As we’re heading towards the end of the liturgical year, we’re wrapping up with Matthew’s Gospel and as of this week, we find ourselves in Chapter 25, the last discourse Jesus gave to his disciples – before he was arrested and put to death. This passage of the Matthew’s Gospel is also known as the “Olivet Discourse” (because Jesus gave it on the Mount of Olives) and it contains three parables about the end of times:
– The parable of the ten bridesmaids we have heard today
– The parable of the talents we will hear next week
– The parable of the sheep and goats we will hear the last Sunday of Pentecost.
All these stories have a common theme: They are often referred to as “Parables of judgment” because they give us a picture of what will happen when the bridegroom (in this parable) / The Master (Parable of the talents) / The Lord (Parable of the sheep and goat) – all Christ figures – will come back to judge the earth.
Most scholars believe that those stories have been developed and integrated in the Gospels as the first Christians were starting to long for Christ’s return. Mostly, these parables want to teach us how to be prepared until this day: by bearing the light (The parable of the bridesmaids), by putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents), by sharing what we have (Parable of the sheep and goats).
After the week we have had, I would like to say that those parables want to teach us how to wait – yet this wait has not much in common with the waiting we’ve been doing in the past days. It’s not an anxious waiting – fearsome for some of us – a waiting made of uncertainties and worry for the future, rather, it’s a waiting of spiritual growth, it’s about how to prepare our hearts and souls to receive Christ at the end of times – which, as Paul underlines in our 2nd reading, could mean the end of this world or the time of our death. As I see it, it can also points to those moments in our lives, when for some reason, Christ makes himself closer to us, asks us for a specific work or vocation, or draw us closer to reach out to one of our neighbors. We have to get ready to meet Christ in many ways and circumstances.
To tell you the truth, those stories about being prepared are often hard for me to hear because most of the times in my daily life I feel like I am not ready for whatever is coming up. I am this type of person who can pack endlessly for a two days trip, checking the forecast several times, always wondering if I should bring an extra sweater or another pair of shoes, and no matter how much time I spend packing I always, always leave home with the feeling I have forgotten something important.
And so my question is this: If I can’t manage to be prepared for a weekend out of town, how can I say I would ever be prepared for the Day of The Lord?!
And yet. Yet one of the things I’ve learned with all the trips I took in my life is that, whether I feel ready or not, is that the trip happens anyway and in the end, even I always forget something useful and always bring a lot of useless things, one thing is sure: the only thing I really needed was my passport or my ID.
This example may sound silly but I think this was this serious question the first Christians were molding on over and over: How can we be ready? How can we ever be prepared the right way? How can we know what it is that I really need for the Christian journey towards the end, because we believe it will happen, in one way or another, and it’s impossible for us to anticipate when and how it will occur.
What is the one thing we’re supposed to bring along in our spiritual journey, what is the one thing we’re supposed to pack? What is the passport to the eternal banquet? What is the ID with which Christ will identify us as his own?
To this question, the three parables of the Olivet discourse give answers and today, the parable of the bridesmaids makes it pretty clear that what we need to bring along is the oil.
How can we understand that? Throughout centuries of commentaries of the Scriptures, theologians and scholars as well as priests and pastors have tried to understand what the oil stands for, and the oil has been seen either as the Holy Spirit (because of the anointing), as faith, as love, as charity – and of course all Christians need those things, but I must say I don’t feel it is very helpful because the list goes on and on and the suitcase for the Christian journey just seem heavier and heavier and harder to carry.
So instead of focusing on what the oil stands for, it could be all sort of things, maybe we should focus on what the oil does, and to this the answer is pretty obvious: the oil brings light, and the bridesmaids are the bearers of the light in the long night of waiting for the groom.
Well, as I see it, that’s really what we are called to do as Christians in this world even – and especially when – it gets darker. To be bearers of the light. Bearers of the light that keep us going in the darkness and that will enable us to identify Christ in the midst of all things unseen and unknown, and will give access, open the door to a new life in him. Christians are supposed to be bearers of the light, and it can happen in many, many different ways in our different walks of life, vocations and occupations. As we see in the parable, we cannot give this oil to others, because it’s not something we can decide for another Christian – we cannot tell them the way to witness Christ – each one of us has to figure out what they are called to do and shine their own light to the world as we wait for his return. And I think it’s not only true for Christians – all people are called to be a light in the world in their own way by witnessing to joy, hope and healing.
In these times were darkness seem to grow thicker – literally with the shortening of days and in many other ways too – I want to ask you this question today: How are you a bearer of the light? What is it that you do to enable this world to know Christ? You see the bridesmaids, they weren’t asked a lot – it wasn’t one of those crazy weddings where you have to do so many things you can’t reach the bottom of the list and end up completely stressed out – those bridesmaids, they had only one job: to light the path for the bridegroom – to make him seen and known – and so is our vocation as Christians (If you remember, it was also Isaiah’s and John the Baptist’s vocation, to prepare the way for the Lord). We will see in the weeks to come how the preparation is also about putting our skills to work (Parable of the talents) and sharing our goods / taking care of one another (Parable of the sheep and the goats) which are other ways of bearing the light / giving testimony.
This can be scary too, and also a bit overwhelming. Yet one of the things we can also remember from those parables Jesus told his disciples before he left this world, is maybe that the important thing is to have a willingness to be prepared, even if we don’t really know how to do this. If you pay attention to the reading we had from the book of Joshua, it’s quite surprising isn’t it, the way Joshua asks the tribes of Israel again and again if they are really willing to serve the Lord, if they are sure that’s something they really want to do? We wonder is Joshua is not trying to scare them off in some way! Well, to me I think Joshua asks these questions not in order to discourage the people, but to help them relinquish spiritual arrogance and get a sense that they maybe aren’t quite ready and that they will have to learn, and grow, and yes maybe suffer – not because the Lord wants to do them wrong – far from that – but because the Lord is holy and they will too have to grow in this holiness. To get prepared, we need first to realize that we are not ready.
In the end, I think this is really what makes the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids. The wise aren’t that wise because they have it figured out all, but because they have the humility to try to prepare, to serve and to be helpful to the groom – mostly they want to see him, to recognize him in the dark – when the foolish bridesmaids don’t even question whether they will be ready or not for the party and don’t remember the one job they’ve been asked to do. In this sense, the story reminds us of this other parable about the party at the wedding where one of the guests does not even put on the white robe. I think what Jesus expects from his disciples is that they have to put in a little effort – not that we can save ourselves by these efforts but because it’s our way to respond in love to his invitation. To tell him, in a way or another, that we long for him and that in this wait we anticipate in joy the day of his coming.