Yesterday at mass, the gospel reading was the Parable of the 10 Virgins.
This one has always bothered me. Either I just never understood it or, to me, it seemed to be at odds with other things Jesus said.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here it is:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘ No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day or the hour.”
-Matthew 25: 1-15 (NASB)
So, despite waiting for however long they were waiting–long enough to get so tired to merit falling asleep–the foolish girls weren’t allowed into the banquet (Kingdom of Heaven) because they didn’t prepare ahead of time.
But they waited a really long time! What gives?
Now, maybe I’m just taking this a little personally, as I’d often fall into the category of the foolish girls. (Whose kids went to school today without some of the supplies their teachers asked for on Friday? Yep–my kids!)
In Luke, Jesus says, “whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” (Lk 3:11) But going back to this story in Matthew, it’s all of a sudden OK that the wise girls don’t share their oil with the foolish ones? Jesus didn’t say in Luke, “Oh, wait–if the person who has no tunic is an unprepared fool, then go ahead and keep your extra tunic. The unprepared fool doesn’t deserve it.”
Of course he didn’t!
So what is he talking about in this story? Why is it OK that the girls aren’t sharing before the wedding banquet, and yet Jesus clearly told us to share?
Yesterday, I finally had this explained to me in a way that finally made some sense.
The Oil Isn’t Oil
As with most parables, Jesus wasn’t speaking literally. (He was being literal in the quote from Luke.) The was Father Gustavo explained it, the oil was a symbol of our own inner lives. The more we prepare our inner lives, the more we are like the wise girls. When we pray, study the Bible, meditate, and serve others, we’re feeding our inner lives. The more we feed that part of ourselves, the more we grow, and the more prepared we are to “wait for the bridegroom.” Or enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
On the other hand, if we’re just hanging out, hoping that we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven when it’s time, without exercising our inner lives, this story paints a rather bleak picture. We only have this one life, and this is our opportunity to prepare ourselves. While I can share my stories with others, I can’t actually give others a slice of a healthy inner life, a faith life. It’s something that each of us has to develop on our own. No one else can do it for us.
This is like what Paul was referring to when he said, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12) By working out our salvation, does that mean that we’re trying to earn our salvation? Of course not. Our salvation was earned for us 2000 years ago. That’s a done deal, and–thank God!– none of us can do anything to change that. But, do we accept that salvation, and are we living our lives out of gratitude for that salvation?
Reading the story like that, I’m a bit more at peace now about why the wise girls couldn’t share their oil with the foolish girls. I still wish with all my heart they could, but–in that context–I finally understand why they can’t. They may want to, but developing our faith is something that each of us has to do on our own.
For full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of these verses and parables that foretell a time when some are let into the Kingdom of Heaven and some are left out in the cold. I’d rather focus on the verses that say, “at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, on heaven and on earth.” (Phil 2:10).
I believe that God loves us–all of us. And, as mentioned earlier, through Jesus Christ, we’ve already been saved.
But these verses are in the Bible. I can’t wish them away because I don’t like them. In this journey to develop a faith life, we’re all trying to figure things out, the best we understand them.
This is what was on my plate this weekend. I’m doing my best to make sense of it.