Sunday Reflection by Sister Eileen Cassidy, SNDdeN
An initial reading of this parable about the wise and foolish virgins feels rather uncomfortable on two counts: it seems to approve of the wise virgins’ apparently selfish behaviour which resulted in the foolish virgins being excluded from the Kingdom; and it portrays Christ confirming this action: he refuses to heed the foolish virgins’ plea to be allowed entry, and does this in what seems to be a rather dismissive manner, ‘I do not know you.’
The parable is about the second coming of Christ. Written at a time when the imminent expectation of the second coming was giving way to a delayed expectation, the disciples and evangelists were preparing believers for a way of life that would stretch long into the future. They were preparing them for a journey, rather than simply for an event.
On the surface, and according to the last sentence in the Gospel, the message for believers seems simple: ‘Stay awake,’ so that they are sufficiently alert to recognize and welcome the bridegroom when he comes. But all ten virgins fell asleep, the wise as well as the foolish, and so the passage must be about more than staying awake. A closer reading hints that it is more about being prepared than staying awake, and leaves us to wonder how we might do this.
It is not without significance that the virgins are described as either wise or foolish, and that the first of the three Sunday readings is about Wisdom. That reading does several things. It describes Wisdom, not as a thing to be searched for, found and possessed as one would an object, nor as something to be learned like a piece of information. No! Wisdom is personified as God, actively in search of each and every human being, manifesting herself in many ways, tantalizingly close and longing to be recognized. The reading then assures us that Wisdom is found by those who love her and look for her, and it exhorts us to do the obvious – to search for Wisdom, desire her, think about her, ‘be on the alert’ for her – the very message of the Gospel. It would seem, then, that human wisdom is a participation in divine Wisdom through the relationship that is established when we respond to God’s search for us; and, as the relationship with God deepens, so the understanding and practice of wisdom changes to reflect the deepening relationship.
Wisdom, then, is not a static entity, but is the fruit of a dynamic relationship with God, however God is understood. Without the soil of a relationship, there is no fruit, no biblical wisdom, no dynamic presence of God in our lives.
Turning our attention once again to the Gospel, it is clear that all ten bridesmaids had some kind of relationship with the bridegroom. Hence their waiting for his arrival. But what was the nature of their respective relationships? What was it that kept it alive? What was the oil that fanned the flame of the relationships? Was it something functional, outside of themselves, that could be purchased or borrowed as needed? Or was it a way of being, the expression of a bond of communion deep within, and so something that couldn’t be shared except by incarnating it and so witnessing to it in daily life?
The way of Wisdom would seem to be a consciously chosen way of life that expresses a living relationship with God. The wise virgins allow themselves to be found and transformed by this relationship, so that they see and respond to life out of their shared wisdom with God. The foolish virgins, by contrast, seem to lack this kind of relationship, and so are denied entry. This a hard conclusion, though consistent with other parts of the Gospel. In Mt 7:21, for example, Jesus says, ‘It is not anyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” who enters the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven;’ and in the Last Judgement scene (Mt 25), admittance is totally dependent on whether or not people lived by Wisdom’s way. The message of the parable seems to be that entry to and exclusion from the Kingdom are not arbitrary, but are the natural consequence of the way we live, of the choices that we make, of the relationships that we develop and of what fans those relationships.
This still leaves us with an image of God rejecting us, that same God who, in the wisdom tradition, is always on the lookout for us. How can this be? Perhaps it is not a matter of being included or excluded, invited in or being kept out. These are spatial terms and, as such, inadequate for talking about the Kingdom of God, which is less a point of arrival and more a level of engagement. What do I mean? The kingdom surrounds us at all times, and is open to all people. Those who engage with it will become Kingdom people and will enjoy the fullness of life that it offers. It is not by accident that Jesus welcomes people with the words, ‘Enter into the JOY of the Lord’ (Mt 25:23). Those who do not engage with the kingdom deny themselves the fullness of life that is the Kingdom: they condemn themselves to a life without the joy of the Lord, the more so because they are surrounded by it. The elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son is a classic illustration of someone in the midst of the Kingdom who couldn’t share its joy because he chose not to engage with it, for whatever reason. He was both ‘in’ and ‘out’ – ‘in’ in the sense that it was being celebrated where he was, ‘out’ in the sense that he chose not to belong.
So, perhaps there’s another way to understand the bridegroom’s words to the foolish virgins: ‘I do not know you.’ Might this be a simple statement of fact rather than a rejection, a statement of fact which opens the door to the development of a relationship? ‘Admittance’, after all, is no guarantee of experiencing the joy of the kingdom, as the example of the elder brother illustrates, since the joy of the kingdom is essentially relational.
We might ask ourselves:
Who are today’s wise and foolish virgins, and how do I recognize them?
Is there a sense in which there are elements of both in me?
What do I want to share with God in this regard?
Lord, grace us with your wisdom so that the kingdom that we build is your kingdom.
Grace us with your wisdom so that we can enjoy the fullness of the kingdom as we build it with you. Grace us with your wisdom to recognize and rejoice in the many ways in which others are building the kingdom.
Lord, grace us with your wisdom.
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.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Meet Sister Eileen Cassidy, SNDdeN
Matt. 25: 1-13