In this week’s Gospel, Jesus talks about what it means to be prepared to receive the Kingdom of Heaven. The reading follows a series of warnings and predictions by Jesus about the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus wants his disciples to understand that the exact day and time cannot be predicted. He teaches the disciples that they must remain vigilant so that they will not be caught unprepared.
When thinking about the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, it is important to consider the first-century wedding traditions of Palestine. According to marriage customs of Jesus’ day, a bride was first “betrothed” to her husband but continued for a time to live with her family. Then, at the appointed hour some months later, the groom would come to claim her, leading her family and bridal party to the wedding feast that would celebrate and inaugurate their new life together.
As with many of Jesus’ parables, several levels of interpretation are possible. In last week’s Gospel, we heard Jesus warn against following the example of the Pharisees and scribes. If read in the context of early Christianity’s struggle to define itself against Pharisaic Judaism, this parable is a continuing critique of Judaism. It suggests that the Jewish leaders were like the foolish virgins, unprepared to meet Jesus, the bridegroom of Israel.
These parables are tricky. We can tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open.
The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.
In the chapter preceding this parable, however, Jesus warns about the destruction of Jerusalem, the tribulation of the end times, and the coming of the Son of Man. When read in this context, today’s parable is a warning to the Christian community to remain vigilant and prepared to receive Jesus, the Son of Man who will return at the end of time. This interpretation is supported by the reference to the delay of the bridegroom. The Christian community for whom Matthew wrote this Gospel was coming to terms with the realization that the promise of Jesus’ return would not be fulfilled within their lifetimes. The question remains for us to ask ourselves: Are we ready to receive Jesus? Will we be prepared to receive him?
St. Paul warns in today’s Epistle, Jesus is coming again, though we know not the day nor the hour.
We need to keep vigil throughout the dark night of this time in which our Bridegroom seems long delayed. We need to keep our souls’ lamps filled with the oil of perseverance and desire for God—virtues that are extolled in today’s First Reading and Psalm.
We are to seek Him in love, meditating upon His kindness, calling upon His name, striving to be ever worthier of Him, to be found without spot or blemish when He comes.
We are, in short, those who help each other to wait, prepare, and keep the faith. In all these ways, we encourage each other with the promises of Christ. That’s what it means to be Christ’s followers, then and now. And that’s why we come together each Sunday, to hear and share the hope-creating promises of our Lord. As we approach the table of the Lord this Sunday, may we be watchful for his presence to us in the Eucharist and in the many other ways in which he visits us throughout the course of our lives.