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The Biblical Oil Crisis: Breaking Down What the Synod Is All About

October 22, 2008
oillamp.jpgAmong the many messages from every corner of the world that have arrived in response to these daily Synod Diaries, one message asked if I could give an example of what all this Scripture study, exegesis and biblical criticism means and looks like for ordinary folks.
The writer asked me to "apply some of this technical talk in the aula to an New Testament story so that I can understand what you people are talking about in Rome!"
I will do that gladly. This is what the synod is all about.
Begin by reading the Gospel story slowly. Jesus used parables to teach very important lessons. True disciples of Jesus are those who are ready to receive wisdom and can think symbolically. The indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.
Let's consider for a moment the well-known parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-14). Jesus' crucifixion is only three days away. He uses this parable to help us understand the events of his coming judgment and the importance of our being ready.
Starting point
The story of the wise and foolish virgins may be interpreted on many levels. Many try to understand the story from purely an historical analysis of matrimonial customs at the time of Jesus. Admittedly, this is not a bad starting point. The high point of the wedding ceremony occurred when the groom, accompanied by his relatives, went to the family house of the bride to transfer her to his home. It is here that the rest of the ceremony took place. This, then, is the beginning of Gospel parable.
The groom has gone out to seek his bride. Ten young teenagers, very likely the groom's sisters and female cousins, are awaiting his return. Actually, "bridesmaids" may not be the best translation. It is more like, young girls who will one day be married. Five are clever young people and five are not the brightest.
When the bridegroom came at midnight, they all rose to light their lamps; but only five who had thought ahead and bought sufficient oil were able to do so. The others wanted to borrow from them, but the wise virgins were unwilling to give up their resources because then none of the 10 would have enough oil.
So while the five foolish maidens were off buying more oil, the bridegroom arrived and was ushered into the marriage feast, and the door was bolted shut. The clever teenagers were prepared for their roles, but the dull-witted failed to make adequate plans and found themselves shut out of the feast. They didn't even know how to put the bridegroom's delay to their advantage.
Double meaning
As with all parables, so too does this one have a double meaning: It is about a wedding party but also about something else, namely, how God relates to human beings. The lesson to be learned is "watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." The simplest meaning, and probably the one most relevant to Jesus' historical situation, is that those who were in tune with the wisdom of God had "ears to hear" and accepted his message. Those who rejected it found themselves rejected.
On another level, the parable can refer to the Church and her individual members. The parable is clearly a warning to live lives of watchfulness and prudent preparedness. Such virtues are the result of careful attentiveness to the Word of God -- hearing it and living it. We cannot sleep on the job.
The delay of the "parousia" (second coming of Christ) is symbolized by the wait for the bridegroom. Everything else was ready at the marriage feast; only the bridegroom was missing.
The 10 young women waiting indicated that his arrival was imminent, just as Matthew's community believed that the final coming of Jesus was imminent. But the bridegroom's delay symbolized the delay of the final coming of Jesus. Matthew could have been telling this wonderful Gospel story of the wise and foolish virgins at the wedding feast to settle a disagreement within his community as to what the delay of Christ's return meant and how to live with that delay but stay prepared for the arrival.
Wise people, wise teachers, wise pastors, wise administrators are vigilant, like the bridesmaids in the Gospel story who brought not only their lamps but also enough oil to last the night. Wise people are those who are concerned for the daily needs in one's own family and among the wider family of neighbors and even strangers. In some Jewish traditions "oil" symbolizes good deeds.
In the parable, Matthew blends vigilance in prayer with a healthy cooperative spirit toward others. The foolish bridesmaids did nothing in preparation for the wedding feast, or else were putting off their part of the work, or again were squandering their time. Suddenly, when all were awakened to the fact that the Bridegroom has arrived, the foolish ones hardly deserve any enjoyment in the festivities. How often do we have our lamps with us, but no oil to burn in them?
Is not the crux of the problem the very behavior that springs from a sharply diminished hope? Tedium, slackness, half-heartedness, postponements, lack of kindness, being self-absorbed and being oblivious of the suffering and pain of others, is the qualities of such behavior. The "oil" needed to keep our lamps burning brightly is often the little drops of love, kindness, patience, joy, selflessness, which make it possible for our life of faith to shine brightly.
Had the bridesmaids shared their oil with each other, the outcome of this parable may have been different. However the point of the story is to shake us up, not to lull us into an "and they lived happily ever after." We shouldn't be dreaming of ever-afters, for now is the time. Today could be the very end of time! If time didn't have an end and could be extended arbitrarily, all human action would degrade into inconsequential games. During the time we have remaining, we have the privilege of sharing our hope in someone coming who is worth waiting for.
Stay awake!
We must pray to stay awake, to always remain prepared for the final coming and to live in such a way that we are reckoning with the present but living aware of the future. The point of today's story is clear: Precisely because the time of the arrival of the bridegroom is uncertain, it is even more necessary that one stand in a state of readiness to welcome him.
I share with you a quote of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who may have never attended the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome nor the École biblique de Jérusalem for advanced Scripture studies. But she understood far better than I ever will what this parable is all about.
"What are these oil lamps in our lives?
They are the little everyday things:
Faithfulness, punctuality, kind words, thoughtfulness of another person, The way we are silent at times, the way we look at things, The way we speak, the way we act.
"Those are the little drops of love
Which make it possible for our life of faith to shine brightly."
The point of today's story is clear: Precisely because the time of the arrival of the bridegroom is uncertain, it is even more necessary that one stand in a state of readiness to welcome him. In other words, Matthew tries to change the very source of the problem -- the delay of the end and the return of Christ -- into an advantage.
The delay itself is meant to sharpen our hope. The delay itself calls us and moves us to a greater fidelity, vigilance and love. Distance and waiting make the heart grow fonder! Cardinal John Henry Newman addressed this situation in one of his homilies, stating: "Time does not take us away from Christ."
Just when you thought that this Gospel story was about a wedding feast, or the equal distribution of our goods and possessions, especially to those in need, you may be pleasantly surprised. There is much more to Jesus’ parables than what meets the eye.
Basilian Father Thomas Rosica is the Vatican's English-language press attache for the 2008 world Synod of Bishops. A Scripture scholar and university lecturer, he is the chief executive officer of the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network in Canada, and a member of the General Council of the Congregation of St. Basil.

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