Did Jesus celebrate polygamy? An interesting question from a listener named Amy. “Hello, Pastor John! I know you have opposed polygamy on the podcast in episode #860, but I’m curious: If Jesus was so opposed to it, why did he use the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1–13? Why would Jesus use this parable if taking multiple wives was immoral?”
Ten Virgins with Their Lamps
Let’s read the parable:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept.
“Beware of letting imaginary details of parables take on meaning which would contradict the clear teaching of Jesus elsewhere.”
But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise answered, saying, “Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.”
And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1–13)
That last line was Jesus’s application of the parable.
Bridesmaids, not Brides
Now, Amy asks, “If Jesus was opposed to polygamy, why did he use the parable of the ten virgins?” I assume Amy asked this question because she thinks the ten virgins are waiting to marry the bridegroom when he comes. Perhaps she’s encouraged in that interpretation because another bride is never mentioned in the parable. The bride is never mentioned. But that assumption that Amy seems to be making is not necessary, or even likely, as Amy herself seems to imply.
First, Jesus is clear on what he thinks marriage is. It’s rooted in God’s design with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. He says in Matthew 19:4, “Have you not read” — he’s referring back there to that Genesis passage (Genesis 2:24) — “that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two [not ten] shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4–5).
“This parable is not about polygamy or monogamy. It’s not even about marriage.”
It’s much more likely that we should see these ten virgins as what we would call bridesmaids. We don’t know the details of how they did weddings among the Jews in those days. But it’s easy to imagine that the bride is in the house waiting at the feast in private, not seen yet. And the bridesmaids, their job is to run out to the bridegroom and bring him in with a great feast, to where the bride is waiting.
Here’s a good principle to learn about parables at this point. Beware of letting imaginary details of parables — that’s what parables are; they’re imaginary — take on meaning which would contradict the clear teaching of Jesus elsewhere. Parables are not that sort of teaching. They are verbal pictures to make a point. But not every brushstroke in the picture is designed to make a separate point. Let me illustrate from this very parable this principle that I think is valuable here.
Watch for His Coming
This parable ends with a pretty clear statement of application. Jesus says, “Therefore” — I’ve just told you this story; now here’s the therefore — “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). He’s comparing the coming of Jesus the second time to the coming of the bridegroom at night. They didn’t know what time he was going to come. He says, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
“Parables are verbal pictures that make a point. But not every brushstroke in the picture is designed to make a separate point.”
The point we are to take away from five foolish virgins whose oil ran out and five wise virgins who took thought to be ready with extra oil was this: watch so that the Lord’s second coming doesn’t take you off guard like that. But what does watch mean?
All ten were sleeping — all ten. The wise virgins were sleeping, and they’re not criticized for it. All ten were sleeping. If you think watching means going to your window and looking into the sky for the imminent coming of Jesus, you’re not getting what watch means here, including these wise virgins who are sleeping. They are successfully watching.
What does watch mean? They’re wise. They’re watching the way they’re supposed to. It doesn’t mean you should stay up all night. No, it means you should stay awake to your calling. Stay awake to your duty. Stay awake to the vigilance you should have spiritually in your life. Watch doesn’t mean you don’t sleep. It means you don’t fail to avail yourself of all the spiritual resources you will need to persevere in your calling, in your duty till Jesus comes. The goal is that he finds you doing your duty, which means running out to meet him when he comes, having done your duty.
In this parable, the duty was to honor the bridegroom with a great welcome and bring him into the celebration where he can eat with his wife. It didn’t matter if you slept, provided that you had all the resources you needed to wake up and be there doing what you’re supposed to do. When it says at the end, “Watch,” the watchfulness is spiritual life, vitality, readiness, vigilance, care.
The parable is not about polygamy or monogamy. It’s not even about marriage. It’s about what it means to live in the light of the second coming with spiritual wakefulness and vitality, always ready to be found doing what our duty is when he comes.