So, who are these 10 young maidens featured in the parable? They are probably relatives or friends of the groom who, with lamps in hand, set out from the groom’s household to meet the return of the bridegroom with his bride. Matthew’s particular touch here is to set up a contrast between five foolish and five wise maidens, and their separation just at the critical moment in the story, the wedding feast. This is a familiar theme in Matthew, which appears also in his parables about the weeds and the wheat, the dragnet, and the sheep and the goats.
But there is one detail I’ve always found disturbing, perplexing: why are the maidens who have extra oil so heartless toward those who have none? Weren’t these women friends or relatives? How does this fit with Jesus’ command to love one another? Is a cruel trick for the wise ones to send the foolish to the merchants, who surely would not be open at midnight? Another puzzling detail: when the 5 foolish ones arrive late to the wedding feast, why does the groom not recognize them when they probably belonged to his household?
So, what is going on here? I believe the key lies in how we understand what the lamps and the oil symbolize. I remember a reading at Vigils a few months ago commenting on this Gospel in which the author understood the oil as “good deeds.” That would explain why the five wise virgins cannot “share” their oil with the five foolish virgins. Such an interpretation is reminiscent of Matthew’s conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells the disciples that they are the “light” of the world. Matthew concludes that passage by explicitly equating light with good deeds that are visible to others and that lead to praise of God.
A somewhat different interpretation is offered by the Dominican scripture scholar Barbara Reid, who suggests that “the lamps and the oil in this parable can be understood more generally as the steps that disciples need to take in order to be ready for the eschatological moment. With echoes of Matthew 7, where the wise are those who hear and act on Jesus’ words, so the wise virgins of this parable are those who have faithfully prepared for the end-time by hearing and acting on God’s word as spoken and lived by Jesus. Matthew tells us that when the end-time comes those who are righteous will ‘shine like the sun.’” Again, righteousness isn’t something that can be “borrowed” from someone else any more than good deeds can be. Perhaps it is only realistic, not unkind, to tell the foolish maidens that they will have to get their own oil . . . .
At midnight a loud cry heralds the arrival of the Bridegroom, and the summons is issued to meet the Coming One. Matthew’s church most likely understood the parable as an allegory of the Second Coming of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom. In the parable, the bridegroom’s sudden coming represents the imminent but unpredictable arrival of the Parousia. And, as in so many of Matthew’s parables, the eschatological moment is decisive. It is a matter of being “ready or not.” Barbara Reid explains: “There is no further time for preparation, there are no last chances. There are those who are ready and those who are not. Those who are prepared go into the wedding feast with the bridegroom. The five foolish virgins arrive after the door is locked. While in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had assured his disciples that if they knock the door will be opened to them, the setting of that saying is different from today’s Gospel. Here, the time is past when choices can be made; judgment is at hand.”
“This could be called a “good news / bad news” parable. For the foolish ones, this gospel ends on a very sobering note. They are barred from going into the feast with the bridegroom and the wedding party. They have let themselves be lulled into thinking that there is no hurry; the lamp oil can always be gotten later; or someone else will pick up the slack. The end seems so far off. For the wise ones, however, this is a parable of great jubilation. They have been preparing all along and are ready when the bridegroom comes. They can hardly believe that the time has finally come.”
So, what about us here this morning? Barbara Reid offers a perspective, which I find helpful:
None of us are completely foolish, nor completely wise. We all have some aspect of the foolish within. For example, there has been something I’ve been wanting to change about my lifestyle; or there is someone I’ve been intending to reconcile with; someone to whom I owe an apology; or something I’ve been wanting to seek direction about; something I’ve intended to talk over with God. But I think I’ll get around to it some other time. However, it may be now or never. At the same time, all of us have some aspect of the wise within. All the myriad ways in which wise disciples have been illumining the world, lighting one small candle at a time by the way they hear and live out the Word, coalesce into brilliant torchlight for the banquet. The arrival of the groom, at last, is no surprise, but a joyous relief. The parable invites celebration of our wisdom, even as our foolishness is still being transformed.
I would like to conclude by recalling the basic point of the First Reading taken from the Book of Wisdom, namely, that the effort to be wise does not depend on human striving alone. This is reassuring for the foolish among us: Wisdom is waiting to be found; she is readily perceived and found and known by those who love and seek her. Better yet, those who keep vigil for her are actually being sought out by her as she makes her rounds. This is precisely what St. Bernard taught his monks: “We would never seek God unless he first sought and found us.” I believe that at the last moment before our death, the Bridegroom will reach out, take our lingering foolishness into his own hands, and draw us lovingly into the wedding feast—before any doors are closed.
Photograph by Father Emmanuel. This morning's homily by Father Dominic.