32nd. SUNDAY OF YEAR (A)
Let your light shine before men so that they see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, our parable about the Wise and Foolish Virgins -- bridesmaids for this occasion -- can be understood quite simply, but then with only a modicum of truth; to find its fuller significance, we must needs apply our minds to consider various aspects of the story and also the whole style and purpose of Jesus’ public ministry.
Understood simply, the five foolish virgins seem to have been prepared for pleasure rather than for a duty. Their ‘job’ so to speak, was to wait for the coming of the bridegroom together with his friends – which could have happened quickly enough, but which most probably would take some time due to meetings on the way, involving congratulatory words from and celebratory drinks with their relatives and friends. As a result, those bridesmaids, waiting to lead the groom and his party to the bride’s paternal home where the matrimonial ceremonies would take place, had to be prepared for whichever eventuality: early or late.
However, the five ‘Foolish Virgins’ were not prepared for the bridegroom’s delayed coming and had to rush off to buy some more oil for their failing torches. While they were away the bridegroom arrived and the procession had to be led to the bride’s family home by an odd-numbered group of bridesmaids carrying only half the desired festival lights, along ways with no modern paving stones and no public lighting. Now that reflected very badly on the father wanting to be seen as giving his daughter ‘a good send-off’, and it would have embarrassed the bride-to-be very much. It was no ‘understandable’ mistake by the foolish five, it was indeed a thoughtless oversight with serious repercussions, one of which was that on returning with oil they were not welcomed back for the official ceremonies and parental leave-taking of the bride, the splendour and festal character of whose wedding they had so publicly compromised.
The moral of the parable thus understood would be -- and it is, of course, a most serious and necessary teaching -- that the Kingdom of Heaven is open only for those who are seriously prepared to embrace it.
We should notice, in passing, that the last sentence, ‘Stay awake, therefore, for you do not know the day or the hour’, does not fit in with the fact that all ten of the bridesmaids had fallen asleep, not just the five foolish ones ... it may be an additional exhortation by some copyist over the course of time ... certainly Jesus Himself did not say it, although He could have used those same words elsewhere (cf. Mt. 24:36).
We can, however, learn more about how we are to respond to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand for those who repent by giving our attention and applying our minds.
First of all: the point of highlighting the five foolish virgins is the fact that their torches were going out. I think we must all agree that for those entrusted to light the way to the future bride’s parental home where the actual wedding ceremony was to take place, it was absolutely essential that their torches be able to shine as brightly as possible for processional pomp and to show the way for the bridegroom and his party to his wife-to-be’s parental home for the marriage ceremonies despite possible darkness and obstacles!
Secondly, and here we have the essential point of the parable: what is the significance of those burning torches, so essential for entry into the wedding celebration? And the answer is, scholars agree, they refer to good works; for the door closed to the foolish bridesmaids could only be opened by one to whom they called, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us’ and with those words we listeners are no longer waiting to see what will happen next at this imaginary tale, but are brought back to actual reality: Jesus is using this parable to teach, He is not just telling an interesting story for His hearers to enjoy, He is using an instructive parable to teach His hearers something most important about Him Who indeed is Lord, Lord.
Saint Matthew has other words of Jesus connecting lighted lamps with good works:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. (5:16)
And with words most pertinent to our parable:
Not everyone who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he who does the will of My Father’ (7:21)
Saint Peter told his disciples
Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that if they speak of you as evildoers, they may observe your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)
And St. Paul who learnt the Gospel he proclaimed from Jesus Himself, has:
This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to insist, that those who have believed in God be careful to devote themselves to good works; these are excellent and beneficial to others. (Titus 3:8)
Saint John in his Gospel tells us of Jesus saying:
I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him bears much fruit .... My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples. (15:5,8)
And, of course, Saint James is most insistent in his letter on saying, repeatedly, in various ways:
Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (2:17)
In our parable, the foolish Virgins liked their friend very much they thought, and they were looking forward to helping her, but they had no works, their oil ran out!
Faith, and works of charity-in-all-their-varied-forms, are as intimately connected to each other as the inside and the outside, where the outside expresses, mirrors forth, embodies, gives appropriate shape and form to, the inside.
Today, such essential mutuality, complementarity, in our lives, is largely denied.
The majestic order and beauty of our functioning, living, world is not seen to manifest anything of One Who is other and greater; sins are not recognized as revealing what is evil hidden within our hearts and minds, they are only sicknesses, to be cured or treated as does a vet caring for animals; even our good, our very best, deeds serve no purpose other than the passing, personal, glory of those involved; our boasted scientific knowledge remains almost totally ignorant of the reality behind the factual scraps it gathers. Above all perhaps, today the complementarity of man and woman in the one reality which is humanity is ignored, denied!
God and man, Creator and creation, right and wrong, true and false, all these mutual realities, complementary beings, relationships, and facts, are reduced to man and the world we live in as we understand it, to what is legal and what is criminal in our society, to what we will and will not accept in our closely-closeted self-awareness.
Dear People of God, there is far, far more to us than our modern world will acknowledge; and though for us believers, the inside of our cup of life is of supreme importance, nevertheless, we will never know much of our true selves if we fail to weigh and give attention to the outside. As Catholics our faith has to be complemented by, completed and fulfilled, in works; too often there is a contradiction between what is professed in faith and what is done, and the whole Christian effort may be regarded as an effort – under the grace and guidance of God – to bring about unity in our lives, to make the inside and outside of our being and behaviour complementary to each other, to reconcile the flesh and the spirit; by faith and good works to become perfectly human and truly divine, able to taste the peace, joy, and fulness of life promised and bestowed by Christ.
The mistake of the foolish virgins was their complacent feelings of friendship for their friend and bride to be, and their anticipation of a joyful wedding; that complacent feeling was their ‘faith’ which they did not turn into true friendship by making preparations for the work to be done; and that failed friendship became selfishness as they looked forward and prepared to personally enjoy the coming event.
People of God, we must all make sure that our faith is not mere emotional thinking or warm feelings that cover and disguise a deep selfishness: selfishness is natural to us, faith has to be learned by humble and grateful acceptance before being confirmed and consolidated by works. But, in all such endeavours our works must be expressive of the Faith we profess; indeed a witness to the presence, and supremacy of, the Spirit of Jesus in our lives as children of Mother Church, if we are to fulfil that ultimate aspiration of our Christian being, to become, in Jesus, true children of the One Father of us all in heaven.