Since the time of Jesus' coming is unknown, we must watch and be ready (24:36). Although some rabbinic parables also address the theme of readiness (see Sipre Deut. 43.15.2), Jesus' parables about the end time especially focus on readiness for the Son of Man (for example, 24:42--25:13). To live ready for Jesus' return involves living in light of the day of judgment, when our deeds and motives will be revealed.
Wise disciples remain vigilant for Jesus' return. In this parable the bridesmaids, rather than the bride herself, constitute the primary characters. Wedding processions from the bride's to the groom's home, accompanied by singing and dancing, normally happened at night and hence required light. The lamps in ancient weddings were not the small, hand-held lamps used under normal circumstances, but torches (as in Plut. Roman Questions 2, Mor. 263F; Ach. Tat. 2.11.1), perhaps sticks wrapped with oiled rags, as in traditional Palestinian Arab weddings (Jeremias 1972:174-75). Women torchbearers probably led the bride to the bridegroom's home, joined by the groom and his male friends (Jeremias 1972:173). Presumably the bridesmaids are thus waiting outside the bride's home for his coming, to escort her to his home (Argyle 1963:189).
In this particular parable (in contrast to 24:42-44) the issue is not that the virgins went to sleep--both the wise and foolish did so; this detail is merely part of the narrative's setting. The issue is that some were not watchful enough to have sufficient oil (Beare 1981:482; Schweizer 1975:467). Some suggest that the torches could burn only fifteen minutes before being rewrapped with more oiled cloth (for example, France 1985:351; Witherington 1984:43). In traditional Palestinian weddings, messengers may repeatedly announce the bridegroom's coming, yet it can be delayed for hours (Jeremias 1972:173). Delays occur while the bride's relatives haggle over the value of presents given them, emphasizing the bride's great value and thus the wisdom of the groom's selection (Jeremias 1972:173-74; compare Eickelman 1989:174).
Disciples should not lose heart if Jesus does not return as quickly as we expect him to. All the virgins would have been ready for the groom had he arrived when they expected, but grooms' delays were common enough that they should have anticipated it. This provides clear warning that the parousia may be delayed. The term used for the meeting or rendezvous with the bridegroom (meet, v. 6) often suggested a party going out to meet someone and forming his escort to a place where he would be honored (as in 1 Thess 4:17; see Milligan 1908:62; F. Bruce 1963:68-69).
Those unprepared for Christ's banquet insult him and warrant judgment. The wise virgins' unwillingness to share their oil reflects their concern for their friend's wedding; since they had only enough for their own torches, sharing would cause all the torches to be extinguished, ruining the whole procession (Meier 1980:295; Gundry 1982:500). Bridal processions were so important that later rabbis even suspended their lectures so they could hail a passing bride (ARN 4A; 8, Section 22B); for the groom and (some held) for the attendants, weddings even took precedence over some ritual obligations (as in t. Berakot 2:10), so a breach of etiquette was serious.
Thus the foolish virgins were not excluded simply because the door was locked (25:10-11), nor because the host actually did not recognize them (v. 12), but because they had insulted the bride and groom as well as all their relatives! They would never be allowed to forget such an offense. To participate in their friend's wedding was a great honor; as virgins, these young women were in a sense practicing for their own impending weddings around the age of twelve to sixteen. To have spoiled the wedding for their friend by failing to do their part was a great insult to everyone else at the wedding. That they would be shut out of the feast in punishment suits their case, but the language used to depict this nightmare points beyond itself to severer, eternal judgment, probably echoing the sayings in 7:21-23. Wedding feasts epitomized joy (as in Jn 3:29); the transgressors have been shut out.