This Sunday, we will hear the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Like Jesus’ other parables, He’s using a scenario that would be familiar to his audience.
To understand this parable, it’s helpful to know something about Jewish weddings. While we don’t know a lot of specifics regarding weddings at the time of Jesus, we do know that there were several stages.
The first stage was the betrothal. While it is similar in some respects to our engagement period, it was more than a simple engagement—the young man and woman were legally married. (This is why Joseph would have had to get a bill of divorce in Matthew 1.) The bride continued to live with her parents during the betrothal, which could last up to a year, while the groom prepared their home.
When it came time for the wedding, the groom went to get his bride after sunset and led her in a procession back to the home he had prepared, where there would be a great feast. The procession was led by maiden torchbearers—the main characters of our parable. As they passed by homes, people would come out and join in the celebration. After they reached their new home, the celebration there could last an entire week or more. Rather than go on a honeymoon, the bride and bridegroom partied and kept open house, receiving all their friends and family.
In Jesus’ parable, half of the maiden torchbearers were not fully prepared for the Bridegroom’s arrival. Perhaps it might seem rude to us that the maidens who do have oil are unwilling to share. But when we consider the possible outcome—that the supply may then run out for everyone—we can see that their decision is prudent, not selfish.
In addition, if you think of what the oil symbolizes, it cannot be shared. Christ is speaking about being prepared at His coming, and most Scripture scholars agree: the oil represents our good works, the virtues of a holy life, the gifts of the Spirit, and/or the gift of faith. This correlation has been used by Jesus before, in the Sermon on the Mount, when he spoke to his followers about letting their works shine like a lamp on a lampstand: “Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (cf. Mt 5:15-16).
At the end of time, as much as we would like to share our faith, our good works, our virtues with our loved ones, everyone will be judged on their own lives and decisions. William Barclay comments on this passage, “We cannot borrow a relationship with God; we must possess it for ourselves. We cannot borrow a character; we must be clothed with it. We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital which others have amassed. There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 374).
The Bridegroom has a harsh rebuke for the foolish and therefore tardy virgins when they come to the door: “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” This might sound like an extreme response for a trivial slip-up. Yet the maidens knew what was expected of them. They knew their responsibility. And they neglected it.
We generally think of this parable in terms of the end of our lives or the end of the world. The parables in this section of Matthew’s Gospel can be applied to the Parousia, the Second Coming. But the Bridegroom comes to greet us long before that. Parousia, the word we use for this final coming, was used by the early Church to describe something else: the coming of Christ in the Eucharist at Mass. At every Mass we share in this eternal wedding banquet of heaven, which is why St. Thomas Aquinas called the Eucharist, “a pledge of future glory.”
Are we prepared today for Christ’s coming? Not just at the end of our lives, but when He desires to come into our lives today, tomorrow, or on Sunday? Do I live each day ready to meet the Bridegroom? Do I realize I meet him at Mass?
It’s a good examination of conscience. How can I better prepare myself to meet Him at Mass? I can get to Mass early to prepare my heart. I can read the Mass readings ahead of time. I can pray for the faith and awareness that Jesus is truly present on the altar.
Perhaps at times we are so busy thinking about tomorrow, we forget the Lord wants to meet us today.
(This parable is one of the parables included in my bible study on the parables, Mysteries of the Kingdom, available here.)