Sunday of Week 32 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13 

The approaching end of the liturgical year regularly brings the usual warnings about being prepared. We know that in the very early Church the Christians believed that Christ’s Second Coming, and therefore the end of the world, would come very soon, even in their lifetime. By the time the Gospels were put in written form, however, this began to seem less likely. Does that mean that the warnings about readiness can be put aside? Because, for the most of us, it is presumably purely academic to wonder when the end of our universe or of our planet will take place. We are not likely to be around when it happens.

What is much more practical, however, is the end of our own world – the end of our own time here on earth. That is anything but an academic consideration. That is the one reality of our future that we can be absolutely certain about. And we know very well – although we often prefer not to think about it – that it can happen at any time and in any place. Today’s readings bring us face to face with this reality, this fact. They ask us the question: Am I ready? And they imply consideration of a second question: How can I be ready?

The ten bridesmaids
In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus tells a parable, partially an allegory, about something which would be very familiar to his Palestinian readers – a village marriage. Apparently ten girls would be asked to accompany the bride as she awaited the arrival of the bridegroom. The problem was that they had no idea when the bridegroom would turn up and, when it got dark, they would need to have lighted lamps. If the bride’s companions were caught unawares, if they were not around when the bridegroom came, they could be locked out or left behind.

Imagery drawn from marriage was a traditional way to describe the relationship between God and his people. When asked why his disciples, unlike those of John the Baptist, did not fast, Jesus replied:

The wedding attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? (Matt 9:15)

And, a few weeks back, on the 28th Sunday, we saw Jesus tell the parable of the guests invited to the marriage feast of a father’s son.

The ten young women represent disciples of Jesus, as they await his coming. On the basis of what happens later on, five are described as wise or sensible and five as foolish. Their wisdom here consists in their taking prudent steps to do what they need to do in order to come face to face with their Lord.

However, the bridegroom is long in coming. The early expectation of the Second Coming has not been realised. All – both the sensible ones who brought a sufficient supply of oil as well as those who did not – “became drowsy and slept”. Thus it seems that being fully awake at every single moment is not the point, but rather the overall readiness when the time comes to respond.

God of surprises
Then, right in the middle of the night, the cry goes up:

Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.

Our God is a God of surprises. You never know how or when he is going to appear. For some, it is a long-awaited and long-desired announcement; for others, it creates alarm. For those well stocked with the oil of loving service to their brothers and sisters, the cry is one that fills them with joy and anticipation. One thinks of Paul saying:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain…yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Phil 1:21-23)

For those who have squandered the gifts they have been given, the announcement fills them with dread. We might feel that the “wise” young women were rather selfish in refusing to share their oil with the “foolish” in such a critical situation. However, the parables of Jesus normally are making one point taken from some common experience of daily life. The focus is on that one point and other details are not part of it. Another example might be the parable of the dishonest steward who falsified all his employer’s accounts so that he could make sure of future employment for himself. Jesus, who was obviously not condoning this man’s behaviour, only used it as an example of how even a bad person can take prudent steps to guarantee his future.

We can also say in the context of today’s parable that the “oil” of loving service is not strictly speaking transferable to others. Our preparedness to meet the Lord is something that is ultimately only our responsibility. No one can say “Yes” to Christ on my behalf. And, this means that those baptised in infancy also have at some stage to say “Yes”, on the basis of their own faith, to Jesus as their Lord. So, while the foolish young women went off to make up for lost and wasted time, “those who were ready” went into the wedding hall and “the door was closed”. All are invited, but not all get inside. All are called, but few are among the chosen ones. This is not due to any partiality on the bridegroom’s part, but because of the tardiness of some in responding to the invitation. The closed door means that access to Jesus is not automatic or to be altogether taken for granted. And that is precisely the warning in today’s readings.

I do not know you
The foolish young women eventually get back with their necessary supplies of oil and find the door shut in their face, and they say:

Lord, Lord, open to us.

In reply, they hear the most terrible words God could speak to us:

Truly I tell you, I do not know you.

In other words, “I invited you to be part of my wedding, but you have never been with me. You have been asleep or you have been going your own way.”

In an emergency there are some things we can borrow from others at short notice. But to be ready to meet Jesus, to have fully accepted his Gospel vision as part of our life, to walk hand in hand with him is not something we can suddenly wake up to and say, “Give it to me now!” By then, it is just too late. Let us pray, then, today for that wisdom which knows where the real secrets of life and success are.

The First Reading tells us to be constantly on the watch for Lady Wisdom:

One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate.

Not only that:

…she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths and meets them in every thought.

The truly wise person is the one who has not waited until “some time in the future” to make Jesus fully part of their life. For quite a number of Christians it seems that setting up a career and making money are more important priorities than making the Gospel a major part of their lives. It is a risky investment. If there ever was a blue chip for life, it is Jesus and the way of life he offers us in the Gospel. So many pass it up. They are indeed foolish.

The only way
The truly wise person builds his life on Jesus as the Way, on Jesus as Truth and Life, not only for the future but for here and now. The Gospel, understood and adopted, is the only programme that can guarantee fulfilment and happiness right away. The others all depend on an uncertain future.

Such a wise person lives each day in the light of Jesus’ vision. Such people find him in the most ordinary experiences of daily living – in the people they meet, in the events that take place, in the situations in which they find themselves. Jesus is no stranger to them. He can bring many surprises, but he is never unexpected. When they eventually hear the final call, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him”, they are not worried. They are happy and more than ready to meet an old friend face to face.

It is not a question of taking a gamble on making a last-minute confession on your deathbed. A surprising number of people do not die in their beds. It is a question rather of what I plan to do this very day and every day. There is absolutely no better way to prepare for the final call than, first, to put it completely out of one’s head, and, second, to learn to spend each and every day in the company of Jesus:

I am with you always… (Matt 28:20)

There are two short prayers which we may find useful to be said at any time as we go through our day:

Lord, grant that all my thoughts, intentions, actions and responses may be directed solely to your love and service this day.

Help me, Lord, to seek, to find, and to respond to you in every person and every experience of this day.

If these prayers really reflect the fabric of my daily living, then let the bridegroom come when he will – I am ready. Instead of knocking at his door, I will find that he comes to knock at mine:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me. (Rev 3:20)

Today he is certainly going to knock at my door. Will I be in when he does?

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