Only three Sundays remain in the church year. Each of them includes a Gospel about the end times. These are Jesus’ responses to the question, “What will it be like in the end?” (Mt 24:3). In this, the readings return to a theme we last saw (and soon will again) in Advent: Be prepared!
‘Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ (Mt 25:13)
How do you make yourself ready for Christ?
How do you steward your “oil”? What do you do every day to stay ready for the arrival of grace?
Like many in their day, Jesus and his disciples believed that the world was coming to an end. Biblical prophecies foretold an accelerating decay that would reveal itself in political oppression, social chaos, poverty, famine and illness. The many demons we encounter in the Gospels are another indication of this decay. Many thought that as the earth crumbled, creatures from the abyss found ways to rise up and wreak havoc (by contrast, demonic attacks are not a major fear in the Old Testament).
The way the world would end was a matter of debate. Prophets like Zechariah and others with an “apocalyptic” mindset believed a major catastrophe would come first to sweep away the old order (Zech 14:1-5). Others, like Isaiah, believed that the transition would be sudden and peaceful (Is 65:15-25). Jesus described the end in both ways. His statements in Mt 24:1-31 and elsewhere express apocalyptic expectations. Today’s Gospel more resembles the vision of Isaiah. Jesus’ return at the end will be like that of a bridegroom who shows up late to his own wedding feast.
In his discussion of the end times, Matthew emphasizes a spirit of readiness. His generation was the first to accept that Jesus’ return was delayed. Rather than jettison decades of belief, Christians took Jesus’ delay as a motivation for virtue. Jesus was coming again, but as he warned, no one knew the day or the hour. Christians should live, therefore, like people who are always ready for the final moment.
The wise virgins symbolize such Christians. Taking extra oil was costly and inconvenient, but it meant that they were ready for the feast when the bridegroom came. By contrast, the other virgins were foolish in two ways. They failed to bring extra oil, and they failed to take advantage of the bridegroom’s delay to acquire more.
These women illustrate a mystery that occupies Matthew throughout his Gospel. Although Jesus called everyone, not all responded. Of those who responded, even fewer persisted in the faith. This mystery also lies behind the parables of the sower and the wedding feast. In today’s Gospel passage, the oil symbolizes this persistence. The sacrifices and inconveniences of acquiring and carrying extra oil were trivial compared to the joys of the feast to come. Given the nature of the task, the oil could not be shared. Each virgin had to ensure her own supply. Even though they had said yes to the bridegroom’s invitation, failure to bring extra oil meant the foolish ones could not attend the feast.
The oil thus symbolizes our readiness for God’s grace. The daily tasks necessary to prepare ourselves—prayer, acts of forgiveness and generosity, trust in providence—are comparable to the minor sacrifices and inconveniences of the wise virgins. The more prepared we are, however, the readier we will be to hold the lamp up to light Christ’s face when he comes again.