is the author of his history, say that the wise virgins are all men who have good works with faith, and that the foolish are such as have faith indeed, but not works.
This seems not merely the best, but the only good explanation, because the great subject of the parable is that faith without works is of no avail for salvation. Again, because the same is taught both by previous parables (Matt 24:45) and subsequent ones (verse 14), that it is not enough to believe unless we also watch to good works, because we know not at what hour the Lord will come. The same is again inculcated in another parable (Matt 22:12), in which, as here are the virgins, so there is the guest who entered in at the wedding feast by faith, but who, because he had no wedding-garment, that is, works, was cast out.
3. The third point of the parable is the lamps which all the virgins received, and by which S. Hilary understands our human bodies, in which the divine light of the soul shines. S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, Bede, S. Augustin, and S. Gregory, in the works cited above, think that bodily virginity is intended. S. Jerome, of the bodily senses, and with S. Hilary, Origen, and The Author he explains it of faith. This agrees well with the sense of the parable; for all take that to be faith from which they went out to meet Christ, but all did not go in with Him to the marriage, because all had not good works.
4. The fourth point is the oil which the wise virgins had and the foolish ones had not, and which S. Chrysostom, Euthymius, Theophylact, and S. Ambrose explain to be alms and mercy, as these are compared in Scripture to oil. But S. Augustin, S. Gregory, and Bede think it the good will which, as said before, seeks praise, not of men, but of God. The opinion of Origen, S. Hilary, The Author, and S. John Damascus is the only true and probable one. They understand by the oil good works, without which faith does not shine, that is, is dead (S. James 2:26), and by which, if present, faith is kindled, shines, is made to appear, to show (S. James 2:17). The foolish virgins say (verse 8), Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out. Not that without works faith is at once extinguished, but that when it does not shine through works, it appears to be so, and avails no more to salvation than if it were wholly extinct; or, as The Author says, because it is so ordered by nature that whereas faith is cherished and kept alive by good works, so without them it languishes, and by degrees becomes dead. To take oil then in the lamps is to lay up a plenty and, as it were, a treasure of good works against the future coming of Christ, as in Matt 6:20.
5. The fifth part is the vessels which, S. Hilary says, are our human bodies, as S. Paul wrote (2 Cor 4:7). It would be better understood as the soul or conscience, which is the seat and receptacle of good works.
6. The sixth part is the bridegroom being said to have tarried. It cannot be doubted that by this Christ meant to teach us that the time of His second coming would be long, that He might disabuse the disciples of the false idea that He would come immediately after His Resurrection, as S. Chrysostom has observed. To the same purpose, S. Jerome and S. Hilary say that the delay of the bridegroom is a time of penance. But Christ speaks accommodatingly to the virgins, to whom, because He did not come immediately, as they expected, He appeared to delay too long; for, to those who are waiting, all time naturally seems long. Otherwise Christ did not desire to signify of His own intention that His absence should be greatly prolonged; for, as S. John says (1 Jn 2:18), It is the last hour; and it was not in harmony with the parable to teach that His absence would be long, lest men whom He desired to teach to be diligent, watching, and always ready, should become negligent, slothful, and secure.
7. The seventh part is all the virgins being said to have slumbered and slept, which S. Hilary and S. Chrysostom (in Loc.), S. Augustin (Ep. cxx., chap, xxxii.), S. Basil (In Moral., chap, v.), explain by saying that all the virgins were dead before Christ came. The Author says that they were negligent. This would seem very good were it not said that both the wise and the foolish slept. It should therefore, perhaps, be understood that they had ceased to think of the bridegroom coming, and did not expect him when he came. This would happen both to the good and the bad. For they who wait long for a person often cease to expect him, and when they are not looking for or thinking of him, that is, when they are sleeping, he suddenly comes. This is shown further by the time at which the bridegroom came: midnight.
8. The time at which the bridegroom came that is, midnight is the eighth part of the parable. They who think from this, as some do, that the usual hour of the bridegroom’s coming to the house of the bride was midnight, seem not only to miss the point of the parable, but to pervert it, and to seek to reconcile things contradictory. For if midnight, and not earlier, were the time of the coming of the bridegroom, how did he delay when that period had not yet arrived? how did he seem to the virgins to tarry overlong, when they knew that he would not come before it? Some ancient Fathers believed that Christ would come at midnight, and so the Church Hymn seems to imply. S. Jerome says that it was an apostolic tradition that, at the Passover, it was not lawful to dismiss the people before midnight, because it was thought that He would come at that hour, as in Egypt of old. The Jews also expected their Messiah at midnight. But we must keep to the words, You know not the day nor the hour. The meaning, therefore, is that He will come when He is least expected. For who could believe that He would come in the middle of the night, when men are buried in repose? So say, with justice, S. Gregory, S. Hilary, S. Jerome, S. Augustin, Theophylact, and Bede.
