Commentary on the Readings
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – November 12, 2017
It is not difficult to believe but to persevere in the faith
Israel has experienced the faithfulness of his God. For him, Israel coined the term hesed we 'emet that occurs frequently in the Bible and which can be translated as: faithful in love. When the Lord stipulates an alliance he is faithful to it, even if the other party betrays its commitments. When He makes a promise, he never misses a word.
Paul was deeply convinced of it: “The faithful God who has called” (1 Cor 1:9); “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13) and, recalling the unfaithfulness of Israel, he says: “Will their unfaithfulness do away with the faithfulness of God? Of course not” (Rom 3:3-4).
But will people ever match this love?
The Bible speaks of the hasidim (the faithful: from hesed, loyal). Even before Christ, a group of pious and virtuous men—who were given this name—were meant to embody the loyal, law-abiding Israelite, willing even to be martyrs rather than betray their faith. This spiritual power has remained to this day in the Jewish people. Here is what one of these hasidim has written in front of the gas chamber: “God of Israel, you have made the possible so that I would not believe in you. If you thought of being able to divert me from my way, well I’ll tell you, my God, the God of my fathers, you will not succeed. You can hit me, take away from me whatever is precious and dear I have on earth, you can torment me to death, but I will always believe in you. I’ll love you forever. I die as I have lived, firmly believing in you.”
When the wind of test blows “the lamp of the godless is extinguished, the light of the virtuous is bright” (Pro 13:9).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Grant, O Lord, that on the last day, I can repeat, like Paul, ‘I have finished my course, I have kept myself faithful.’”
The Israelites—like all the other nations of antiquity—esteemed "wisdom" more than wealth, beauty, and strength. They appreciated those who examined the secrets of nature, who composed proverbs, songs, and poems, who reflected on the enigmas of the world, life, and death, joy, and pain. The most famous of the wise was Solomon whose wisdom “was greater than that of all the Orientals and all the land of Egypt” (1 K 5:9-14).
When the Bible speaks of “wisdom” it refers, above all, to the art of directing one’s own life well. Wise is he who, reflecting on one’s own experience, on the teachings of the sages who preceded him, on the historical events of his people, draws useful lessons for himself and for others. He is able to distinguish what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. He controls his instincts and passions, acts with care, loyal in word and deed, humble and modest.
In the world, there is not one wisdom. Next, to that of God, there is also that of the “snake.” The Bible presents it as the most cunning of creatures made by the Lord God (Gen 3:1). It is the image of the cunning person who claims to become the absolute master of his own destiny, but that, by excluding God from his own life, eventually enacts his own downfall. Can he claim the title “wise”? The Bible’s answer is: no.
It is the foolish who, in his heart, cries mockingly: “God does not exist” (Ps 14:1).
It is, therefore, essential for every person, family, and people to check what is the “wisdom” that guides him, taking him by the hand. Is it that of God or that of the “snake”? From what “wisdom” the decisions were taken depend? It is a choice between life and death.
The author of today’s proposed passage is a wise man who discovered the wisdom of God and wants his readers to fall in love with it. So he presents it, personified as a beautiful girl, as a young girl who plays and jokes before God: “it is bright and incorruptible, he who loves it never tires of contemplating it” (v. 12).
And the pains of love? The one who feels rejected, who sees the beloved continually escaping, who discovers that the woman of his dreams is unreachable, experiences it. Is obtaining God’s wisdom perhaps so difficult?
No!—answers our author. She willingly lets herself be seen by those who love her (v. 12), indeed, she hastens to meet those who long for her. She puts in place a thousand charms to be noticed, to be known (v. 13). From morning she goes in search of a wise man to entertain him with her beauty and to seduce him. She makes herself seen at the door of her house (v. 14).
She herself goes in search of some. She is fascinated because “they are worthy of her.” When she discovers them she does not abandon them. She accompanies them all along the way (v. 16).
The passage ends by proclaiming blessed and free from care the one who makes the wisdom of God his own, who trusts his life on it (v. 15).
In the early Christian communities, there was a widespread belief that Jesus would return very soon to catch up with his disciples and introduce them in the Father’s kingdom. Paul also shared this idea. From where did it come from? How did it begin?
It is spontaneous and natural to imagine that one’s generation would be the last and the world ends with us. So far there’s nothing strange; when the so-called millennial appeared then the troubles start. Taking advantage of the naivety of the people, they announce frightening events and make someone lose his head, convincing him that the “last days” are here. The consequences of such fanaticism can also be tragic.
At the time of Paul, the expectation of the imminent end of the world was fueled above all by the rabbis. They said that, because of the many misfortunes that had befallen their people and so much sufferings, humiliation, violence that Israel continued to endure everyday, God would soon intervene to begin his reign. But even a few phrases of Jesus, literally and incorrectly interpreted, had helped to raise this expectation (Mt 24).
