32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Matthew 25:1-13
I began my study of theology at St. Paul’s Seminary in Ottawa, Ontario in 1982. As was the custom in this diocese, I was given a parish assignment for the first time after my second year of theology – the summer of 1984. The diocese made arrangements with a car rental company to make cars available that summer for any seminarian who did not have his own. Accordingly, when June came around, I made my way to Rent-A-Wreck in Westbrook, ME, and was issued a yellowish Ford Escort that had seen many, many trips around the barn. Still, it ran well enough, so I was good to go. A couple of weeks after our summer assignments had begun, all the seminarians received a mailing from the diocese marked “very important”. It seemed that one of my brother seminarians – who was never named – had been merrily driving around in his rented Wreck without giving the engine oil a thought. He burned that car’s engine. So, then, the diocese urged us to check the oil of our rented Wrecks frequently. The message was clear: check the oil!
The parable that Jesus tells in this Sunday’s Gospel may not be about seminarians, Rent-A-Wrecks, or burned engines, but it has a similar focus. We are presented with five wise virgins and five foolish ones. The main difference between the two? The wise ones checked their lamp oil ahead of time, and the five foolish ones did not. Therefore, the wise virgins made it to the wedding celebration, while the foolish ones were left outside in the dark.
Why was this lamp oil so crucial? What was – and is – the message Jesus is conveying to us through this parable?
Let’s begin by placing this parable in context.
The Gospels – and indeed, all the New Testament books – were written to announce two great victories of God. The first had already happened. In Jesus, God had come as one of us. Through his suffering, death, and resurrection, he had reconciled humanity with the Father and in the Holy Spirit. The promised Messiah had come and overcame the power of sin and death. The second was still to come. Although in Christ Jesus the kingdom of God had indeed come, it still hadn’t come in all its fullness. Sin and death were not yet vanquished. Christ would come again, to complete his victory and to be truly manifested as Lord of all. All those who believe in Christ are, then, living in an in-between time. Christ has come, and Christ will come again.
One of the challenges that the New Testament writings seek to address is how Christians are to live in this in-between time. This question becomes very important for at least two reasons: first of all, there are few obvious signs in the world that Christ has indeed won that victory over sin and death; secondly, this Second Coming of Christ would be at an unknown time, and might not be for a long time. It was not instant or imminent – at least, not as we humans understand those words.
What should the attitude of Christians be in this in-between time?
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns his disciples against two extremes. The first extreme is to act as though Christ will not come for a very long time, if at all. It is to live as though there was no pressing need to repent, no urgency about seeking forgiveness and conversion of heart. It is to refuse the invitation to the wedding feast. It is to build one’s house on sand, believing that the storm will never come. It is to succumb to the temptation to spiritual laziness, or what the early Church Fathers called acedia. This is not a generalized laziness. In fact, those who refuse the wedding invitation in the Gospels do so because they claim to be too busy. We all too easily immerse ourselves in worldly busyness so as to avoid the harder questions of sin and repentance.
The second extreme Jesus warns us about is an excessive preoccupation with the Second Coming. The desire to read the signs and to be able to precisely calculate the day and the hour – in spite of the Lord’s warning that we cannot know this. This is often linked with an excessive preoccupation as to what will happen to others when the Lord comes again, and a claim to know with a great deal of certitude what the answer is. This is to ignore the Lord’s warning that we can’t know these things with such precision. It is to succumb to the temptation to spiritual pride. It is the desire to be in control, to the point that one can feel “one-up” on even God himself. This, too, is a distraction, as people in this state assume that they have no need of repentance, and that it is other people who do. It is a rejection of humility and trust in the Lord.
Our parable today offers one perspective on this question. It is interesting to look at the virgins from the perspective of these two extremes. On the one hand, all ten of them – foolish as well as wise – expect the Bridegroom to come. They all wait for him, and all have their lamps with them. None of them leave even when the Bridegroom is delayed. None go back to their own families or occupations. None of them fall into this first extreme.
In the same way, none of the virgins fall into the second extreme. They are not downing pints of espresso in an effort to stay awake and not be taken by surprise when the Bridegroom comes. All of them fall asleep, confident that the Bridegroom will come, even if his coming seems to be delayed. None of them want to be in control of the Bridegroom’s timetable. All the virgins represent, then, Christians who share a common faith in the Second Coming.
What separates the wise from the foolish? The wise brought plenty of oil for their lamps, while the foolish did not. Why, then, didn’t the wise virgins share some oil with the foolish ones? They answer that there might not be enough to go around. The answer makes more sense if we understand what the oil and the lamps symbolize.
“You are the light of the world. (A lamp) is set on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
The lamps and the oil, then, refer to good deeds that Christians do as a response to the Lord’s call and their faith in Christ. Jesus also tells us that not everyone who says to him “Lord, Lord” will be saved, but only the one who does the will of his heavenly Father. Good works, inspired by faith, hope and love, are necessary. Each of us must do our own. (That’s the real reason why the oil in the parable can’t be shared.) After the Ascension, as the apostles are looking up at the sky, an angel questions them: “Why are you looking up at the sky? This Jesus will indeed return, just as you saw him be taken up”. In other words, don’t be too concerned about when the Lord will return, but don’t just stand there, either. You need to use this time for repentance. Moreover, you also have a mission from the Lord in the meantime. It’s time to get to it, whatever it may be.
Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters get nervous about talk like this, worried that we are bringing in a kind of “works righteousness” that believes that we save ourselves by what we do. Certainly not! In fact, everything is grace. Our very existence depends on God’s gracious act of creation. Out of grace, God chose to not only create the universe, but to save and heal us when we chose to fall into sin. We did not merit any of that. Nevertheless, our good deeds are essential to our salvation. The Gospels, the letters of St. Paul, and all the New Testament books insist on this. Why? Because the only true response to such a gracious God is for ourselves to be gracious in word and deed. Our living gracious lives is only possible because of God’s grace, but we cannot be saved unless we follow through. We must consent, in attitude, will, word, deed, mind, heart, and body. We live as Jesus lived. Then each one of us, each in our own way, becomes a light, a lamp, filled with the oil of faith and shining forth the love of God in all we do.
What is the best response that we as Christians can make to this Gospel parable? Check our oil! Take some time every day to look at our lives and see if our words, our attitudes, and our deeds truly reflect those of the God who has been so gracious with us. Some people do a short examination of conscience in the evening, or at some other time of day. Another way is to use the Beatitudes as a means of checking our oil: measuring our attitudes against those that Jesus calls “blessed”. The idea is not to get stuck in what we did or did not do, but to constantly remind ourselves of the presence of the Lord in our hearts and to consciously, over and over again, center our thoughts and deeds on God. The Holy Spirit will – gently but firmly – point out our sins, but will also offer to us the abundant oil of forgiveness and love. It is that love that will sustain our good deeds and keep them centered on the gracious love of the Lord for all. It is this that will sustain out lamps until the end.
Don’t forget to check the oil. God has plenty of it for each one of us.