Given for the Dominican Sisters’ Young Women’s Weekend Retreat, Greyfriars Convent, Elgin
Apparently, in the Palestine of New Testament times, it was customary for a wedding banquet to take place at night. After an official and rather lengthy betrothal (cf. Mt 1:18), the Bridegroom would come, at a pre-arranged time, to the parental home of the Bride. She would come out, surrounded by crowds of her relatives and friends, who would lead her in procession, with torches and singing and dancing, to her new wedding home. There a feast would be held for all. After that, the guests would depart, leaving the couple in peace, for the first time together alone, and now definitively married.
Jesus presses this scenario into service as a parable for his Kingdom. The Ten Virgins, or Bridesmaids, represent all Christians as they wait for Christ to return at the end of time in glory. But according to the parable, when he comes, he finds that half of them are unprepared. They’re not evil; just rather lazy, shallow, thoughtless. They had been hoping to free wheel into the feast, maybe relying on the good works of others to get them there. But according to the conclusion to our Gospel today, instead they hear the spine-chilling sentence: Amen I say to you: I do not know you.
Jesus is speaking in Jerusalem, according to St. Matthew’s Gospel, in the last days before his passion and death. He is looking ahead to the time of the Church, and urging his disciples, in no uncertain terms, to spiritual vigilance. Entrance to heaven, he teaches, is not simply assured for all. We cannot expect to drift gently and without effort into eternal salvation. Until the end of time, we must realise the necessity and urgency of preaching and living the Gospel; striving for true holiness of life; remaining always morally and spiritually awake. Nowadays that’s not a message that’s easy for people to hear. It fits very well though with a young women’s weekend retreat in a house of Religious Sisters! You’ve come here precisely to top up the metaphorical oil in your lamps. That is: you’ve come to affirm and build up your faith; to strengthen and deepen your relationship with the Lord; to take stock of your life in the light of eternity.
I wonder if you’ve noticed the strange absence in the parable of the Bride? She is not mentioned at all. Instead, all the focus is on the Bridesmaids. The Greek word for that is “parthenos”, which means “virgin”, but also more generally any young unmarried woman. To go a little bit beyond the actual text of the parable: I think we can put each one of these, at least potentially, in the place of the absent Bride. According to this reading, the Christian life as such could be considered as a time of betrothal. Now our divine Spouse Jesus is both present and also absent. When he comes again, then our definitive marriage with him will take place. So today: Jesus certainly warns us that we can fail in our vocation to heaven through our own fault. But more deeply and radically, he is here inviting us, calling us, all of us, to union with himself, to the mystical marriage, to that perfect love which will be consummated forever in heaven. It’s for us now to respond generously to his call, to his love, to the life with himself which he offers us. If we do that, we will find ourselves somehow identified with the one Bride of Christ, his holy and immaculate Church. The perfect figure of the Church of course is our Blessed Lady, whose Immaculate Heart is forever and perfectly united with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The parable of the Ten Virgins is found in St. Matthew’s Gospel alone. But this carefully constructed and very coherent Gospel offers us many parallel passages, which help us to interpret it correctly. Think, for example, of the wise and foolish house builders (7:24ff.). The wise, who builds his house on rock, is identified as the one who hears the words of Jesus, and acts on them. The foolish, who builds on sand, is identified as one who hears his words and does not act on them. Or again: we can certainly take the lamps of the parable as symbols of good works. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven (5:16). As for the oil: it can be a symbol of carrying out God’s will. Jesus says again: 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... Then I shall say to them: I have never known you. Depart from me, you evil doers (7:21ff.) Or again: to parallel the failure of the foolish virgins, think of the parable of the Sower. Some seed sprang up at first, but then soon withered away, for it had no root. That is: when trial or persecution comes, such a person gives up and falls away. Other seed was choked by thorns; that is, the worries of the world and the lure of riches; and so bore no fruit (13:20ff.). As for the final separation of the good from the bad, think for example of the parable of the darnel sowed amongst the wheat (13:30), or the drag net with all sorts of fish in it (13:47), or the Final Judgement scene, in which sheep are separated from goats (25:32). And for the wedding banquet, we have the parable in Chapter 22. There a King, symbol of God the Father, gives a banquet for his Son, symbol of Christ the Messiah. That parable too ends on a harsh note, as the unprepared wedding guest is thrown into the darkness outside.
In the centre of today’s parable there is a thrilling cry. Behold the Bridegroom! Go out to meet him! It’s the cry each of us will hear, in some way, at the moment of our death. And now, in the Holy Eucharist, the same cry goes up. Jesus is here! He is coming from heaven to earth; from his Father’s glory, to you and me, here and now, in order to give himself to us, in love, and without reserve. And we respond in the words of today’s Psalm (62):
O God, you are my God, for you I long, (or keep watch),
For you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry weary land without water.
Come then, Lord. Come quickly. And grant us the gift of your Holy Spirit, so that we may be ready to meet you. May we be found truly poor in spirit, in order that we might possess the Kingdom of heaven. And may we be found with pure hearts, in order that, at last, we may truly see God (5:8).