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The Oil Needed to Keep our Lamps Burning Brightly

November 6, 2017
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A - November 12th, 2017
The three parables of Jesus’ final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel are a fitting way to move toward the end of the liturgical year. The three stories relate three different kinds of accountability required of Christians as they prepare for their glorious encounter with Christ. The first of the three parables tells the story of the servant who is left in charge of the household (24:45-51). Most likely directed at religious leadership, we saw how this parable issues a stern warning to leaders not to grow slack in their service to other Christians simply because the day of judgment may have been delayed.
Today we hear proclaimed the story of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13) and next week we will hear the third narrative of this final section: the well-known parable of the talents (25:14-30). On the surface, it appears to address what we do with our abilities and talents. However we will discover that it speaks of much more than industriousness, courage, and a wise investment of our gifts. There is much more than meets the eye in each of these very instructive stories.
First century Palestinian marriage customs
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins (25:1-13) may be interpreted on many levels. Some scholars have tried to understand this text, unique to Matthew’s Gospel, from a purely historical analysis of matrimonial customs at the time of Jesus. Though not a bad starting point, this does not go to the crux of the enigmatic and intriguing Gospel story.
The high point of the wedding ceremony in Jesus’ time 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 moment is the beginning of Gospel parable.
Ten young women, very likely the groom’s sisters and female cousins, are awaiting his return. Whereas some translate the ten as “bridesmaids,” this may not be the best translation. It is more like young girls who will one day be married! Five are clever young girls and five are not the brightest!
When the bridegroom comes 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 five without oil begged to borrow from the others, but the wise ones were unwilling to give up their resources because then none of the ten would have enough oil. While the five foolish ones were off buying more oil, the bridegroom arrived and was ushered into the marriage feast, and the door was bolted shut.
The clever young girls were prepared for their roles, but the unprepared and dull-witted girls failed to make adequate plans and found themselves closed out of the feast. They didn’t even know how to use the bridegroom’s delay to their advantage!
How God relates to human beings
As with all parables, this one has a double meaning: it is about a wedding celebration but it is also about something else – namely, how God relates to human beings. 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. The lesson to be learned is “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13).
On another level, the parable can refer to the Church and her individual members. Could Matthew have been telling this Gospel story to settle a disagreement within his community as to what the delay of Christ’s return meant? 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. If indeed Matthew told this story to settle such a disagreement, then the lesson passed on to those who first heard the story is how to live with the delay of the return of the Messiah yet remain prepared for his glorious second coming. The parable is clearly a warning to live lives of watchfulness and prudent preparedness. Such virtues are the result of careful attentiveness to the words God has spoken to us.
Being ready
The foolish young girls were not ready when the great moment finally arrived. Those without oil and the guest without the wedding garment in the Gospel reading of several weeks ago (22:11-14) were missing the good works to accompany their faith commitment.
For Matthew, being watchful means being ready at all times, whether waking or sleeping. This parable refers to very ordinary people, and not only to those in the leadership of the ecclesial community. Every person who loves Jesus must persevere in his or her doing and being until Jesus comes, no matter how great is the delay of that coming. Those who endure to the end will be saved (24:13).
Being “ready” in the context of today’s Gospel meant for Matthew the performance of good works. Yet we know that there were other obligations to be fulfilled as well: abstinence from bad behaviour (15:19); love of enemies (5:44); love of other Christians (24:12); forgiveness of those who have wronged us (18:21-35); bold faith (21:21); loyalty to Jesus (10:32); and love of God (22:37).
The oil lamps of our lives
This parable offers a very good example of how Matthew blends vigilance in prayer with a healthy, cooperative spirit toward others. The foolish girls 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 had arrived, the foolish ones hardly deserve any enjoyment in the festivities.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in the famous Sermon on Mount, the crowd was urged by Jesus to let their light shine so that people will see their good works and give praise to their Father in heaven (5:16). The “oil” in today’s parable symbolizes good works and deeds. Wise people 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 neighbours and even strangers.
How often do we have our lamps with us, but no oil to burn in them? Saint Teresa of Calcutta spoke about this very question:
What are the 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 “oil” needed to keep our lamps burning brightly is often the little drops of love, kindness, patience, joy, and selflessness that make it possible for our lives of faith to shine brightly.
Turning the delay into an advantage
Had the young girls shared their oil with each other, the outcome of this parable may have been different. However the point of the story is not about equitable distribution of goods but something deeper. 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!
We learn from today’s Gospel passage that our faith must be accompanied by good deeds that will sustain our spiritual life. When the five foolish young girls went out to meet the bridegroom, they were not prepared. The wise girls stored up their good deeds and had their lamps lit. When the Lord returns, they will be eager to welcome him. The five without the oil represent those who were more concerned with the feast than about longing to see the bridegroom.
The provider of the oil
In reflecting on today’s parable, we must also take into consideration the provider of the oil. Here is a thought for you this week. If oil represents the good works inspired by the Spirit, the oil provider is the dispenser of those good gifts: the Holy Spirit. The five wise girls seem to have been in recent contact with the oil-provider whereas the others had apparently dallied around.
To be prepared in one’s heart and mind to welcome the Lord is a quality or state of being that is learned, refined, and honed over time. It is due to a strong relationship with the provider of the oil; it is non-transferable and cannot simply be passed on to one who is unprepared. It is worked on continually through a lifelong journey that will lead us to the eternal marriage banquet that knows no end.
Let us pray to stay awake and not be away shopping (25:10) when opportunity comes, knocks, and the bridegroom is at the door for us. May we remain always prepared for the final coming but attentive to the people around us who depend on our good deeds, here and now. Let us be sober so as to enter the heavenly wedding feast with the wise young virgins and be found worthy by the Lord of eternal life in his presence.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; and Matthew 25:1-13.]
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