In the first reading and the Gospel, women are central figures. This is a rarity. Frequently, women are marginalized, silent or absent from biblical texts, often reflecting the imaginations of men situated within patriarchal contexts.
Resplendent and unfading is wisdom (Wis 6:12).
What do you do to empower women?
How do you seek wisdom in your life?
What do you do to be self-reliant?
In the Wisdom of Solomon, we hear of Woman Wisdom, a figurative woman used to personify intelligence, insight and thoughtfulness. Traditions about Woman Wisdom often emphasize her close connection to God, depicting her as a divine gift and also a participant in divine power and actions. Today’s reading highlights Woman Wisdom for being radiant and easily perceived. The reading reminds ancient and modern audiences to be observant of the world and look for examples and attitudes that are wise. The repeated notion that Woman Wisdom makes herself known should empower people to seek wisdom and to avoid and critique ignorance.
The beauty of Woman Wisdom is also highlighted, which can be interpreted positively or negatively—for instance, “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire.” This could suggest that people seek wisdom because it is appealing. However, it could also reveal an objectification of Woman Wisdom that is likely rooted in sexual desire for women. This sentiment is further emphasized as a voyeur watches Woman Wisdom and will not be disappointed by her. Despite the sexual innuendo and imagery, the important point still remains that wisdom should be desired.
In the Gospel, we hear another Matthean parable about the kingdom of heaven, the parable of the ten virgins. The title alone pushes women’s sexuality and lack of sexual experience to the forefront. Some translators and commentators refer to this as the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which highlights their assumed role in the story instead of their sexuality. As the women prepare for the groom and presumably his bride, who is absent from the story, five wise women bring oil for their lamps, and five foolish women do not bring oil. The women are judged as wise or foolish according to their ability to prepare. All 10 women fall asleep, and at the end of the story Jesus’ hearers are warned to stay awake. Jesus also criticizes the apostles, in the following chapter of Matthew, for falling asleep.
When the women without oil request assistance, they are told to go buy their own. On the one hand, this seems contrary to the Gospel message of love and care for one another. Shouldn’t the prepared women offer help? On the other hand, within the context of this parable about preparation, the five women with oil withhold it so that they can be fully prepared in the end. When the groom arrives, he and the five women with oil enter the banquet, and when the other women return, the groom says that he does not know them, which seems odd but reflects the harsh realities that follow their lack of foresight.
Although this is not the model story for assistance and solidarity, it is an important parable about personal accountability and responsibility. It reminds ancient and modern audiences of the uncertainty of the world generally and of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven more specifically, and it calls for all to be vigilant. Moreover, it empowers everyone, especially women, to be conscious of personal survival and self-reliance.