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Some background to the Parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins

November 11, 2011

You may be surprised by some of the stuff in this homily. If you’ve ever been confused by the meaning of the parable about the wise and foolish virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13), I explain why Matthew uses this story in the way he does – then I think it makes a whole lot more sense (and just as relevant to Christians today.)

[The other readings this Sunday are Wisdom 6:12-16 and 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18]

When Matthew’s Gospel was first published, the complete split between Judaism and Christianity had still not taken place. Christians in the early days of the Church continued to be members of their local synagogues, and then, in addition, would meet up and celebrate the Mass in their own homes. So Matthew wrote in a style that would appeal to the widest audience – to both encourage the Christians in the synagogue to keep to their new-found Faith in Jesus, and also help to convince any potential converts in the synagogue that Christianity was indeed the right path to follow.

Those early Christians, still attending at the synagogue, believed that Jesus, the Messiah, was going to return for His Second Coming during their own lifetimes, and they were very concerned that their fellow Jews would not be properly prepared for that moment. Many of the Jewish traditionalists, on the other hand, thought the Christians were obsessed with the Second Coming – they were suspicious of the new Christian ideas and weren’t interested in talking about it.

When Matthew’s book was first published, it caused a sensation. And today’s Gospel is an excellent example of why it became a best seller.

* First, Matthew uses a traditional Jewish method of religious instruction – the parable; so his readers are comfortable with this style of writing.

 * second, he uses as his theme the idea of the traditional Jewish weddings – and so places the new Christian teaching right at the centre of Jewish culture and life. Matthew is emphasising the ‘Jewishness’ of Christian belief to reassure potential converts; and

* third, he puts a new twist on a parable that many Jews already knew, a parable used by another highly respected Jewish teacher in those times, Johanan ben Zakkai. He had already told a similar parable. It was about a king who invites his servants to a banquet, but doesn’t say when the banquet will take place. The king’s wise servants are ready and dressed; the foolish are not.  And then, completely unexpectedly, the King summons them all. The servants who are properly dressed get to have a feast with the king; those in their ordinary clothes have to stand and watch from the sidelines.

 Note how Jesus changes ben Zakkai’s original parable:

  • The king becomes a bridegroom;
  • Jesus’ bridegroom doesn’t summon his servants, he comes to where they are; and
  • the servants are female.

The first Christians were seen by many as having ideas that would turn society upside down: ideas such as preaching equality of Jews and Greeks, saying that the first would be last and the last first; a vision of the leader being the servant of all; and in today’s Gospel, giving women far greater equality and prominence in religious practice and teaching.

 Matthew’s audience wouldn’t have needed any explanation about weddings. But we do, because otherwise we’ll be confused about what’s going on and so miss the full meaning of the parable.

A Jewish wedding in the first century was very different to the way we do things today. They had two stages to a weddings. Part one was when a man and a woman were ‘betrothed’. Sometimes took place at a very early age. Betrothal was more formal than our modern idea of engagement – and betrothal required divorce to end the process. Mary and Joseph were ‘betrothed’ like this. After betrothal (sometimes years later) came part two of the wedding. The bridegroom would come to his bride’s house to ceremonially claim her. And sometimes the bridesmaids would come out to meet the groom as he approached, which is what happened in today’s gospel.

 Then the happy couple would go in joyful procession back to his house for the wedding feast. It was for this wedding procession that the bridesmaids needed oil lamps. Why? Because the bride and groom traditionally made their way back to his house after dark, because at night, with torches, the whole thing that much more spectacular. As you may have heard, we don’t have firework displays during the day – we wait for it to go dark, then it’s much more fun.  So that is why the bridesmaids needed oil lamps – the bridesmaids would use them on the joyful night procession back to the feast.

 But, in the parable that Jesus told, things didn’t go entirely the way to plan. The groom was unexpectedly late, and it had already gone dark before he arrived.

 Can you see how this was a message to those Christians thinking that Jesus would arrive to take them to heaven before those who believed in Him had died…. before it went dark?

 For the bride, the failure of the groom to arrive would have been very alarming and confusing. (No mobile phones!) Why hadn’t he turned up? An accident? Was he lost, and booked into a Travelodge overnight?

 And then, worst of all, some of the bridesmaids had an even worse thought. They were worldly wise. Call me cynical, they might have said, but do you really think he’s ever going to turn up? You can imagine what they were saying:

 “I knew he wasn’t right for her….”

“I never trusted than man…..”

“Mmn, I always thought there was another woman…”

 Oh dear, this is really worrying. This is what we call the wisdom of the world.

