32nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
'Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.'
But the wise ones replied,
'No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.'
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!'
But he said in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.'
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour."
All three of the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] end the public ministry of Jesus on an apocalyptic note—future destiny. Dr. France identifies in Matthew’s Gospel three distinct parables about the need for watchfulness: (1) the slaves left in charge (24: 45-51); (2) Sunday’s Gospel text above; and (3) the parable of the talents, the Gospel for the weekend after next. All three parables involve doing one’s duty at the time of reckoning. They are followed by the famous Last Judgment Gospel, which will be proclaimed on the Feast of Christ the King, coinciding with Thanksgiving Weekend this year.
Sunday’s Gospel is probably familiar to many of you. However, its translation, setting, and theological meanings may be somewhat more mysterious. France calls this text “The Parable of the Girls Waiting for the Bridegroom.” (pp. 946ff) He argues that our knowledge of Jewish wedding customs in Jesus’ day is not well established. The American NAB and NABRE translations refer to “ten virgins,” but the Greek term “virgin” indicates unmarried friends or relatives of either the bride or the bridegroom. Their role in the wedding scene here is hard to say, though France suggests a torchlight procession to welcome the bridegroom to his home in his new status. In any event, the girls were entrusted with some sort of nighttime wedding ritual.
The key point is that the bridegroom is delayed. All ten girls fell asleep. France is careful to explain that mere sleeping is not the offense. The problem is what happened (or did not happen) before they retired. The wise young ladies obtained oil, trimmed their wicks, and were ready to proceed whenever the master/bridegroom returned home. In Matthew’s narrative, the wedding feast would begin upon his return. (If the Wedding Feast of Cana is an accurate description, a wedding “reception” could last for days.) Moreover, a wedding was the most solemn event of a typical Judaean’s lifetime. In small towns the presence and absence of guests was something of a social barometer. To miss a wedding, or fail to be invited, was a cause of profound shame.
France translates the Gospel text about the girls here as “sensible” versus “silly.” This is a literary device in other parts of Matthew: a sensible man builds his house on rock; a silly man builds upon shifting sand. Matthew equates sensibility with wisdom, the ability to plan. In another Gospel text Jesus points to the folly of Noah’s neighbors who ate and drank up to the moment the ark door closed.
A torch or lamp contained about fifteen minutes of light. This means that all ten would have to be filled and lit when the master returned. What separates the two groups of girls is that half of them had purchased enough stores of oil on the preceding day. The shortsighted and unprepared young ladies asked their cohorts to share, but the five correctly point out that to do so would result in all the lamps going out before the solemn moment. The negligent five are instructed to strike out and look for a merchant in the middle of the night—without lighting, don’t forget. Throughout his book, France reminds us that parables are often exempt from the hard scrutiny of practicality.
In Matthew’s day—a half-century after the death of Christ—one could hardly read this text without thoughts of the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ in eternal glory. The idea of second coming was undergoing reconsideration. In St. Paul’s day three decades earlier, the second coming was expected imminently. But as time and the Church itself extended further in the future, the expectation of an immediate return of Jesus was projected further over the horizon of time. Attention shifted from the immediacy of judgment and glory to the cares of everyday life. Like the five foolish girls, watchfulness had succumbed to other preoccupations, and ultimately to sleep.
Matthew records that the door was locked once the bridegroom and his entourage—including the vigilant five with their lamps. This seems a bit hard, but it is not nearly as hard as the exclusion of the unfaithful in the judgment parable two weeks hence on the Feast of Christ the King. Matthew’s text is populated with stories of insiders and outsiders, faithful observers and the pseudo-religious. Moreover, the bridegroom’s caustic reply to the distraught girls, “I don’t know you,” is jarring, given that the ladies were family and friends. We get a general idea here that the faithful soul is always preoccupied for the service of the Lord, and accountable always. This is the preferred interpretation of the closing sentence. The follower of Jesus who spends his or her day in constant service can sleep like a baby, for there will be no unexpected awakening that would find him unprepared. “Staying awake” is conversional vigilance, not sleep deprivation.