Nov 11, 2017

32nd Sunday: "Be wise, not foolish"


"Behold, the bridegroom!"

Wis 6: 12-16
1 Thes 4: 13-18
Jn 25: 1-13

The Word: 

Many of us have IRA retirement savings or 401 k retirement plans.  We’ve been told, and wisely so, that it’s smart to prepare for both our older years and unexpected or costly challenges that may come along.  Likewise, we all remember our mother’s saying to us:  “Take a jacket along just in case.”

These are common examples of basic wisdom. To assume that someone will bail us out or rescue us at the last minute, even though we had a chance earlier, would be considered not very smart and in some cases very foolish.  I think of the ill-fated legendary ocean liner the Titanic.  Engineers of that enormous and glamourous ship, and the captain himself, bragged about it being “unsinkable” so they saw no need for multiple life boats.  Sadly, those stand among famous last words.

Likewise, our readings this time in the liturgical year always bear a kind of end times, be prepared, type of theme.  Be prepared for the Lord’s coming!  Don’t be lazy Christians who simply wait for that ultimate moment but be watchful and ready.  Our Gospel this Sunday clearly takes on that timely theme.  This odd parable of Jesus stresses the theme of readiness and also shadows some very typical cultural ritual about wedding practices of the time. 

In this parable, Jesus challenges us to consider both wisdom and foolishness.  We hear of five wise virgins who took extra oil along for their lamps to meet the groom and five foolish ones who brought nothing extra with them.  One group prepared for the possibility of the groom’s delay (wise) and the others never thought ahead (foolish).  Yet, the parable implies something more about their personal choices.

Our first reading from the Book of Wisdom uses the word “anticipation.” The writer of Wisdom tells us: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire.” Obviously, the writer of this Book assumed Wisdom is a woman.  Interesting isn’t it.

The implication is that she knows that she is desirable not for any inappropriate reasons but rather for the insight she bestows to make careful and intelligent choices – with “prudence.” True wisdom is to know what God desires and to seek that out for our lives. With that knowledge we can make wise decisions. We can’t be impulsive or lazy but rather we must be open and ready to receive the Lord.  We should be seeking him, anticipating his coming, and be ready for when he arrives.  Thus, we see this illustrated
in our Gospel parable.

In order to drive this point home, Jesus speaks a great deal about being open, accepting his call, being prepared for the kingdom, calling us to conversion and to build upon the values of the kingdom of God for a new social order. He advises us to build our house on rock and not on sand. The wise man thinks ahead and takes advantage of what is available to be prepared for the possibilities that a violent storm might wash his house away so he builds on rock instead. Use what God offers to us and listen carefully to his words for it is ultimately about our own salvation. To reject them or to be complacent is foolish.  Bottom line, the whole point of our existence here is to get to heaven.  How I get there is answered in this parable.

So, the parable today uses a common wedding practice of Jesus time that his audience would have been familiar with. Unlike weddings of today which so concentrate on the bride, the wedding ceremonies of Jesus’ time saw the groom as the focus of attention. He was the one who paraded through the city streets, accompanied by the wedding party, to meet his bride at her home and then gladly processed back through the town to his home with his new bride.   

This parable has this anticipated arrival of the groom at night; or at least he delayed so long for some unknown reason, that it had already turned to night.  He unexpectedly arrives at midnight to fetch his bride.  The wise virgins, likely teenage girls, somehow knew this was a possibility so they were smart to think ahead just in case.  They knew that whenever he would come, they’d be ready.  Obviously, five of them didn’t have such foresight and just fell asleep.  Too bad, the party is now a closed event!  The party was for the wise and ready. 

Now we may think that a bit harsh considering this is a festive occasion. “Just let them in.  They’ve learned a tough lesson and hopefully won’t be so foolish again, so all is forgiven.” Yet, Jesus uses this story to show us what he expects of us and what he hopes we will do with what he has given us. I think, personally, how we will be judged in the end will hear God saying to us: “What did you do with what I gave you?” If we cannot answer that question we may indeed need to check our oil supply!  

What were oil lamps used for in Jesus’ time?  Obviously for light in homes and if one should set out at night. Imagining life with no electricity we have to know that once that sun went down life was very dark indeed so oil provided a practical purpose.  That being so, Jesus will in other parts speak of light:  “I am the light of the world,”You are the light of the world – don’t put that light under a basket but on a hill for all to see.”

Light has the purpose of being seen and leading the way.  Not only did the oil lamps of the waiting young women provide a safe way in the darkness for the groom but the groom himself is the reason for the light.  In the same way, Jesus himself must be the light we follow; the one we are prepared to welcome when he comes. We are called to accompany him as his disciples and to use what he gives us wisely not for our own good but for others. 

On a practical level the lesson seems clear.  As Catholic Christians we enjoy a spiritual treasure and tradition.  How well do I know what is there? Do I take seriously my prayer life, do I participate in the sacraments especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation? Do I offer some time in doing good works for the benefit of others, do I take advantage of learning more about my faith or do I assume that what I learned in Catholic grade school or during my teenage years is all I need to know?  Do I take some time to spend with the scriptures and/or read a book on spirituality or the lives of the saints?  Do I ever pray the Rosary? We can go on and on about the treasures of our faith but to ignore them, to never explore such things or participate on some level in them, is to be at a serious loss – basically foolish or lazy too.

The lesson is a fundamental one for us in our daily life journey.  So, despite the somewhat harsh implications in part of this story I think it may be for many a wakeup call.  A good reminder to take an inventory of my faith life and to gain a little more wisdom before I fall asleep.  Let’s not be caught unprepared but embrace this good advice. 

Something like what I heard described on a cruise ship, the only cruise I’ve ever taken with a family in the parish, about appropriate dress for dinner.  They said that “smart casual” was expected.  Let’s be smart not sloppy about our faith lives.

Almighty and merciful God, 
graciously keep from us all adversity,
so that, unhindered in mind and body alike,
we may pursue in freedom of heart
the things that are yours. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, 
your Son, who lives and reigns
with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Opening Collect of Mass)