32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time A
November 2, 2017 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Introduction: The coming weeks present us with three parables that conclude the public teaching of Jesus in Matthew. These constitute his final testament to the disciples, a manual of discipleship for life “between the times” of Jesus’ earthly presence and his triumphant return. They have a menacing tone, in jarring contrast to the voice of the one who was “meek and humble of heart.” Five young women have the door of a feast slammed in their face. A timid and fearful steward is cast into outer darkness, where people will weep and gnash their teeth. And people who were clueless about the presence of Jesus are consigned to eternal punishment.
Today’s Gospel has words of consolation and warning. First consolation. Jesus has told us that happiness is the Reign of God, that place where men and women are able to encounter one another and live the fulness of life and intimacy and joy. In today’s Gospel Jesus also points out that the Reign of God is like a wedding feast. Weddings have been and are times of fulness, a time to celebrate life. To celebrate marriage is to believe in hope, to believe in the future. It is wondrous good news to know that the Bridegroom will come and gather in all those who are his.
Second warning. We are told to be wise and prepare for the long haul. The narrative is a warning against both moral procrastination and presumption.
In this Gospel we have a grace moment and a pathetic moment. First the moment of grace. Surprisingly, commentators rarely focus on the “wise” virgins. Today’s first reading contains a beautiful image of Lady Wisdom, seeking those who would accept her, “for whoever for her sake keeps vigil will be free from care.” John Donahue, S.J. reminds us: “Wisdom is transcendent knowledge revealed by God and also evokes thoughts of practical know-how, along with prudent judgment gained from experience. Wisdom is personified as God’s partner in creation (Proverbs 8)…. Five of the bridesmaids are called wise (or prudent) because they carefully assess the needs of the situation and prepare for the future. The lamps are symbols that through their teaching and good deeds they will be lights shining in darkness, which cannot be hidden under a basket. They are guides for the community as it awaits the return of Jesus.”
Second, pathetic moment. John Donahue, S.J. again: “Some readers think that the ones who should have been condemned were the “wise,” the somewhat selfish and nasty bridesmaids (alpha girls), who would not share their oil. More convincing is the view that the lamps lit and supplied with oil are symbols of the works of love and mercy that one must have at the final judgment. These cannot really be shared with others, so the narrative is a warning against both moral procrastination and presumption.”
Barbara Reid approaches the parable from a different angle. “Neither the preacher nor the Congregation are completely foolish, nor completely wise; the two extremes in the parable are for bringing the point into higher relief. Each one has some aspect of the foolish virgins within….Every disciple also has some aspect of the wise ones within. All the myriad ways in which wise disciples have been illumining the world, lighting one small candle at a time, by the way they hear and live out the word, coalesce into brilliant torchlight for the banquet. The arrival of the groom at last is no surprise, but a joyous relief. The parable invites celebration of our wisdom, even as our foolishness is still being transformed.” If we read the Gospel in juxtaposition with the first reading, it is reassuring that the effort to be wise does not depend on human striving alone. In the first reading Wisdom is waiting to be found; she is readily perceived and found and known by those who love and seek her. Those who keep vigil for her are actually being sought out by her as she makes her rounds.
The readings for today call our attention to the character of the fulfillment (I have illustrated this above) and the manner of our waiting. Jesus final command to stay awake cannot be taken literally. All the girls slept. But rather “be prepared by the good works for the coming whose time you do not know.” Vigilance is not simply waiting for the future but active engagement in the present which will determine the shape of the future. To be wise, then, is not to calculate the time of departure. It is to spend the present moment, the waiting, well. It is not the knowledge of when, but the wisdom of readiness. At life’s end, no matter what the hour or day, we will only welcome the Presence to whom, in our rare wise times, we have learned to be attentive.