First reading: Wisdom 6:12-16.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 62(63):2-8.
Second reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13.
Link to readings.
All three readings this Sunday find some unity around the theme of the right attitude to adopt towards the future. Matthew's Gospel devotes a long section to this theme, culminating in the three parables that make up chapter 25. Today's Gospel, Matt 25:1-13, features the first of these parables, the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (literally, "virgins").
Interpretation of the parable has to deal with the problem that our knowledge of the wedding customs of the time is not secure and some details (e.g., the feasibility of young women going out to buy oil at midnight) seem unrealistic. In any case, as Matthew has Jesus tell the story we seem to be dealing with an allegory providing an extended lesson rather than a parable making a single point.
As it appears in the gospel, the story seems to presuppose a wedding custom whereby unmarried young women, who have been waiting with the bride at her family's house, go out to meet the bridegroom when he arrives to take her to his own house. When his arrival is announced, they go out to meet him with blazing torches ("torches" is a preferable translation of the Greek lampshades than the traditional "lamps") and escort the couple back to his house, where the marriage feast has been prepared and the guests are waiting for their entry.
The use of torches presupposes that the procession to the bridegroom's house takes place at night. The parable further presupposes a late-arriving bridegroom, though whether this is due to custom or is a simply an instance of unpunctuality on this particular occasion we do not know. In any case, the lateness of the hour leads to sleepiness on the part of the waiting women. But what shame for five of the bridesmaids who, when the bridegroom is said to be well on the way, are not in a position to carry out their welcoming role! Their torches have gone out during the long wait and there is no oil to rekindle them.
Despite the concluding warning, "Stay awake, because you do not know the day or the hour", it is not falling asleep that is reprehended. All ten bridesmaids, both the wise and the foolish, fall asleep. The difference between them is that the former have made sure to have sufficient oil to rekindle their lamps when they are roused, while the foolish have not taken this precaution. Their absence on the errand to buy it frustrates the whole purpose of their role when at last the bridegroom appears.
As I suggested above, the parable appears as an allegory for life in the Church during the time of waiting for the return of its Lord (the "Bridegroom"). The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids represent members of the Church, who, as so often in Matthew, are of mixed quality. The oil represents the kind of good deeds that Jesus commends-"justice, mercy and faith" (23:23)-and which will be so graphically illustrated in the concluding parable of the Great Judgement (25:31-46). The five foolish bridesmaids represent the kind of believers depicted towards the close of the Sermon on the Mount: those who cry out, "Lord, Lord" but have no good works to accompany this confession of faith (7:21-27). The wise may "sleep" (in death) before the coming of the Lord but when he does come they will go out to meet him with the "lamps" of their good works shining (cf. 5:16). Thus the final warning about "staying awake" because neither "the day or the hour" is known really means, in the light of the parable, "Be prepared", rather than "stay awake".
The parable-and the Gospel as a whole-remind us that the words of dismissal at the Eucharist, "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord", are no perfunctory conclusion to the rite but a programme for living the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbour (Matt 22:37-40). Those who take them to heart have always with them the "oil" required for salvation; they can "sleep" without anxiety about being caught short by the Lord's sudden arrival.
The kind of attentive waiting upon and pursuit of Wisdom commended in the First Reading, Wis 6:12-16, coheres well with the Gospel in the light of Matthew's portrayal of both Jesus himself and his teaching as the true Wisdom (see esp. Matthew 5-7; 11:28-30).
In regard to Paul's clarification to the Thessalonians in the Second Reading, 1 Thess 4:13-18, it is important to point out that his description of the events of the end is not to be taken literally (as in the "Rapture" foreseen by some Pentecostal sects). It offers a symbolic portrayal of the truth that believers who have already died, no less than the living, will share the final triumph of the risen Lord.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media