Wisdom and Foolish Virgins

It isn’t often that I can guess from the first reading what the gospel is going to be, but our passage from Wisdom 6:12-16 telegraphed it pretty clearly:

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire;
Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,
for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,
and whoever for her sake keeps vigil
shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.

(Emphasis mine.) “Aha,” I thought, “the gospel must be the story of the wise and foolish virgins!” And sure enough, that’s what we heard in Mt 25:1-13.

The deacon who preached tonight raised the question that was niggling at the back of my mind: What’s up with the wise virgins who won’t share? Aren’t we supposed to give to those who ask of us, as in, if someone asks for your cloak give her your tunic as well?

(Something I like about my parish is that the homilists typically are willing to bring up questions like this, the sorts of questions that I’ve unconsciously trained myself to suppress!)

His answer was allegorical: the oil for the lamp was our spiritual preparation for the Parousia, and nobody can share the benefits of their spiritual preparation with someone else. And that led into a nice discussion of trying to live an ever better Christian life.

What struck me, though, is that I don’t think the critical foolishness of the virgins was in forgetting to bring extra oil. True, it was imprudent not to do so. But I think their real foolishness is in what happens next: it’s nearly midnight, the bridegroom is coming any minute, and what do they do?

They leave the gate and go looking for an oil merchant? In the middle of the night? What?!?

Poor, foolish girls! They thought the oil in their lamps was more important than their welcoming, rejoicing, loving presence. They thought the bridegroom wouldn’t accept them into the wedding party to rejoice with him if their lamps had gone out. They thought their lamps were the only thing that mattered.

I’m not quite sure how a good Catholic girl like me has ended up preaching against works righteousness here, but that sure is where the text takes me! It’s not what we have, or what we do that matters; it’s not whether we have satisfied the formal requirements and expectations of our positions. It is our relationship with Christ, “ready to greet him when he comes again”, with the emphasis on “greet him”, not on “ready”. Because who of us could be ready?

The foolishness is to leave, to abandon our watch for the bridegroom in search of something we think we need to have in order to greet him. All we need are our steadfast, loving hearts.

Look again at the end of the reading from Wisdom, remembering that a classic Christian interpretation of this book has been to see Jesus as the personification of Wisdom:

Whoever for her sake keeps vigil
shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

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4 Responses to Wisdom and Foolish Virgins

  1. Thank you for writing about this, I really enjoyed reading it.

    I don’t know if I agree with you statement about not being able to share the benefits of spiritual preferation though. Yes, my spiritual experiences are unique to me. However, I can take what I’ve learned from that experience and share it with others.

    Also, while the five who were prepared could have shared with the others, I believe that a critical part of the parable is that we have to be prepared for ourselves, rather than simply relying on the experiences of others at all times. In my religious upbringing I was taught that as a child you can rely on the faith of your parents. However, as you grow older it becomes more and more important for you to gain your own knowledge and not rely on others for your knowledge (faith based or otherwise.) Yes, we all need help, but we also need to be able to help others.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rachel! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      The deacon who preached about the parable did discuss the fact that, of course, we can share our spiritual experiences with others and learn from each other, but the experience itself doesn’t really transfer. For example, if I adopt a contemplative prayer practice for a month and then tell you about it, you don’t get the same benefit from hearing about it as I did by actually doing it! 🙂 Theologically, I suspect he was coming from a traditional Catholic understanding of virtue ethics, in which we cultivate good habits and may acquire or be infused with grace as a result.

      I’ve read elsewhere that this parable’s grouping with the Parable of the Talents and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats suggests that they may all have a similar underlying theme. Your comment makes me wonder whether these parables are intended to counter a possible tendency in the early church(/Jesus followers) to overemphasize the corporate nature of salvation, by reminding individuals that although we are all one body, we are not all one person, and each of us has our own part to play in the life and mission of the church.

      • It’s true that the experience may not transfer seamlessly, but I believe that the things we can learn from the experiences of others can often be more helpful to us, rather than going through the experience itself.

        Just as background to my example, I was raised LDS (Mormon) and this story is from the life of Joseph Smith. At one point when he was translating the Book of Mormon the person that was writing for him (Martin Harris) told Joseph that his wife did not believe that he was helping Joseph translate a divine piece of revelation. He then asked if Joseph would pray and ask God if he could show his wife some of the pages that we had translated. Joseph prayed three times, and got an emphatic no each time. The fourth time the gist of the answer was “Well, you know the answer I’m going to give you and I know you’ll just keep asking, so do what you want.” This resulted in Martin Harris losing the first 116 pages of the translation. Work that they were unable to get back because the section of the Book of Mormon that this work came from was sealed.

        Ultimately, Joseph lost the ability to translate for quite a while (if memory serves correctly, about six months.) He felt extreme guilt, anger at his friend, and anger at himself.

        Regardless of whether you believe the Book of Mormon is a divine work, the lesson from this story is clear. If you listen to God, you’ll avoid some unpleasant circumstances and have a lot more blessings.

  2. thewaterisfine says:

    This is a great reading of this text! We read the gospel but due to the special service did not focus on the gospel at all (which I was not considering a great loss). I had been bothered the entire week with this question–why wouldn’t they share? I really like the answer that your deacon gave–but even more your thoughts on the mistaken priorities and misunderstanding of the bridegroom’s greatest desire–for relationship rather than well-light lamps. Wonderful! Thank you. 🙂

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