The liturgical Year A is winding down, and the theme of the ‘end time’, the Second Coming, of Jesus will dominate the last three weeks. That theme will also accompany us into the First Sunday of Advent. This week a secondary motif is ‘Wisdom’.
The Wisdom books of the Bible had two different patterns, one is advice for leading a good and happy life, the other is seen in this reading: a personification of Wisdom which is seen almost as an aspect of God. Christians took from this a way to understand both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The idea of ‘watch’ will be picked up in a different tone in the Gospel. There is some charm in the picture of Lady Wisdom looking for us even as we may be watching for her. The timeless message is that we have ready access to what we need to know and understand about living wisely and faithfully.
The theme of ‘looking or thirsting for God’ follows well after the first reading and the word ‘banquet’ could be a sideways lead to the wedding celebration of the Gospel.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, or 4:13-14
Paul reassures his early converts that death will not be the end of life, starting with comfort for those who have lost those they love. He next wants them to have hope for their own resurrection. Behind his words is the belief of Christians (as we profess in the Creed at mass) that at some time this world and its time will come to an end with Jesus’ coming ‘again’. At the early date of this Letter, Paul along with the first Christians expected this to be very soon, and in their lifetime. It would take some adjustment to realise that this end could be long delayed. We see some of that shift behind the Gospel, addressing the idea of ‘delay’. We in our times, tend to go in an opposite direction: it has been so long we forget it will come, and instead we expect our own deaths first.
The selection takes up the second of three parables about being ready for Christ’s coming. Unlike the usual ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ comparisons, this is directed to the future – ‘will be like’. There are various questions that arise for commentators – and no doubt for some listeners – and I found the most help in R. T. France’s detailed book on Matthew. First, we do not know the wedding customs of that that would explain the actions that the story is based on; as usual they would have been known to the first hearers of this parable. Rather than guessing or offering suggestions, France says it is best to admit our ignorance. We can get the essential message without understanding the full background.
The translation we hear of ‘bridesmaids’ is a misleading one; the Greek text has a word that means ‘virgins’, apparently young maidens who played a part in the wedding celebrations. There is no mention of the bride, they are instead preparing for the coming of the bridegroom. An image of the Hebrew Bible was of God as the bridegroom or husband of Israel. This stressed the intimacy of God’s love for His people. Christians took up the image and applied it to Christ, who loves His disciples with a similar intimacy. This hints from the very beginning that the story is about the coming of Jesus, and in the context of Matthew, where it follows his prediction of the world’s end (chapter 24) it means the ‘Second Coming’.
It is clear that what the ten maidens are preparing for is some sort of procession that will lead to the big feast of the wedding celebration. Their part seems to be carrying torches or lamps. Either of these would burn oil, but it would not last long. The wise ones therefore have brought extra oil. The foolish have not considered what preparedness is necessary. No attention is given to any reason for the bridegroom’s delay, the whole focus on the fact that he has not come at the time expected.
The shutting out the foolish from the banquet sounds harsh, but Matthew may be expecting his readers to remember an earlier saying (see 7:21-23), about those who pretend to obey God, but have not really done so. When they call ‘Lord, Lord’, he replies, ‘I do not know you.’ There is also a seeming oddity in that the final warning is ‘stay awake’ while the wise maidens have slept along with the foolish. (They were prepared when the time came and they woke.) One explanation suggested is that the words are a general summary, fitting well the previous parable which we do not hear (24:45-51). Or they may have become a standard expression meaning ‘be ready’.
This section of Matthew does not take up what would be the right preparation for Jesus’ coming that is symbolized by carrying a supply of oil. For this, we can look back in the Gospel for the instructions on right living, beginning with chapter 5 and the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ up to the commands heard recently at mass of not seeking personal glory or acting for show. Do we just ‘pretend’ to be expecting Christ and to be found doing what he commanded, or do our lives show we are really ready to meet our Lord?