 And should the bride and her maids stay up or go to bed? What are they supposed to do now?

 

This was what the early Christians were asking when they began to realise that the Second Coming was not going to happen in their own lifetimes. The fact that Christians were dying before Jesus’ return was a real challenge to their faith, and no doubt their critics amongst the orthodox Jews would have really enjoyed their discomfort. Saint Paul, in the second reading, is writing to the Thessalonians about this problem, telling them not to worry, reassuring them of the truth of the resurrection, and telling them not to grieve like those who have no hope of the resurrection.

 Yet in the Gospel, five bridesmaids refuse to think the worst and give up hope. They don’t think the bride has been double-crossed – and show their trust in the bridegroom by getting themselves extra oil in case he arrives that very night. In fact, they are wise bridesmaids.

 The other bridesmaids are the foolish ones – they think the preparation is a waste of time, naïve and unrealistic: they simply go off to sleep.

 The different reactions of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is an allegory, a message being sent in Matthew’s Gospel to the Christians who remain convinced that the Messiah, although later than expected, is definitely still going to come again. These wise Christians are certainly a bit bemused at the unexpected delay, but, as we’ve seen, encouraged in their faith by fellow Christians like Saint Paul, they remain confident – they trust Jesus not to abandon his bride, they believe His promise that He will return, and they continue to wait in hope. They have the gift of Wisdom, granted by God, the wisdom we heard about in today’s first reading. The foolish bridesmaids in the parable are the Christians’ critics in the synagogues, the traditional Jews who have never really had faith in this character Jesus and who are very suspicious of his promises. They are making no special effort to prepare for the Second Coming.

 And then what happens in the parable? Hooray, word comes that the bridegroom is indeed about to arrive. It’s the middle of the night, but come on, let’s go and meet him! What a relief, we’ve been so worried. Let’s go out and meet him as he comes in to town! But only five of the bridesmaids are ready. The wise ones, with extra oil for their lamps.

 We Catholics still firmly believe in the Second Coming, just like those fellow Christians in the synagogues two thousand years ago.

 *    In the Creed we will all proclaim our belief that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in heaven “from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” That’s the Second Coming.

 

*   During this Mass, through the Mystery of the Eucharist, we will be joined in our worship of God in the timeless Communion of Saints – us pilgrims on earth, those of us in heaven, and those of us being purified in a state of purgatory – millions and millions of Christians, yes including those early Christians in the synagogues who were convinced of the truth of the Second Coming. The people who heard Matthew’s Gospel when it was first published, they’ll be here with us, joining in when we all cry out, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy….’

 * And listen to the words of Eucharistic Prayer III (soon after we all join in the Mystery of Faith): he will say these words  “as we look forward to his second coming

 

Now, let me ask you something. Don’t you sometimes think those wise bridesmaids are being just a little a bit selfish by not sharing their oil with the others?

 In the marriage procession described in the parable, sharing out the oil simply isn’t a practical option. If the oil had been shared out, none of the bridesmaids would have enough oil – all of the lights would have gone out before the procession was over – a dreadful lack of respect for the bridegroom and shameful social disgrace.

 The spiritual understanding of not being able to share the oil is still more profound: The oil can be seen as ‘good works’. The fruits of following a virtuous life, gained by living according to the teachings of Jesus, they are fruits that cannot simply be shared out or bought for money when they are needed in an emergency. It is certainly foolish to think that you can become a virtuous person, become closer to God, by simply relying on the good works and devotion to God of other people. There are a lot of foolish people in this world – they convince themselves they can neglect their relationship with God.

 Entering in to a deep, personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ takes time and effort. Sometimes a lifetime. God dearly wants each of us to have a closer friendship with Him, but it’s a two-way process. You only get to know God better by closer contact with Him. That means learning about Him, listening to Him, worshipping Him. AND allowing Him to change the way we lead our lives. We do all this preparation to be ready, ready for either the Second Coming or for our own death, whichever comes first. We prepare by being part of God’s people in the Christian community, the Church. Growing in God’s Grace through the Sacraments, good works, loving our neighbours, developing our prayer life.

 As we approach Advent, think about what you’re going to do in terms of preparing spiritually for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. We often get distracted by the foolish ways of this world and focus 100% on His first coming at Bethlehem. But for grown-up Christians, Advent is also very much about preparing for His Second Coming. So, this week, Holy Mother Church is nudging you. Do make sure you’re prepared. You know He’s coming. Don’t rely upon other people’s preparations to carry you through.

 

You just might come a cropper like those foolish bridesmaids.

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