John Melhuish Strudwick, The Ten Virgins, Private Collection
Sunday 12 November 2017
‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:12-13
If there is one thing Jesus was asked quite frequently, but never responded to, was the question when will I die, and when will the end of the world come? That lies behind today’s parable of the Ten Virgins. Five were constantly alert for a special day, and the other five, not. Therefore, when at last the time came, five were ready for the bridegroom, and five were sent into a mad rush to get ready, ending in rejection. They had all gone out to meet him, but only the wise among them had thought to provide oil for their lamps for the long run, just in case. They all knew he was coming; that was certain. But the exact time? That was the question.
Now all of us will have to face that day when we meet the bridegroom, namely Jesus, when we are called from this life. and again when the Last Judgment is announced. Most of us haven’t the least idea of either of them. Terminal disease and suicide are exceptions, and one is completely unacceptable to God, the author of life and consequently the only person with the right to take it back, whereas the other is purely accidental. Perhaps the only silver lining in that case is that we can do our best to get really prepared to meet the Lord. For people with suicidal thoughts, they would seem to have rejected any thought of a loving God who brought them into existence, and who waits to help and support them, but they are responding to a terrible situation with the freedom God has given us. Perhaps what is lacking is wisdom in them. That has been defined as the ability to see things as God sees them. In the case of one tempted by suicide, wisdom would be horrified at the possibility, as we are all God’s children, and that might give way to the empathy needed to see things from God’s point of view. But we digress from today’s readings.
Do you notice the gender of God’s wisdom as told in today’s first reading? Wisdom, which has been defined as the perfection of prudence? I wonder if that is one of the reasons it has been linked to today’s gospel. Remember that the Old Testament is in Hebrew, and that we read a translation of this each Sunday. Wisdom, and its (or her) close relative, spirit, are both feminine in gender in that language, hence the use of “she” in the reading. Wisdom as an English word is germanic in origin, and is used to translate the Latin word for wisdom, sapientiae, which is feminine. Consider also the English word spirit. That comes to us from the Latin, spiritus, which is masculine. Hence God’s Holy Spirit is always called “he” in Scripture, translated from the Greek and presumably borrowing the gender of the Latin equivalent, because the Greek for spirit, pneuma, is neuter. In Hebrew, however, the word for spirit, ruah, is feminine. Hence Jesus, who spoke Hebrew’s close cousin, Aramaic, would have understood both God’s wisdom and spirit as feminine…..
It would seem that wisdom is the key to understanding today’s gospel. The ten virgins had clearly been told to look out for the bridegroom, but had not been told when he would arrive. Five of the ten were not only wise, but practical. Not only did they have their lamps with them to greet the bridegroom, but they also had brought plenty of oil should they have to wait a long time. The others simply brought their lamps, with no contingency plans, no Plan B. They all fell asleep as he did not show up, but then the cry went up. and they all woke up, five to find their lamps dead, the oil used up, and the others happily preparing their brightly lit lamps, using the oil reserves they had brought with them. Five had to rush off and try and find more oil, during which time the other, wise, five welcomed the bridegroom and entered the wedding feast with him, and the door was locked behind them before the others had returned. They were rejected and therefore missed the wedding banquet for all time.
This could seem like a mean and spiteful finale for a group of people who had every good intention, only to have the door slammed against them. But that would not be the point. The point is everyone was told to look out for the bridegroom, and only half of them really took this to heart. That meant each one had to be completely ready for the moment of arrival. You can look at it this way. The lamp’s oil is the work we do trying to obey God’s law in this life. It’s not easy, but it’s what God wants us to do, and allows us to experience a happiness which justifies life itself. The flame therefore is the sign that this is happening. If we continue in this way, then, in the words of the parable, we have reserves which will allow the flame to last. There is no way we can “share” the reserves of our own goodness to help out the other peoples’ “lamps”. In fact, if we do, it builds up our reserves, not theirs! Hence the inability to help the others in this particular way. Translating this to our own world, now, the parable refers to the moment when we are called out of this life to the next. We all know that will happen at some point, but usually we have no idea when. In the meantime, we are expected to be ready, always, for that moment. No slacking, no dozing, no quiet forgetting of God’s will and substituting our own, no excluding what we know to be God’s will for us and doing what we know conflicts with that will, for as Thomas More says “Death comes to us all… yes, even to kings he comes…” (Robert Bolt, Man for All Seasons). It couldn’t be clearer.
Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger, Frick Collection, New York, USA.