Saturday, November 9, 2013
The parable of the ten virgins
Preparing for the sudden coming of God in our life
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection. Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to guide the reading:
Our meditation is on the parable of the ten virgins or the ten young girls. In his parables, Jesus loves to make use of well-known facts in the life of the people as a means of comparison in order to clarify some unknown aspect of the Realm of God. In the parable of the ten virgins, he builds a story around the different attitudes of the girls who accompany the bridegroom on the feast day of his wedding. Jesus uses this fact, which is well known to all, in order to shed light on the event of the sudden coming of the Realm of God in people’s lives.
Generally, Jesus does not explain his parables, but says: "Let him who has ears to hear, understand!" Or "So it is. You have heard! Now try to understand." He provokes people, so that known facts of daily life might help them discover God’s promptings in their lives. He involves his listeners in the discovery of the meaning of the parable. The experience that each person has of the facts of life as told in the parable, contributes to the discovery of the meaning of Jesus’ parable. This shows that Jesus trusted in people’s ability to understand. They become co-producers of the meaning.
At the end of the parable of the ten virgins, Jesus says: "Watch, therefore, because you do not know the day or the hour". This final warning serves as a key to the reading. It shows the direction of Jesus’ thinking. In this reading we should seek to discover the central point of this parable that Jesus uses as a comparison for the Realm of God.
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Mt 25:1-4: The different attitudes of the girls who accompany the bridegroom: five wise and five foolish.
Mt 25:5-6: The delay in the coming of the bridegroom and his sudden arrival in the night.
Mt 25:7-9: The different attitudes of the wise and the foolish.
Mt 25:10-12: The different outcome for the wise and the foolish.
Mt 25:13: The conclusion of the parable.
c) The text:
1-4: 'Then the kingdom of Heaven will be like this: Ten wedding attendants took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones, though they took their lamps, took no oil with them, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps.
5-6: The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, "Look! The bridegroom! Go out and meet him."
7-9: Then all those wedding attendants woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, "Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out." But they replied, "There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves."
10-12: They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other attendants arrived later. "Lord, Lord," they said, "open the door for us." But he replied, "In truth I tell you, I do not know you."
13: So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may enter into us and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What did you like best in the parable and what caught your attention? Why?
b) What is the context of people’s daily life that Jesus stresses in this parable?
c) From the start, Jesus distinguishes between "wise" and "foolish". What is the meaning of wisdom and foolishness?
d) How can we interpret the bridegroom’s harsh reply: "I tell you solemnly, I do not know you"?
e) Of what day and which hour is Jesus speaking at the end of the parable?
5. A key to the reading
for those who wish to go deeper into the text.
● The context within which Matthew records Jesus’ words
Matthew’s Gospel has two kinds of parables. Those that help in the understanding of the Realm of God as present in Jesus’ activities, and those that help us prepare for the future coming of the Realm. The first are more frequent in the early apostolic life of Jesus. The latter are more frequent in the second half, when it is clear that Jesus will be persecuted, apprehended and killed by the civil and religious authorities. In other words, both dimensions of the Realm are to be found in the parables: 1) the Realm already present, here and now, hidden in the daily events of life and which may be discovered and appreciated by us; 2) the future Realm still to come and for which each one of us must prepare starting now. The tension between the already and the not yet pervades the life of the Christian. Christmas is at once a celebration of the Realm already present and the anticipation of the Realm that is still to come.
● A commentary on Jesus’ words as recorded in Matthew
Matthew 25:1-4: The different attitudes of the girls who accompany the bridegroom: five wise and five foolish
Jesus begins the parable with the words: "The kingdom of heaven will be like this…" This means that the parable of the ten virgins is about the future coming of the Realm for which we must prepare starting now. In order to shed light on this dimension of the Realm, Jesus uses the well-known custom of inviting some young girls of the village to accompany the bridegroom to the wedding feast. They had to accompany the bridegroom with lighted lamps. But the lamps were small and the oil they contained was sufficient only for a limited time. That is why it was prudent for each to take with her a little oil in reserve, since the journey with the bridegroom could take longer than the limited time the oil in the lamps would last.
The following is what is implied in this story of the ten virgins: those who accept an assignment must prepare themselves according to the requirements of that assignment. The young girl, who accepts to be lady in waiting at a wedding, must do what is required for this function. She must be far-sighted and carry the oil needed for the lamp. Those who undertake a trip of 100 kilometres on a road that has no petrol stations, and who know that, and leave with petrol for only 50 kilometres, are neither prudent nor far-sighted. People will say: "Silly, they have no brains".