In Thessalonica, the expectation of the imminent end of the world was beginning to create serious problems, so much so that Paul felt the need to intervene. Some, convinced that a short time to live remains and that food supplies could be sufficient, had stopped working, had become the idlers, thus discrediting the whole community.
There was also a theological problem that raised concerns and questions. It was about the fate of the dead. They wondered if the Lord comes to take them, the living, what about the relatives and friends who have died?
In today’s reading, the second problem is clarified. On the issue of abstention from work, a second letter written to the same community will answer it.
Paul begins by recalling some fundamental truths: in the face of death, pagans, and Christians’ positions are not only distant but opposite. The first ones “have no hope” and then, in the face of death, they cannot help but despair. For them, it is the end of everything. Instead, Christians believe in eternal life. They know that the life of God, received in baptism, is not interrupted by death; while suffering the separation from a loved one, they do not grieve “as those who have no hope” (v. 13).
The second truth which the Thessalonians must refer to is the resurrection of Christ (v. 14). Jesus has conquered death; he entered into the glory of the Father and will bring with him all those who, in baptism, have been united with him.
The third consoling truth (vv. 15-17) is that, at the coming of Christ, there will be no difference between those who are already dead and those who will be found alive. All will be gathered and they will be forever with the Lord.
In these truths—that constitute the core of the faith—Christians must find the answer to the riddle of death that has always distressed people.
In today’s parable, there are some strange, unlikely, even contradictory details. I list some of them: why don’t the foolish virgins join the wedding with the little oil they still have? What goes through their minds to go to the market to buy some oil? At midnight, the markets are closed. The wise virgins are introduced with great honor at the wedding feast but we would want to drive them away. We would not know what to make of so selfish friends. The recommendation which concludes the story: “So stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (v. 13) has nothing to do with the parable because even the wise virgins slept and none has been vigilant.
Even the figure of the groom (who clearly is Christ) is not at all sympathetic. He is a strange one. He arrives at an inappropriate time. Then on the very day on which he should appear friendly with everyone, he starts to threaten and chase people out for no fault of their own. On his feast, we all would participate with apprehension.
To understand these strange details, it must be remembered, first, that we are dealing with a parable. In these stories, not all is logical. Sometimes elements are introduced that are designed solely to provoke the imagination of the listener, to keep them interested and attentive, to make it easier for them to assimilate the message. The details of our dramatic parable are due—as I have said on other occasions—to the typical oriental taste for impressive images. Attention must not be focused on them but on the central teaching.
There is another important factor to keep in mind in order to understand the parable: Jesus’ original story was edited by Matthew. He has adapted it to the catechetical needs of his communities. We’ll see how.
The wedding party in Israel was very solemn and lasted about a week. On the first day, the groom went to the house of his in-laws to take the bride with him. The bridesmaids were there to welcome him. They are the unmarried girls of the village who were singing, dancing, and if it was night, holding torches, to accompany the friend who was getting married to her new home where the wedding party was taking place.
Jesus takes his cue from this ceremony—which he certainly has attended and participated often—to compose a parable with which to mediate his message.
If one keeps in mind that both the number five and the virgins are symbols of the people of Israel and that the number ten indicates the totality, it is easy to grasp the meaning that the parable had on the lips of Jesus. The ten virgins represent the people of Israel awaiting the Messiah (the groom): a part of this people (the five wise virgins) is prepared to accept and enter into the Christian community, while another part (the five foolish virgins) is not attentive to God’s plans, are unfaithful and are kept out of the banquet hall.
Fifty years later, when Matthew writes his gospel, the historical, cultural and religious contexts have changed. Christian communities have arisen in the pagan world. The problems faced by the disciples are different. In the new situation, one feels more than ever the need of the illuminating word of the Master. Matthew—a true pastor of souls, attentive to the spiritual needs of his church—retakes the parable of Jesus and once again, offered it, adapting it to the new reality.
What were the problems of the Christian communities at the end of the first century A.D.?
We have seen in the second reading that in the early decades of the church’s life, there was a widespread conviction that the Lord would return soon “on the clouds of heaven” to take his disciples with him and introduce them in glory. But nothing had happened. The feverish expectation had been disappointing. The first doubts had arisen and fatigue and discouragement subtly entered in the communities. As a result, many defections among Christians were recorded. Some apostate directed ironic arguments to his former brothers in faith: “What has become of his promised coming? Since our father in faith died, everything still goes on as it was from the beginning of the world” (2 P 3:4).