9. The ninth point is the cry Behold. This doubtless is the great voice mentioned in Matt 24:31, and the trumpet; as Origin, S. Chrysostom, The Author, Euthymius, Theophylact, S. Jerome, S. Augustin (Ep. cxx., chap, iii.), have explained.
10. The tenth point is contained in verse 7: Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps, which is explained by S. Hilary of the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of all things. S. Augustin (in the above Epistle), The Author, and Bede (in loc) explain it better, that a rumour will be heard of the coming of Christ; all men who, as if oppressed with sleep, had not thought of Him would arise, as S. Paul says (Rom 13:11). To trim the lamps is to call to mind the works which everyone has done, to give account of them in the judgment.
11. The eleventh point is the saying of the foolish virgins to the wise: Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out. It is clear that the meaning is that men who have no good works of their own, when it is too late, and they are called to judgment, will implore the help of the saints, as The Author explains it; as if they wished to cover themselves under the good works of others.
12. The twelfth point is the answer of the wise virgins: Lest, perhaps, there be not enough for us and for you, go ye rather to them that sell and buy for yourselves. In this two things seem remarkable:
(a) That the wise virgins refuse their help to the foolish, not because they would not give it if they could, but because at so late an hour they were not able. So say S. Chrysostom, Euthymius, and Theophylact. Or, as is more probable (as The Author says), because in that dreadful judgment no one will have sufficient confidence in himself, or appear to have enough of good works ; for the words, lest, perhaps, there be not enough for us and for you, evidently point to this. In these words, neither the treasure of the Church, which consists of the merits of the saints, nor their suffrages for others, are destroyed, as if the good works of one could not profit another. By the same reasoning, it would be proved that the saints, even while alive, could not help other living persons by their prayers, which is contrary to all Scripture, from which we learn that by the merits of the saints the dead are aided. We find this in S. Luke 16:9: Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail they may receive you into everlasting dwellings, where Christ says that the faith and labour of some can profit others. Many Ancients have rightly concluded the same from Matt 11:2: And Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the man sick with the palsy, Be of good heart, son, thy sins be forgiven thee, as has there been explained. What, then, is the meaning of the passage? This, that everyone in that last great final judgment will be judged by his own works, and not by those of others, as S. Paul said (2 Cor 5:10), and should bear his own burden (Gal 6:5). S. Augustin, in his oft-cited Ep. cxxix., S. Hilary, and S. Chrysostom are to be understood in this sense when they say that this passage shows that no one is aided by the works of another.
(b) The second point is the foolish virgins being sent to those who sold, to buy oil for themselves. Origen and The Author explain this to mean the teachers of the Church, who sell the Word of God, not for a price, but for salvation and by the confession of faith, as is said by S. Paul (2 Cor 12:14), and as he calls those whom he brought to the Gospel his joy and crown (Phil 4:1). S. Augustin, S. Gregory, and Bede, by the sellers understand flatterers, who sell the fumes of false praise; as if it were said in irony, “Go to those flatterers in whose praises you take delight, and see what good they can do you”. S. Jerome thinks that the foolish virgins that is, those who have no good works are sent into the world to gain with much labour the oil of good works. This would appear to be no part of the parable, but an offshoot of what either might have been or was very probable, and added to complete the narrative, as were the words of the wise virgins, lest, perhaps, there be not enough for us and for you. Both may have been added, not to carry any meaning, but as it was very probable that the virgins would have spoken in this manner. The words cannot mean that those who had no good works should be sent into the world to buy, that is, procure them. It was said because it was very probable that the foolish virgins would go to buy oil when they could obtain none from the others, and Christ must form a truth-like narrative. Or, if this part have any meaning at all, it may only be that the foolish and improvident would desire to do good works, and to be diligent in them, when the time is past and it is too late.
13. The thirteenth point is the coming of the bridegroom, which means, as no one doubts, the coming of Christ to judgment.
14. The fourteenth is the entering in of those who were prepared with the bridegroom into the marriage and the supper, by which the beatific life is described, as Apoc 19:7.
15. The fifteenth is the door being shut when the foolish virgins returned; which only means that they wished to do good works when it was too late, and when it was no longer a time to work, as Christ said (S. John 9:4), The night cometh when no man can work. Nor needs there further discussion of how, when the final judgment was ended, the foolish virgins returned to heaven, and beat the door, and entreated Christ with prayers to open to them. All this, as has been said, was added, not for a meaning, but to amplify and adorn the parable; nor that it would happen in heaven, but that it was very likely to happen among men; and, as S. Gregory said (Hom, xii.) on these words, this only was intended, that he cannot possibly merit to obtain from God what he asks there, who would not listen to what He commands here.
Verse 12. I know you not. All authorities, ancient and modern, agree that the word know here and in other places does not mean recognition, but feeling, and, as they say, scientia approbationis; as if Christ said, “I do not approve you; I do not acknowledge you as My children”; or, as the Author says, “I do not see in you the marks of My spirit,” of which S. Paul speaks (2 Cor 1:22; and Eph 1:3; 4:30).