As I read the gospel today, my mind raced back to an event I witnessed early this week. We are increasingly aware in these uncertain times of the pain and difficulty of so many in our circles. There are many who have lost their jobs and livelihoods. While some have been able to sustain with their savings, others have had to take on additional jobs just to make ends meet. Sadly, there are also those who simply have hit rock-bottom with nowhere to turn to.
Ever since the pandemic broke out, I have noticed the appearance of a man who sits by the roadside daily, waiting for generous souls to hand him some money or food. On this particular Monday morning, I was in my car some distance away when I noticed a motorcyclist who had just delivered food in a close-by location riding past the man by the roadside. As soon as he went past, he stopped, turned his bike around and headed back towards this man. He now stops in front of him, takes out his wallet, and gives him some money. At this point, I thought to myself, that could have been all the tips the motorcyclist earned for the day but yet, he took notice of this man’s plight and chose to share whatever he had probably knowing that this man by the roadside was in greater need than him.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins begs the question, why did the five wise virgins not share the oil for their lamps with the five foolish ones? Surely this would have been an excellent parable to cite when talking about generosity and caring for the other, especially in these challenging times we are in. Additionally, you may also question why the wise virgins were not reprimanded when they chose not to share with those who did not have the foresight to bring along more oil. While these may seem very logical and relevant areas to query, the context in which this parable is placed in Matthew’s gospel was not intended to illustrate themes of generosity or selfishness. However, the beauty of parables lies in its ability to speak to each of us in different ways at different times even if for the very context it may not have been originally purposed .
The underlying spiritual message envisioned in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is essentially around vigilance. Jesus explains this point by using a Jewish marital custom. It shows that those who were prepared and vigilant, were able to partake in the celebration of the marriage feast – which in Jewish customs can go on for a week with family and friends. Therefore, missing out on the elaborate festivities would have been a disappointment for anyone.
For the early Christian communities, this vigilance that the parable suggests points to the final destiny, i.e. the coming of Jesus Christ, which they thought was imminent. However, with the passage of time, the early Christians began to see that the return of Jesus was not as imminent as it was first thought. They started having doubts, they started getting discouraged and there were also those who left the group. In times of crisis and uncertainty, we too can be reduced to being doubtful and thinking just about ourselves, our survival – here and in the life after. We grapple with faith and struggle to see God in the present moment.
In recalling the parable of the ten virgins, Matthew reminds the Church not only of an eschatological (end-times) vigilance but that ‘every moment on earth is precious and has to be used only for what in the end will add value to our existence’ that is, the gift of oneself to love one another. The vigilance of staying awake that we are called to in the gospel today is not limited only to when our Lord will return. Heaven is not our only goal. We have work to do here to prepare for His return. The choices we make towards the cry of the poor, the desperation of the marginalised, the tears of the suffering, and many other struggles that we are beginning to see especially in these unsettling times is also evident of our state of vigilance and preparedness. How well do our actions demonstrate what Jesus is calling us to do? Am I caught up with my own concerns and my own survival? The motorcyclist that turned back to help the man by the wayside reminds me of this important lesson.
In referring to this parable, the Church Father, Origen (renowned Greek philosopher and theologian), alludes to the lamp as Christian faith and the oil represents good works. Our vigilance and preparedness to receive the Lord must not be void of loving our neighbour. Vigilance and preparedness are not merely abstract concepts or only of something to consider for the future. They are virtues that must be espoused and lived by concretely in our daily lives- here and now
While many of us will have food on our tables and a roof over our heads, let us not forget those out there who do not know where their next meal is going to come from tomorrow, next week, next month or six months from now. As we wait on the Lord, let us also keep our hearts, eyes and ears open and ready to help those in need. By doing this, they too may not lose hope and in some ways, will experience the ‘wedding feast’ through us. Our “involvement” in the lives of those in need can be the witness of our vigilance and preparedness for the Lord.
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 Nov 2020)