Wise and Foolish in the Church

Cambridge, MA. The Gospel for today, Sunday November 6, is the familiar story of “the wise and foolish virgins,” from Matthew 25: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”  And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (25.1-13)

In preparing the homily which I gave early this morning (to a crowded church, must have been boosted by the time change), I noticed how important it is to understand precisely on what grounds some of the virgins are charged to be foolish.


It is not that they, unlike the wise ones, did not know when the bridegroom was coming. Neither group knew, and the delay went on into the night. (As for delays: Today's second reading, I Thessalonians 4:13-17, contains Paul's vision of a dramatic second coming by Christ. After two thousands years, we still await that day - or, better, have learned not always to take Paul's words literally.)

It is not that they, unlike the wise ones, fell asleep, thus transgressing the closing command of Jesus to keep awake. They all fell asleep.

It is not that they, unlike the wise ones, carried lamps that were too small – as if the wise ones brought extra-large capacity lamps that would never run dry. All their lamps were the same size, and all were going out.

So what was the difference? Simply that the wise ones brought extra flasks of oil with them. But why does this make them wise? They were smart to bring extra oil, but under normal circumstances this would have been unnecessary, a waste: if the bridegroom came on time, there would have been no need for anything extra, and they would have been the foolish ones, now encumbered by extra flasks, while the others wisely had just enough.

Their wisdom lay in knowing that things can go wrong — unexpected delays, the inadequacy of their normal lamps, the extreme inconvenience of having to go looking for oil at midnight, the likelihood that they too would fall asleep and not even notice things were going wrong. They were wise, because they thought about the times when things go wrong, and were ready, just in case.

I suggested to my congregation that there are two ways to think of Catholic life. Option One is the take it all at face value: God will act as we expect, graces will be timely, prayers answered, leadership alive and alert when needed. We will all succeed in staying awake, alert, involved. Our little lamps – the ordinary resources of the faith, the things we say, do, feel – will work quite well. Option Two is to anticipate the hard times: God is mysteriously delayed, leaders do not lead, the night is too dark, we ourselves fall asleep and stop paying attention, the ordinary ways of keeping the faith alive desert us. We are the foolish ones, if we cling to Option One, and never consider Option Two.

At Mass, my appeal was rather general: we too will be wise if we are ready for the times when things go wrong. We need backup, some spiritual reserve: perhaps we should read more, be better educated in the faith; do extra good works, visit the sick, the imprisoned, the elderly, shelter the homeless; take time for extra prayer, meditation, the rosary. Others may see all of this as superfluous, unnecessary for a basically decent Catholic life. But when the troubles come, it is these extras that are the emergency flask of oil that will get us through the hard times.

But here I can make an additional application, just for readers of this blog. Why bother with fresh theological thinking? Why the endless flow of new theological books, particularly those that say something new? Why, for example, does Sister and Professor Elizabeth Johnson write a book like Quest for the Living God? We all know of the controversy around the book, much of which has been covered by In All Things writers. This is not the place nor I the one to review the book, the complaints, and Professor Johnson’s response, but on this Sunday morning I will say this:

By Option One, the Church as we have it is good enough, the leadership is good enough, and the theology that has worked in the past is good enough. New theological ideas are to be tested simply by how well they measure up to past theological formulations, how well they fit in with the standard theology of the day; differences considered to be novelties, deviations, unnecessary changes, and theologians look foolish when they come in carrying extra ideas, newly expressed insights. The Church thinks well enough as it is, leave it alone. Nothing unanticipated will happen, and the Bridegroom will come on schedule. We do not need Quest for the Living God, it is not worth the trouble.

By Option Two, what has worked in the past has to be taken into account; no Catholic theologian will want to write in entire rejection of the Church as it is today. We plan for the wedding feast as in the past and, like the women in Gospel, line up in more or less the usual way. But the wise theologian is the one who is also thinking afresh. She realizes that the bridegroom may not follow the schedule, may not show up as expected; we may have been dozing off, no longer paying attention; and our little lamps, the perfectly good theologies that worked yesterday, may be going dim. The wise theologian has to be trying out new ideas, thinking and writing a bit outside the box, proposing solutions to problems most Catholics and Catholic leaders don’t think we have. We would be foolish to imagine the theology we had yesterday is good enough for tomorrow. That extra flask of oil is really necessary. We need Quest for the Living God.

It is true that no theologian should or will get a free ride, blanket approval. That too would be foolish, and some theologians really are foolish. But in today’s Church, as in Matthew 25, it is still foolish to plan the wedding feast solely on the basis of what used to be the case. Let’s be thankful that theologians like Elizabeth Johnson take their task seriously, writing not only for the Church as it was, but for the Church of tomorrow. Blessed are the wise.

