Reflection on the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As we move closer to the end of the liturgical cycle, the Gospel readings point toward the death of Jesus on the cross and to the resurrection. As one commentary put it, the whole of each Gospel is but a long prelude to Good Friday. Each Gospel ends with the events surrounding Jesus death. In Matthew’s Gospel, the parable of the 10 virgins is placed shortly before the recounting of those final days in Jesus’ life, and so we can better understand it in that context. The 10 virgins represent the Church, and the oil represents the Spirit at work in our lives. The message is to be ready.
In preparing for this homily I learned more about marriage in the first century A.D. than I ever wanted to know but it was helpful in understanding the parable. In biblical times, one did not just set a date for the wedding and invite people to a specific place at a specific time. It was a bit more complicated than that. There were three stages involved in marriage. The first was what we would call an engagement period that lasted a year or more, sometimes several more, during which time the bride and groom lived in their own homes while the groom and his father set up a dowry and prepared a room at his family home where the couple would live. The beginning of this period was when the marriage was officially recognized and made legal with a contract, but the couple was not allowed to live together. The two fathers agreed on the dowry amount, which could be in kind or in money. When everything — the dowry and place to live —was ready, the wedding ceremony would be announced, and the groom would go to meet his bride and bring her to his parent’s house.
Stage two: This is where the 10 virgins come into the story. They represent the bridesmaids. There were also male counterparts. Knowing the wedding was about to happen they would be waiting for the bridegroom to arrive. The timing was uncertain, but when he appeared, they would all enter the house and lock the door. If you were late, too bad. It was at this time that the marriage would be consummated in her parents’ home, with the groomsmen, bridesmaids and parents as witness.
Stage three: The groom would then bring his bride to a feast in his father’s house. It would be a joyful procession and a banquet to celebrate the happy occasion. This is the background for Jesus’ parable. But what does that parable mean for us?
We are the Church, the virgins awaiting the bridegrooms coming. We have oil lamps to keep burning representing the work of the Spirit within us. Here is one way of looking at it. Suppose someone decided to enter a swim meet. They would not just jump up from their easy chair and go out to the location of the meet. If they were serious about winning, they would practice for hours every day to get their body and mind in shape for the big occasion. It might take them months to get in shape. Only after long hours of preparation would they feel ready for the competition.
So, what does preparing for a swim meet have to do with the 10 virgins. Think about it. We don’t become truly Christian just because we have been baptized. It isn’t some magical formula. It is a way of life. It takes work, study, thoughtfulness, action and serious intent. We need to work at staying in good spiritual shape. The wise virgins were vigilant and had their oil with them. They had done their work. They represent the Christians and other good people who practice what they have learned. They look to the needs of others, take love and kindness seriously and are faithful followers. They are the swimmers who know how to be prepared. They are the virgins who keep their lamps trimmed and make sure they have extra oil.
There are others who call themselves Christians but do not keep oil on hand to replenish the supply in their lamps. They may stand in front of a church with Bible in hand, but separate children from their parents. They may use money gained by cheating their clients to build a giant house of worship and never give a cent to the poor. They may not ever read the beatitudes and apply them to themselves. And it may not be their fault — they may never have met someone that could help them understand and grow into Christian values. Whatever the reason, they do not have oil for their lamps when they most need it. They have not in any way prepared themselves for a relationship with the Bridegroom any more than the “couch potato” swimmer has prepared him/herself for the swim meet. The Wedding Feast arrives, but they are not ready because they have not prepared in any way. Nobody can do it for us. We have to do the work yourself.
This is what Peter will discover when he loudly announces, “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:35). In his gentle way, Jesus warns Peter that he will deny him three times — in short, that he knows what Peter is made of and will forgive his weakness when it happens. But the point is that Peter will learn from this how vital it is to keep in training for the swim meet — to call on the oil of the Spirit to remain faithful.
In first reading from the Book of Wisdom we were given good advice. Think of wisdom as the Spirit leading us, the oil in our lamps.
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,
and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways and meets them with all solicitude.