Matthew 25:5-6: The delay of the bridegroom and his sudden arrival in the night
The sequence of events told by Jesus is quite normal. It is night, the bridegroom is delayed. The girls, with every good intention and without meaning to, are sleepy. They try to stay awake because the bridegroom might come at any moment. Suddenly a cry goes up: "The bridegroom is coming!" It is the signal they were all awaiting. It is at this critical moment that the value of a person is revealed. The things that happen to us suddenly, independent of our will, show whether we are far-sighted or foolish.
Matthew 25:7-9: The different attitudes of the wise and the foolish
When they awake, the girls begin to prepare the lamps they need to make light on the road. It was time to add some oil because the lamps were running low. The girls who did not bring oil in reserve with them ask to borrow some from those who had brought oil with them. These reply that they cannot give them any oil, because then both of them would not have sufficient. If it was just a question of making light for the road, the wise ones could have said: walk beside us and you will be able to see where you go. But it was not a question of just making light for the road. The lamps were also a festive sign and to make light for the bridegroom on his arrival. This was the task of these ladies in waiting: that each would hold a lamp in her hand.
At the critical moment, the foolish girls ask for a share. They ask that the wise share the oil with them. Sharing was a very important and fundamental practice among the people of God. But in this case, it was not a question of sharing, because had the wise ones shared their oil, they would have caused harm to the bridegroom and spoilt the wedding feast. Neither they nor the others would have fulfilled the function which they had accepted. That is why the wise meet the request of the foolish negatively and offer realistic advice: "Buy some yourselves!" However, it was already midnight and it would have been difficult to find a shop open.
Matthew 25:10-12: The different outcome for the wise and the foolish
While the foolish girls went to buy oil, the bridegroom arrived and those who were prepared went in to the wedding feast with him and the door was closed. In the parable, the foolish girls found a shop open and bought some oil. Late as they were, they come and cry: "Open the door for us!" The bridegroom (at least, it seems that it is he) answers harshly: "In truth I tell you, I do not know you."
Matthew 25:13: Conclusion: Watchfulness
The conclusion applied by Jesus himself at the end of the story is a phrase that may be seen as the key to the whole parable: "Stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour!" God can come at any time during our lives. Everyone must be prepared. Like the young girls at the wedding feast, everyone must be prudent and far-sighted and carry sufficient oil. That is, everyone must see that he/she is not the reason for others to go astray; even when they insist on good thins like sharing. Everyone must always stay on guard in the service of God and the neighbour.
● To round off:
How can we explain the harsh phrase: "I do not know you!"? We suggest two possible answers:
-- Many parables contain something strange: the father who does not scold the prodigal son, the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to look for the one, the Samaritan who behaves better than the priest and the Levite, etc. Usually, these strange or surprising aspects hide an important key for the discovery of the central point of the parable. Thus, in the parable of the ten virgins there are some strange things that do not usually happen: 1) There are no shops open at night, 2) The door is not usually closed at a wedding feast, 3) Normally, the bridegroom would never say: I do not know you. It is through these strange matters that the central thread of the teaching of the parable runs through. What is that? "Listen! Anyone who has ears."
-- The bridegroom in the parable is Jesus himself who arrives late at night. It is what the context of other texts in Gospels and in the Old Testament implies. In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus says that she had five husbands and the one she had now, the sixth, is not her true husband. The seventh is Jesus, the real spouse (Jn 4:16-18). While the bridegroom is with his disciples they need not fast (Mk 2:19-20). From the time of the prophet Hosea, 8th century before Christ, there grew in the people a hope of being able to one day come to an intimacy with God like that between bridegroom and bride (Hos 2:19-20). Isaiah says clearly: God wishes to be the husband of the people (Is 54:5; Jer 3:14), to rejoice with his people as a bridegroom rejoices in the presence of his bride (Is 62:5). This hope is realised in the coming of Jesus. When Jesus enters the life of a person, all else must withdraw, because he is the bridegroom. This view of the basis of the story and of the centuries long hope of the people helps us understand the meaning of the harsh phrase of the bridegroom: "I do no know you!" Because of the lack of commitment and seriousness, the five foolish girls clearly show that they were not ready yet to commit themselves definitively to wed God. They needed some more time to prepare themselves: "Watch, because you do not know the day or the hour".
6. Psalm 63, 2-9
O God, thou art my God, I seek thee,
my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee,
as in a dry and weary land where no water is.
So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary,
beholding thy power and glory.
Because thy steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise thee.
So I will bless thee as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on thy name.
My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat,
and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,
when I think of thee upon my bed,
and meditate on thee in the watches of the night;
for thou hast been my help,
and in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to thee;
thy right hand upholds me.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practise the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.