by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Wisdom shines bright and never grows dim.”
Wisdom 6, 12-16
“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…brought no oil with them…”
Matthew 25, 1-13
Two themes running through today’s readings are wisdom and preparedness. To deal with the various challenges we encounter in life, we need to be prepared and we need the gift of wisdom. We know from experience the need to be prepared for the unexpected. However, wisdom is sometimes elusive and difficult to pinpoint, mainly because it seems to change complexion as the situations in which it is needed change. The wisdom needed by parents in raising small children is different from the wisdom required to deal with adolescents. A wise judge is not the same as a wise grandparent or a wise politician. Some people acquire wisdom through suffering and bitter experience, while others demonstrate wisdom when they refuse to endure the suffering and pressure that is being inflicted on them. Sometimes wisdom is equated with common sense, while, at other times, common sense and wisdom seem opposed to one another. There are times when we get the impression that wisdom is being expressed in very carefully crafted sentences and sayings. At other times it is expressed in silence. And paradoxically, in the world of literature, the greatest wisdom comes from the mouths of fools. In today’s first reading, wisdom is personified as a mysterious woman who is there to help those who seek her but who doesn’t push her way in without being invited.
Of interest, then, is the gospel parable of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to turn up for a wedding banquet. Five are described as foolish or less than wise. (The Greek word used to describe them is the word from which “moron” is derived.) Those five were “foolish” because they were negligent and did not plan ahead. The other five were “wise” because they had made sure to bring extra oil for their lamps, just in case the bridegroom was delayed.
This parable occurs only in Matthew’s Gospel, and scripture scholars are unanimous in interpreting the coming of the bridegroom as a symbol for the return or second coming of Jesus at the end of time. Today’s second reading, from Thessalonians, leaves us in no doubt that the very early Christians anticipated that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Moreover, in the section of Matthew’s Gospel immediately preceding the parable of the ten bridesmaids, we are given a detailed description of the end times, in the words of Jesus himself, with a clear indication that they will come sooner rather than later: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man…Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24, 27-35). However, as the years went by hopes of Jesus’ early return faded, and some Christians even expressed doubts as to whether he would come back at all. Others speculated about when he might return, asking how they might be expected to behave during their waiting. Today’s parable of the bridesmaids is Matthew’s attempt to respond to the questions coming from his community, assuring them that Jesus would certainly return and that their duty was to be prepared, despite their having not even a hint of Jesus’ plans. The waiting has now gone on for more than two thousand years, resulting in our not sharing in the sense of urgency felt by first-century Christians.
Yet, down through the centuries there has been an almost endless succession of confident predictions of Jesus’ second coming. Two puzzling predictions from Nostradamus suggested either 1999 or 3797. So don’t hold your breath waiting for the second one. Others have suggested 2012 because that was the last year of the ancient Mayan calendar. Matteo Tafuri (1492-1582), described variously as a philosopher, an astrologer and a sorcerer, claimed that Jesus would return after the tiny southern Italian village of Salento had a two-day long snowfall. Hardly likely, even if climate change is rapid and dramatic. Back in 1143, an Irish bishop declared that Jesus would come again after the 112th successor of Pope Celestine II had died. Pope Francis is the last of the 112! As recently as 1970, the American tele-evangelist, Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth. In it, he predicted that the Second Coming of Christ would occur in the late 1980s, one generation after the founding of modern Israel. By 1980, 28 million copies of the book had been sold. Lindsey, now well over 80 years old, still runs a weekly program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, making endless prophecies and predictions. People have been both fascinated and amused by these “prophets” and their predictions. I wonder if that’s because subconsciously we carry an awareness that time will come to an end and that Jesus will come again!
Every Sunday we stand in our churches and recite the Creed, with varying degrees of conviction and urgency. Perhaps familiarity has deadened my sensitivity, but I find I give only minimal attention to the line: “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” So the readings of today prompt me to ask myself if I’m really looking forward to Christ’s Second Coming or whether I am content to wait listlessly in the interim, in the meanwhile. In his parable of the ten bridesmaids, Matthew offers some advice about how we might go about living in the interim. He encourages us to claim our identity and to be awake to the visitations of Jesus, who comes into our lives every day.
Created in God’s image and stamped by our baptism as Christians, we claim Jesus as our brother. Our identity is that we are brother or sister of Jesus. Does the way I live and relate make me recognisable as such? It is the good I do in my everyday encounters with family, friends and strangers that allows Jesus to recognise me. How I live and relate is part of my personal responsibility. For me, the most challenging part of today’s parable is where the foolish bridesmaids ask the wise ones to share their oil. The latters’ resounding “No!” sounds miserably selfish. But, when I realise that their oil is a symbol of their faith and good deeds, I see immediately that these things are not like frequent-flier points, they are just not transferable. I cannot borrow another’s faith. Nor can I borrow a friend’s good works or his or her hard-earned reputation. If I have failed to measure up, Jesus will have no other option but to say to me the words the bridegroom of the parable said to the foolish bridesmaids: “I tell you honestly that I do not know you.” The way I live proclaims who I really am.
Jesus comes into our lives every day, but in ways that we don’t always recognise. He comes unannounced in the single mother with whom we engage in conversation while waiting for our appointment with the dentist, in the young gay man who turns up in our parish church, admitting that he feels like an outcast, in the company director who acknowledges that, while he has everything he wants, he still feels empty. He comes in the urge I feel to volunteer at the local soup-kitchen, in the refugee who tells me he is hungry. These are the times when you and I need to be awake, alert and prepared. These are the times when the groom arrives and expects to find us ready.
Today’s first reading urges us to cultivate wisdom and to rely on it to guide us in our living. The second reading from Thessalonians offers us the consolation that our fidelity to Jesus will ensure that he will not abandon us. The gospel reading is Matthew’s attempt to keep us alert and ready for every occasion that Jesus comes into our lives: “Watch out, then, because you know neither the day nor the hour.” The clear message of all these readings is that it’s better to be wise than stupid. We’re the only ones who can make that choice.