Disappointed by the failure of the Lord’s return, many resumed the dissolute life they had led before baptism. They returned to take an interest in the trade and business. They resumed their arrogant attitudes towards their employees and exploited slaves, just as if they had never heard the gospel of Christ. They were plunged into a dangerous spiritual slumber; they were at the mercy of the most complete blunting of consciousness.
Matthew rewrites the parable to remind those people who let their torch go unlit. It is to shake those who let their own faith be reduced to a smoldering wick. The scene is that of God’s judgment, the colors are dark, the language is hard, but it’s the situation that calls for it. There is also an added exhortation of Jesus which he has certainly delivered on another occasion: “So stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (v. 13), but the evangelist considers it appropriate to place it in this context.
In the first part of the parable (vv. 1-5), the characters are introduced and the preparations for the feast are described.
In the new version—the one adapted by Matthew for his community—the ten virgins do not indicate any longer Israel, but the church that awaits the return of her Lord, her Bridegroom.
Thus, there is also a logical explanation for the fact that the bride does not appear: the bride is the Christian community, represented by the ten virgins.
“Five of them were foolish and five were wise” (v. 2).
A theme dear to Matthew is resumed here. In the Christian community, the good and the evil live together; the wheat and the weeds grow in the same field; the good ones and the bad ones are on the same network; clean and dirty people sit at the same table; the wise and the foolish are side by side.
Note also that the foolish virgins are mentioned first because they are causing concern. They represent the Christians at risk, those disciples who were asleep and behave like frivolous, vain, airhead girls who lose their heads for clothes, jewelry, perfume, look and neglect the essentials. They focus their lives on what is transient; they neglect the true values; they forget the one thing necessary, that which Mary had chosen being at the Lord’s feet and becoming his disciple (Lk 10:38-42).
The vigilant virgins are instead Christians who do not let themselves be seduced by vanity and remain focused on what is important in life. The parable is reproposed to Christians today, to help them discover and recognize the “foolish virgin” that is in each of them. Often it is she who—without their noticing her—takes them by the hand, advises them, guides them, gives suggestions and orients toward foolish choices. In the second part of the parable (vv. 6-9), there is, first of all, the cry of someone who, more vigilant than others, is the first to guess that the bridegroom is coming. Then the groups are compared to the way they live the time of waiting.
The puzzling behavior of the wise virgins, who refuse to share their oil with their companions, contains a valuable message. In the past, you could hear the spiritual masters repeat the phrase: “The important thing is to die in the grace of God,” almost enough to have a good feeling, a good thought at the end of life, to put in order a poorly managed life; but a ruined life is not rebuilt at the last minute and no one can lend part of one’s own life. The important thing, therefore, is not to die but to live well. God—it is true—always finds a way to save the person, but in the end everyone will end up with what one did: with a solid and magnificent palace or with a paper mache castle, which will not stand the fire of God’s judgment, when he “will test the work of everyone” (1 Cor 3:13-17).
The third part (vv. 10-12) contains the scene of judgment: the bridegroom comes, some are admitted to the feast, others are rejected.
In Matthew, the parables often end in dramatic fashion, with threats and punishments. These are not introduced to terrify, but to warn of errant behaviors that lead to failure. They are a reminder of the importance of the present moment, the only one that is given to us and that not even God can make us relive. If you invest it in evil, it is lost forever.
The closing of the door indicates the end of every opportunity. Hence, the urgent need to establish how to use life well and the image of the lighted lamp suggests the way.
Whoever has made evangelical choices will be approved by God. He will have been persevering and will have kept in mind and heart the light of faith, even in those moments when trials and difficulties will go beyond the expected. However, the choice of one who, for a while, will have followed the proposals of Christ, but then, being tired, will have bent oneself toward other values, other interests, will be condemned and judged insane.
The message of the parable is only this, the rest is drama to make it incisive. It is not a description of what Jesus will do at the end of the world with one who will be led by a fool.
The epilogue (v. 13) is a last call to vigilance: the Groom can come at any moment and it is necessary to always be ready to receive him.
It would be a mistake to imagine this world as a waiting room where patients are seated and maybe dozing; Christians waiting for the Lord to come to take and introduce them in the future world.
This concept (which was that of some Christians in Thessalonica) gave rise to idleness, immobility, disaffection, indifference to the problems of the world and of earthly realities. These attitudes are the most anti-Gospel one could imagine.
Jesus is not coming only at the end of our life. He comes in every moment and wants to find his disciples engaged in service, in the gift of themselves to the brothers and sisters. In their room, the lamp should be always on, as a point of reference and reminder of hope for the poor seeking help, for the outcast and the stranger who invoke love and justice, for the woman who demands respect, for those who are victims of violence and long for peace, for those who did wrong and need understanding and forgiveness.