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david power
7 years 4 months ago
Excellent article.
You have teased out the passge from the Gospels really well.
However, in dealing with life does your interpretation not jar with other words of Jesus?.
Trusting that God will provide is what the foolish may have been guilty of.
Did the wise not contradict the notion of the communion of Saints in not sharing their wealth with those who had none?These are genuine questions and not rhetorical ones.

Mr. Power, excellent comments. In preaching, I tend to focus entirely on the reading before me, and not moderate its message by attention to the various contexts. You are right, that other texts would make other points. It is also true that I did not deal with the last parts of the reading - why did they not share? why did the 'foolish' not simply explain to the bridegroom what happened? why did he seemingly ruin his own festivity by such harshness? etc. FXC]

I agree with your idea that theology needs to keep moving forward.The idea that it does not would have lead to the burning of the Summa 800 years ago .I have not read "Quest for the Living God" but the title is very good.God is dead as Nietzsche said.But if we were to edit the malevolent genius from Germany would we not say that "he is not dead but has moved on".
Most catholic commentary presumes to have God in it's hands.We have him bottled and can sell him to you for the price of a cheap Rosary.Liberals and conservatives alike seem to be at one on this.God is backing them.God became man and not just that man but Man Himself.But where is he?.The idea that he is limiting Himself to the poor or the outcasts is repugnant.  I remember when I was about 9 years old  in school in Ireland and the Priest read to us the bible.The one word that was burned into my psyche was "withdrew".Jesus withdrew. People no longer take God seriously as Nietzsche said and want to put a simple crown on his head.  The English author Graham Greene once had a dream where Pope John Paul "canonized" Jesus.Was there an insight there?
7 years 4 months ago
An excellent essay; thank you for it, Fr. Clooney. 
My mind returned today to a mass several years ago at my parish, when a visiting presider-a seminary professor-preached on the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (each receiving a denarius, regardless of the time worked).  He pointed to this parable as an occasion where the gospel author perhaps got confused about the point of the story:  Jesus told many “the last shall be first” stories, and on the surface, this sounded like one, so the gospel author concluded it with Jesus saying “the last shall be first”…but in our presider’s opinion, it really was a story about justice and about care for the poor who lived day-to-day. 
The workbook that lectors use in my parish made a similar point about today’s Gospel-that, in spite of the final line of the reading, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour”-the reading is more about readiness than about vigilance.  As both Fr Clooney and our workbook point out, even the wise virgins fell asleep. 
Fr. Clooney, I appreciated your interpretation of “bringing extra oil” as anticipating that things can go wrong, and knowing that we need to find the resources to endure such times.  I’ve been thinking about this in my own life, though my reflections lead to contradictions.  We’ve been going through a rough patch at my parish-a time, to use your words, when some things have “gone wrong,” and we are (individually and collectively) a mix of the wise and foolish-some perhaps having resources stored up like the wise virgins, others running off to “buy oil …though perhaps these are just as wise, as the “oil they buy” may help them through future crises.   The irony is that the (former) spirit of the parish was the resource that got many of us through the times in our individual lives when things have “gone wrong,” but many of us find ourselves without the resources to cope with the changes in our parish.  No doubt this find a parallel in the issues that the universal church faces.
Some parishioners have left-to attend other Catholic parishes or in some cases, churches of other denominations.  A friend visited me this week and reported that his family is now attending the local Episcopal church, and after a lot of pain and a lot of searching, his heart is at peace, since after a year of dreading Sundays, he looks forward to worship.  I am sorry he has not been able to find the “resources” within the Catholic Church but I’m not interested in judging someone who desperately needs to “buy oil for his lamp.”  I have tried to follow the counsel of my former pastor, who reminded me of the importance of the sacraments and of sharing in the life of our established community, even as I need to seek and find the food my soul needs.  And I also recall recent words from my bishop, at a mass celebrating wedding anniversaries, in which he reflected on the virtue of constancy, whereby we acknowledge and anticipate that times will go wrong just as they often go right, and this mere realization is a vital element of preparation, a resource for endurance.  
Chris Sullivan
7 years 4 months ago
It strikes me that the wise did share their light with the foolish.  Perhaps that light was enough to help get the foolish to the end of their journey ?

If the wise had shared their oil then they would have run out and everyone would have been in the dark (potentially dangerous in days of rough roads without street lights).

I like Fr Clooney's suggestion of keeping our oil tanks full for the hard times to come.

Maybe that oil will be the stuff to light the path for everyone ?

God Bless
Jim McCrea
7 years 4 months ago
"I confess to not having read much of the Bible. Lamentably poor religious education - catechesis?"

When I was a child I blamed the adults.  Now that I am an adult, who is there to blame but ..... me.


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