What can we say about today’s gospel passage? Not a great deal, I’m afraid. The parable, taken at face value, is fairly easy to understand…until we get to the last sentence, that is. Sometimes, it happens that the evangelists like to tack on a pithy saying at the end of a parable as though they wanted to tie it up with a neat bow. Yet sometimes, their well-meaning additions of a familiar phrase may not do justice to the text it’s supposed to summarize. Sometimes, it obscures rather than clarifies its meaning. That’s what has happened here. Matthew’s addition of “Stay awake for you know neither the day nor the hour” is not the message we should be taking away from this gospel. After all, every one of the ten virgins—the wise ones as well as the foolish ones—fell asleep. The real message of the parable is not so much to “be vigilant,” as it is to “be prepared.”
Let’s look at the scene. In Israel, marriage was a two-step process. The first step entailed entering into a marriage contract or covenant. This was an agreement not only between the parties to the marriage but also between their families. The couple did not even have to be of age. It’s this step we see when we read that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph but before they came together she was found to be with child. [Matthew 1:18] This “betrothal” that Matthew speaks of was more than just an engagement; it was an actual marriage contract that would require a formal divorce in order to break it.
The second part of the marriage took place when the bridegroom came to take his betrothed to his home. This could be years after the betrothal, to give both parties separately a chance to prepare their future home and life together. When the bridegroom was ready, he would let it be known that he would soon be coming to bring his betrothed from her father’s home to his. He would have prepared a wedding feast that could last several days, and his betrothed would gather her family and her attendants…and wait. It was customary for the bridegroom to try to catch the bridal party unaware. They wouldn’t know when he would actually come until he’d sent out a herald to shout out, “The bridegroom is coming!” and let everyone know that he was on his way. When he arrived, there’d be a big, noisy procession to the couple’s new home, winding through the streets of the town to give everyone a chance to come out and give the couple their best wishes. The bride was always accompanied by her attendants and if, as often happened, the procession happened at night, her attendants were required to carry lamps or torches to light their way.
So, here we are. The bridal party is waiting anxiously for the arrival of the bridegroom. They’ve been preparing for this all day, and maybe even longer. The celebration hasn’t even started yet, and already they’re exhausted, and maybe a little bored. It’s getting late, everything’s ready and there’s nothing more to do but wait. They seize on this opportunity to nap. There’s only one preparation that’s not complete: half the attendants have neglected to bring extra oil for their lamps…just in case. They awaken to the shout, “The bridegroom is coming!” and they realize they’re going to need more oil. Remember that they’re not allowed to go out on the street at night without their lamps. The five that brought extra don’t want to be caught short, so there’s nothing left for the unprepared to do but to go get more oil. Meanwhile, the bridegroom arrives, the procession begins and, by the time the other five get back, it’s too late. The five that lacked oil acted on their assumptions about how things would work out, but their assumptions were faulty.
Jesus aimed this parable in three different directions: first, at the Jewish people of his day, then at his own followers, and, finally, at the fledgling community of believers, the Church. With regard to the Jewish people, they had been operating for centuries on a number of false assumptions. They assumed that, with God in their midst, their nation and the temple that stood at the heart of it would endure. That God would allow their temple and nation to be destroyed was unthinkable, even though it had happened once before. They also assumed that so long as they observed the practices prescribed by the Law of Moses, they’d be all set. Caring for one another wasn’t an important part of their religious practice. Finally, they assumed that they understood what the Messiah-king would be like and what he would accomplish when he arrived. Therefore, they weren’t prepared for the loss of their nation and temple, and they certainly weren’t prepared for a crucified Messiah.
The message of this parable was also directed at Jesus’s followers—his disciples. They, too, were infected by the same false assumptions I just mentioned. Many of them also assumed that by following Jesus—by throwing their lot in with his—they’d be all set, not only in this life but in the reign of God in heaven. The mother of James and John even asked to have her sons sit at Jesus’s right and left when he came into his kingdom. [Matthew 20:21] The assumption was that Jesus would do all the heavy lifting and they, his followers, would be the beneficiaries. Some Christians still hold on to those same assumptions today. Yet merely believing in God, merely accepting Jesus as your savior, merely being baptized, and merely calling yourself a Christian isn’t enough. There’s work to be done and preparations to be made for a life of love of God and love of neighbor. Christ is still our pioneer—the trailblazer who shows us the way. We still have to take up our own crosses and follow him.
Finally, the parable addresses the attitudes and assumptions of the early Church. The first Christian communities assumed that Jesus would return in glory on the clouds of heaven immediately. They were scandalized when faithful Christians began dying before Christ’s return. That’s why, in today’s second reading, Paul is reassuring the Thessalonians. They weren’t prepared to accept that they wouldn’t all be miraculously spared from having to undergo death. They weren’t prepared for the hardships, the hatred, and the persecutions yet to come. The parable was warning them that they needed to take extraordinary precautions so as not to be caught with a flickering and fading sense of faith, hope, and love.
What oil is necessary to maintain the robust flame of faith in the presence of a loving God, the robust flame of hope in the fulfillment of God’s promises despite evidence to the contrary, and the robust flame of love of God in thanksgiving for all the graces and blessings we’ve received and love for one another, recognizing that we are the channels of God’s love? The fuel for those flames is the oil of wisdom—that wisdom that we read about in today’s first reading. It’s wisdom that shatters all our false assumptions. It’s wisdom that leads us to prepare for all eventualities through lives of prayer and meditation, through our attitude of humble gratitude, and through our spirit of kindness, understanding, and generosity toward others.
What do we mean when we speak of wisdom? Consider this: in the center of the great City of Constantinople lies a huge temple—the Church of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom. We miss the full impact of that dedication unless we understand that the church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit of God himself. For wisdom is not only from God but wisdom is God—God the Holy Spirit. That is the oil for our lamps, the oil of our Baptism and Confirmation, and the oil of our consecration as disciples of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One.