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Along the Way
32nd Week Ordinary Time, November 10, 2002
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A tale of wise and foolish young women

Today's gospel reading is very strange, even if you are aware of the wedding customs of Israel 2,000 years ago. There is a bridegroom that is so late the wedding reception doesn't begin until after midnight. The ten young ladies in the story are supposed to help with the preparations for the reception but are locked out of the house where the wedding reception will be held. Half of the maidens are too selfish to share a little bit of oil with their friends, yet these selfish girls are allowed in to the reception. Somehow, five of the girls think it is much more important to go out looking to buy oil at midnight than to welcome bridegroom and go into the party. What is the meaning of this strange parable?


When Matthew included this parable in his Gospel the Christian community was struggling with the problem of when the Second Coming would occur. The disciples and the early believers were certain that Jesus would return and the world would be brought to its end almost any day. Some believers were so certain of Christ return almost immediately that they sold their homes, quit their jobs and sat waiting to be taken up into heaven when Christ returned. But day after day passed and the world didn't endno Second Coming! It is thought that Matthew included this parable in his Gospel to encourage his fellow believers not to give up hope but to continue waiting for Christ to return, always ready, always faithful to the Christian way of life.


Ok, if Matthew included the parable for that reason, why did Jesus tell the parable in the first place?


The answer to that question is found in the first few words of the parable... "The kingdom of heaven is like" Now as you read through the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, whenever you see a reference to the Kingdom of God Jesus is almost always referring to the experience of God breaking through people's spiritual blindness and being present in their lives now.  Jesus is urging his disciples to be prepared to experience the kingdom of God however and whenever it breaks into their lives. For the disciples this would refer both to the fact that in Jesus, the Kingdom of God was literally present to them, as well as to all of the experiences of grace that break into lives giving us meaning and joy.


So, what is the business about the difference between the five wise and the five foolish maidens? All of them were invited to the feast. All of them were relatives or friends of the bride or groom. All of them waited. All of them fell asleep as they waited.


We find the difference in their assumptions. The five foolish virgins assumed that the wedding party would not be delayed any longer than would be reasonable. As a result they made no preparations for unusual circumstances and ran out of oil when the wedding party was delayed longer than normal. The wise virgins made no assumptions; they were ready for whatever circumstances might arise.


Not long ago a friend of mine was invited to the 10th wedding anniversary of friends. The celebration was on the 30th of the month. Somehow he got the idea in his head that the 30th fell on Sunday that month and continued on in this assumption. When the Sunday for the party came he showed up at his friend's house exactly on time. When he rang the doorbell a tired and partied out couple answered the door. It was then that he learned that the 30th was on Saturday that month and he had missed the party.


Our assumptions can blind us to reality.

  • When the Pharisees assumed that the Messiah would come as a military leader, they were blind to the Messiah when he stood before them as a carpenter and wandering teacher.
  • When we assume that others are not interested in us or our problems, we are blind to needed help and perhaps friendship.
  • Indeed, when we assume that those we love will live for many years to come, we are often blind to opportunities for experiencing God's grace through that loved one today.

Our assumptions can be dangerously wrong. this was made plain in a poem I read the other day. It is by Barbara Morejohn and published in the November 4th issue of America.


After he was gone,

after the accident,

It was the scattered

things that hurt.


A list of things to do,

An empty beer can on the ledge

By the back door,

A pair of crumpled socks,

His sunglasses.


Oh my God forgive me.

We accepted life

so casually.


God fills our lives with grace. God is present to us in so many waysthrough our families, through the beauty of a sunset or the firey autumn colors that fill the trees around us. God is present in the sacraments and in our assembly as we join together in prayer. Yet, like the five foolish maidens we often go through life focusing on the need to get oil at midnight, blind to the grace and wonder that God has given us.


Is there anything else we can draw from this parable?


As you listened to the parable, which group of maidens did you find it easier to relate to--the wise or the foolish? Personally, the foolish maidens were easier to identify with. During my life I have missed more grace filled opportunities than I care to count. We're thick-headed and fallen creatures. We make mistakes. We make bad assumptions and fail to see God's grace when we are surrounded by it, just like the foolish maidens.


Consider this, Jesus refers to the maidens as wise and foolish, not good or bad. The parable doesn't end with the foolish maidens being cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash their teeth. Rather, it ends with a scolding and instructions to be better prepared the next time. It is worth noting the number of maidens--10. In Hebrew tradition this is the number of the Commandments. It is a perfect number, a number of completion. The five wise maidens made ti into the wedding feast but their number is incomplete. God will bring their number to completion.


The five foolish maidens were indeed foolish and missed out on a wonderful party because of their foolishness. However, there will be other opportunities. That is the hope they take with them as they leave the wedding party. That is the hope we bring with us in the face of our bad assumption and missed opportunities.


(Some of the ideas included in this homily come from the fertile mind of Fr. Robert Marone of John Carrol University.)


Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

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