Year A: Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!
Matthew 25 1-13
Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
- How would you describe being spiritually prepared or awake?
- What things might you start doing, and cease doing to be ready for the coming of the Lord?
- Where have you experienced the recognition of Christ in another, as Christ’s presence within yourself? What happened, how did the recognition occur to you?
- One aspect of this passage is about the importance of preparedness and putting Jesus’ words into practice. Where is new inner awareness about “readiness” taking shape as action in your life?
Margaret Nutting Ralph
We move forward in Matthew’s Gospel to Jesus’ fifth, discourse, this one on eschatology (Matt 24:1-25:46). Eschatology deals with the last things: death, heaven, hell, the second coming, judgment, and so forth. The scene is set at the beginning of chapter 24. As Jesus is leaving the temple area he tells his disciples, “You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down” (. Matt 24:2). Later, as Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask, “Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3b).
In a section that we do not read in the Lectionary Jesus first responds to the question about “signs” (Matt 24:4-35). He then responds to the question about “when” by saying, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matt 24:36). Today’s parable of the ten virgins teaches the disciples how to act in the in-between time, given the fact that no one knows when the end will come.
To interpret the parable as a parable we must ask ourselves, “To whom in the story is the audience compared?” The disciples are compared to the virgins because they too await an arrival for which they want to be prepared, but they do not know when it will occur. The lesson is explicitly stated in the text: “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In other words, since the disciples do not know when the end will come, they should always be ready.
As we have discussed with other parables, people often allegorize parables without realizing that they are doing so. However, to treat a parable as though it were an allegory can sometimes lead to error rather than insight. Today’s parable is a case in point.
If we treat this parable as though it were intended to be an allegory the wise virgins would stand for wise disciples, and the groom would stand for Christ. However, both the wise virgins and the groom act in decidedly unloving ways toward the unwise virgins. When the unwise virgins ask the wise virgins to give them some oil, the wise virgins respond, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you.” When the unwise virgins return after getting their oil and call out to the Lord to open the door he responds, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Should one then draw the conclusion that disciples need not share with erring, unwise people, or that at some point the redeemer of the whole human race will lose his desire to redeem?
If we allegorize this parable and use it to convince ourselves that we need not respond to the needs of those who are less prudent than we are, or that Jesus rejects unwise people who call out to him, we use it to teach something that Matthew does not intend to teach. Other parables address questions about how we must respond to those in need and about God’s mercy, about God’s attitude toward those who do not say “yes” to the kingdom “on time.” This parable does not. In this parable, we learn only that a faithful disciple will always be ready for the coming of the Lord.
No Scarcity with God
Ironically enough, the “wise” bridesmaids in Jesus’s parable distrust the sufficiency, generosity, and love of the bridegroom as much as the “foolish” bridesmaids do. Operating on the basis of scarcity and fear, they refuse to share their oil. Smug in their own preparedness and “wisdom,” they forget all about mercy, empathy, kinship, and hospitality. They forget that the point of a wedding celebration is celebration. Gathering. Communing. Joining. Sharing. It doesn’t occur to them that their stinginess has consequences. It sends their five companions stumbling into the midnight darkness. That it diminishes the wedding, depriving the bridal couple and their remaining guests of five lively, caring companions.
I’m not sure what it will take for us Christians to live fully in the abundance of God. But it’s clear that our assumptions about scarcity are killing us. We’re so afraid of emptiness, we idolize excess. We’re so worried about opening our doors too wide, we shut them tight. We’re so obsessed with our own rightness before God, that we forget that “rightness” divorced from love is always wrong. We live in dread that there won’t be enough to spare. Enough grace. Enough freedom. Enough forgiveness. Enough mercy. Somehow, we would rather shove people into the night than give up the illusion of our own brightness.
What would it be like to stop? What would it be like to care more about the emptiness in our neighbor’s flask than the brimming fullness of our own?
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Reflection From “Give Us This Day” Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic
Debie Thomas, Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories
Debie Thomas is the Minister for Lifelong Formation at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California. She is a writer, editor, and speaker on matters of faith. Learn more at her website, debiethomas.com.