32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 6:12-16 / 1 Thessalonians. 4: 13-18 / Matthew 25: 11-13
When I taught a course on Biblical Tradition and Culture that entailed a biblical research paper, some students who chose to write on the Parable of the Ten Virgins would definitively declare: “Those five wise virgins were just selfish! Why couldn’t they share their oil with their ‘foolish’ sisters?” It was their opinion, of course, and not backed up by adequate research. However, if they had read more broadly, they would have discovered that there is a stream of biblical exegesis, albeit a narrow one, that could have supported their interpretation.
In the broad context of Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus’ overall message of the Reign of God, and especially considering the later parable of the Final Judgement (“Whatsoever you did for the least of these...”), my students and that narrow stream of commentators may be right: “I was hungry, and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me no drink...” And perhaps, “I was in the dark, and you gave me no oil for my lamp.”
That is one way to read today’s Gospel. But the wider and older tradition focuses on waiting, preparedness, and the nature of the longed-for Banquet, which is the culmination of our lives in eternal union with the Divine. All our readings today focus on the “end time,” for that is the liturgical season we inhabit. In our second reading, we see Paul’s community in Thessalonica getting nervous because they believed the end time signified the literal return of Jesus to take them up to heaven. They thought that Christ’s victory over death meant that they weren’t going to die, yet some of their members already had. This posed a tremendous challenge to their faith. Paul tried to console them with the message that Resurrection is real, yet though we know this by faith, we don’t know the specifics of “how.”
In the 21st century, we interpret these readings about the end time within the context of evolution, which theologically we speak of in terms of the new creation, the future upon which everything rests: The future, which is God up ahead, coming toward us, and sustaining us in being all at the same time. This is what we wait for, what we keep vigil for, and what we work toward. What is this new creation, cosmos, fulfilled Divine promise? We glimpse it in the fragments of flourishing life and love that we experience in the here and now. Paradoxically, we also glimpse it in death experienced in Christian hope. Sometimes, like the members of Paul’s first century community, we get nervous because the cosmic vision doesn’t correspond to our original understanding of faith. Maybe we used to think we knew what the end time meant; what heaven would be like. We are now being summoned into a transformed consciousness of how God is at work bringing about the New Creation, the Promised Reign, in us and throughout the entire cosmos. With all of those who have gone before us in the Communion of Saints, those who will come after, and those with us now, we are friends of God and prophetic agents in bringing about the New Creation. That is the vigil we keep, however long the night.
The traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Ten Virgins still has merit here and is reinforced by today’s Psalm Response: “My soul is thirsting for you, my God.” The depths of what we desire, what we thirst for, and what we need, we cannot procure for ourselves. We depend upon God for our supply of life-giving water, or in this case, light-giving oil. As the first reading points out, we do not create our own Wisdom. Rather, through our spiritual practices and good deeds, we dispose ourselves to receive her, to be found by her in the highways and byways of our lives. If we open ourselves to Wisdom, she will guide us into the balance of doing all we can to prepare for the Coming of God in the New Creation, while at the same time being vigilant towards the needs of our neighbors, sharing from our provisions of time, talent, and oil for light as we wait.
Sr. Kathleen McManus, OP