The Tragedy of the Unprepared Life

When we arrive in November, we know that there will be a change in the energy and movement of the liturgical year. Geared to the seasons in the northern hemisphere, there is increasing darkness and an apocalyptic turn as we hear the final passages of Jesus during the final week of his public ministry. It is most likely that this long speech of Jesus that extends from chapter 23 to chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel occurred on the Tuesday of Holy Week. (The timeline is clearer in the Gospel of Mark.) It is essential that we remember that everything in the Gospels happen in the light of the final three days of the life of Jesus – his passion, death and resurrection. 

This parable (or is it an allegory?) of the ten maidens / virgins / bridesmaids – five of whom are wise and five are foolish – is, like most of the 40 or so parables that Jesus told, odd. It is stranger for us because it speaks of marriage customs that are very unfamiliar to us. We may surmise that the reception of the now married bridegroom with his bride (although she is not mentioned) back at his new house – which may have been his father’s house – was scheduled to occur in the evening, but why there is such a long delay is unclear. Perhaps he has to go first to the wife’s home to negotiate the terms of the marriage with his father-in-law and this takes longer than expected? The details of the foolish maidens having to find a seller of oil open in the middle of the night is also strange for us – although it seems that they were unsuccessful in their quest. While they wait, all of the ten fall asleep, yet our common English translations all offer the final line as “So stay awake…” which makes little sense in the context where that is not what made the difference. Some have suggested that a more appropriate translation would be “so be prepared…”

Another issue is that the parable can produce massive amounts of anxiety in potential disciples. How are we going to prepare for so many potential outcomes? It is likely that this is not Matthew’s intention in presenting the parable in this way. He knows that the only way disciples are able to make a full and flourishing choice to follow the risen Jesus in the changing circumstances of life is to simply offer themselves into the way of wisdom. Being prepared is about being responsive to the dynamic of God’s active call and active pursuit of our lives. Our first reading makes this very clear. Lady wisdom as one of the feminine characteristics of God is entirely active and eager. Wisdom makes herself available to all who wish to receive this precious gift.

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Sunday 32, Year A. Wisdom 6:12-18; Psalm 63; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.

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