Monday, June 26, 2006

Matthew 25: Wise Maidens

I’d like to take a few days to reflect upon the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which is neatly divided into three distinct sections, though the whole chapter is part of what is often called the “eschatological discourse,” which is about how we need to prepare for the coming Kingdom.

The first section is the parable of the ten maidens (or virgins). This, and the parable that follows, are comparisons with the Kingdom, as the Lord said, and the final one is more of a description of what we can expect at the Last Judgment.

So, “the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom” (v. 1). So far so good, but we immediately learn that five were wise and five were foolish, the former having brought extra oil to keep their lamps burning, and that latter failing to do so. Now this parable, unlike some others, is not precisely about vigilance (since even the wise maidens fell asleep along with the foolish), but more about preparation—though it does conclude with the admonition, “Watch!”

It is sometimes said, based on some difficult or obscure sayings in the Gospels, that not only the early Church but even Jesus Himself thought that his return would be shortly after his ascension. But if we look at a number of the parables in which He speaks of the coming of the Kingdom, we see (as in the next parable, v. 19), that the master only returns after “a long time.” In the present parable, this corresponds to the time that the maidens were asleep. The precise length of time is not what’s important, however, but rather the suddenness of his arrival. It was midnight, and they were still asleep when the cry arose: “Behold the Bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Now we’re getting to the point. All of their lamps were going out by this time, but the wise maidens added their extra oil to keep theirs lit, while the foolish ones had nothing. They asked the wise ones for some of their oil, but they said there wasn’t enough to go around, so they had better go and get their own. While they were gone the Bridegroom arrived, the wise maidens were welcomed in, and the door to the wedding feast was shut. Now if this were simply a narrative and not a parable, we might be tempted to fault the wise maidens for lack of charity. But it is a parable, and its focus and meaning lie elsewhere.

As the fathers of the Church say, the oil in their lamps is virtue, good works, faith and love, etc. We have to spend our lives keeping the lamps of our souls fueled with them, and storing up more in spiritual flasks (like treasure in Heaven), for that time when the Lord will take inventory, as it were, at his return. Since this oil is virtue and good works, etc, it is as such incommunicable to those without them. We can and should try to help others, by prayer and deed, word and example, but a holy person cannot say to an evildoer, “here, quickly add some of my holiness to your soul.” It just doesn’t work that way, because of our free will and the demands of cultivating a life of faith, love, and obedience to Christ. Therefore they have to “go and get their own.” But the point of the parable is: get your own now, before it is too late! Then you’ll be prepared, even if the Master delays his coming. You won’t be able to produce it on the spot when He suddenly arrives.

There will come a time when the doors of the Kingdom are irrevocably shut, and the Lord will say to those who did not prepare for his coming, as He did to the foolish maidens: “I do not know you.” Those are the most terrible words that anyone could ever hear. So the parable concludes: “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It doesn’t matter if the Lord might not return for another 500 years. He might return for you tonight! What if you were startled at midnight, discovered your soul rising out of your body, and heard the cry: “Behold the Bridegroom!” What panic if you had not prepared! We have a text in one of our services that says at such a moment the soul turns to the angels, but in vain. This is like the foolish maidens turning to the wise ones for some of their oil. The angels would have to reply to us like the wise maidens: “you had better get your own,” but by then it would be too late, and we would see the massive door closing before we could reach it.

I’m discovering more and more a simple, obvious truth which, however, many ignore to their peril: we have to take the words of Jesus seriously. He speaks the truth for He is the Truth. These are not mere imaginative stories with a moral; they’re not just sagacious sayings that we can admire and then forget—they’re about life and death, yours and mine, now and forever.

Time to get busy filling our flasks with the oil of faith, love, and virtue. Everyone nods off from time to time, but it is our task to be prepared for that unique moment when we are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night of this passing life…