Thought for the day
To engage with today’s readings, it might helpful to go back in your own mind to someone in your life whom you regard as really wise. When did you become aware of it? Have you benefitted from it? If someone were to ask how would you recognise wisdom and what are its marks, what would you say? Have you learned from your encounters with wise people?
Do you desire wisdom for yourself? Perhaps as parent or friend or family member or colleague. Do you nourish your hunger (!) for the qualities and attitudes which we associate with people who have learned from life?
All-wise and loving God, the desire for you lies deep within us. Awaken us to the quest for true wisdom that by being true to ourselves we make come home to you, the source of all wisdom. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Matt 25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 11 Later, the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!’ 12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you!’ 13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.
At this point in the Liturgical Year, the lectionary turns to the end of time and to the teachings on watchfulness. Our parable today is unique to Matthew, although there are passages in Mark and Luke which resemble it in some way (see below Mark 13:33-37 and Luke 12:35-38).
Kind of writing
There are several kinds of parables in the New Testament: “original” parables which are often disorienting and later more didactic parables. Our text belongs to this second category, which is more “teaching” and in general the meaning is plain. It is good to bear in mind that a single parable will never give all we need to bear in mind, but only some aspects. Thus questions such as the meanness of the wise virgins are not real questions in the context. The bottom line here is that there are some things, both in life and in faith, which others cannot do for us.
This parable has clear links with the two preceding parables.
Old Testament background
(i) Wisdom is portrayed as a woman, metaphorically offering shelter, nourishment and companionship (for examples see Proverbs 1:20-33 and 2:16-19). These fundamental needs stand as a metaphor for our need of God’s Wisdom, which “completes” the human being, just as men and women complement and complete each other. The Wisdom of God offers us shelter, nourishment and companionship.
(ii) At the same time, the theme of the end-time banquet is presented as a wedding feast, combining several themes from the Old Testament: Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 21:12; Isaiah 25; 1 Enoch 10:18-19; 2 Baruch 29:2-5. Marriage symbolism for the covenant can be found in Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2; Hosea 1-2; Jeremiah 3:1-12; Ezekiel 16 and 23; Song of Songs as a whole.
New Testament foreground
(i) Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:33-37)
(ii) Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. (Luke 12:35-38)
(iii) This parable is found in a rich parable section in Matthew which deals with the end of time. As the parable is unique to this Gospel, its location in the text is important (see the chart).
(iv) Elsewhere Matthew uses the language of marriage (groom: 9:15 in reference to himself; wedding Matthew 22:2-4, 8-12; 25:10), an important clue to th identity of the groom.
(v) Across chapters 24 and 25, seveal themes bounce around in a quite prodical way. Here’s a list:
Watch therefore: 24:42; 25:13; unexpected returns or arrivals: 24:37, 42-44, 50; 25:10, 19; delays in arrival: 24:48; 25:5, 19; the coming of the Son of Man: 24:27, 30, 37, 44; 25:31; praises of faithful servants: 24:46; 25:21, 23, 25,34; the use of “Lord”: 25:11, 24, 37, 44; exclusions from the presence: 24:51; 25:10, 30, 46. Clearly, these chapters, with the careful sequence of precisely seven parables, was of immense significance to the evangelist.
(i) On wisdom: “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:4-7)
(ii) On watchfulness: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-11)
Verse 1 Kingdom of heaven is a Matthean expression. The nuptial imagery—taken from the Old Testament—is established immediately. It refers to the covenant, of course, but also to the end of time (cf. the bride of the Lamb in the book of Revelation).
Verses 2-4 Essential information is given succinctly—an attentive reader will “hear” the comparison of the wise woman and the foolish woman from the wisdom books of the Bible, especially the book of Proverbs.
Verse 5 Delay is a theme of Matthew at this point in his gospel. It reflects the experience of the delay of the “Second Coming”, the parousia, and a consequent dilution of expectation and readiness. The early church was settling down! See 24:8.
Verses 6-7 Midnight measures the delay—i.e. into the night, but not that far into the night. Unexpected arrivals are a feature of this whole section in Matthew. Interestingly, all ten fell asleep (v. 5) and all ten woke just in time.
Verse 8 Outside the parable, the request might seem logical, giving the others a chance to be “Christian”!
Verse 9 The refusal has behind it a conviction about personal engagement. Visually perhaps we are meant to think of torches soaked in oil rather than lamps.
Verse 10 The foolish ones go shopping, finally bestirred to action but too late. The shutting of the door is a hard saying. The image comes up already in 24:13. Like all the parables, it does not offer a comprehensive picture of reality but selected dimensions to trigger reflection. One cannot keep life’s commitments endlessly on hold.
Verse 11 “Lord, Lord” is used elsewhere in this Gospel in a tremendous warning: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” (Matthew 7:21-22)
Verse 12 The previous citation continues: “Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” (Matthew 7:23). This is also a hard saying, meant to provoke.
Verse 13 Day and hour occur elsewhere (Matthew 20:12; 24:36, 50; 25:13). Not knowing and watchfulness are features in these chapters in Matthew.
Pointers for prayer
1. While the parable has clear end-of-time applications, it can also be applied to any moment of grace. It reminds us that moments of grace come unexpectedly, and we need to be awake to receive them. Recall times when you were alert for such a moment. What were the consequences for you?
2. Grace can also be disturbing. We can be coasting along in life and suddenly an opportunity or a graced moment arrives and we are shaken out of our routine in order to respond. Perhaps you can recall both moments when you were unprepared and moments when you were able to respond. What lessons have you learned from such experiences?
3. We may be tempted to judge the wise virgins as being selfish for not sharing with the others, but perhaps Jesus is teaching us that there are some things that other people cannot provide for us. We have to acquire them ourselves. What qualities in life do you see as the essential oil that you must provide for yourself?
Almighty and ever-living God, remove the obstacles that stand in our way, that unimpeded in body and soul, we may freely devote ourselves to your service.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.