32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes
Jesus tells us, “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” In those days, the Jewish custom was for a man and woman to get betrothed. This marked the start of their marriage covenant, yet the husband and wife would live separately for the first year. In the meantime, the bridegroom would return to his father’s house and prepare a dwelling place for their life together. Once all was ready, he would joyfully return to bring her to himself. She would be expecting him, but would not know the hour, so she awaited his arrival with her bridesmaids. The bridegroom and his groomsmen would come and escort the bride and her bridesmaids to his father’s house for the consummation of their marriage and seven days of feasting.
This is the cultural context for what Jesus tells us at the Last Supper, as recorded in St. John’s Gospel: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” These Jewish marriage customs also provide the setting for today’s gospel parable about ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom.
Five of them were wise and five of them were foolish, with the foolish ones foregoing flasks of extra oil and, as a result, being shut out of the wedding feast. Jesus Christ called himself the Bridegroom and the Book of Revelation says his saints will enjoy “the wedding feast of the Lamb.” Before unpacking how we can avoid the foolish ones’ fate, consider this question: why five foolish ones and five wise?
Like other storytellers, our Lord theoretically could have crafted his parable’s details differently. Given ten female characters, instead of five foolish and five wise, Jesus could have told a tale about one foolish virgin and nine wise ones, or preached a parable about nine foolish virgins and one wise one, or shaped his story as one of the six other mixtures where some were foolish and some were wise. So why did he say five and five?
Jesus knew that if his parable had featured just one fool beside nine wise virgins, we might presumptuously assume this story’s warning does not apply to us. On the other hand, if Jesus’ parable had featured nine fools and only one wise virgin, we might despair of being among those who enter the feast. Instead, Jesus speaks of five and five so that we will take this parable seriously yet also have confidence that we can take prudent steps to follow the Bridegroom.
What do the five wise and five foolish virgins teach us? What sort of persons were they, and what oil do we require? For an answer, recall another parable of Jesus.
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, after a life in which he callously neglected to care for poor Lazarus at his doorstep, a rich man suffers punishment in flames. He calls out to Abraham above: “I beg you, father, send [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment!” St. Jerome, the fourth-century Church Father and Doctor of the Church, saw symbolism in this rich man’s five brothers. Jerome sees them as the wicked man’s five bodily senses which were not ordered and dedicated to God. St. Jerome declares to that rich man:
“[Y]ou have five brothers: sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. These are the brothers to whom formerly you were enslaved. Since they were the brothers you loved, you could not love your brother Lazarus. Naturally you could not love him as brother, because you loved them. Those brothers have no love for poverty. Your sight, your sense of smell, your taste, and your sense of touch were your brothers. These brothers of yours loved wealth and they had no eye for poverty. … They are the brothers who sent you into these torments.”
God created and bestowed us our bodily senses, and they are good. Through them we sustain our lives, experience one another and this world, and delight in God’s good creations. The goodness of these material things reflect the goodness of their Maker. But it is easy for sinful humanity to become fixated on these delightful things resulting in the distracted neglect or sinful contempt of our Creator.
What is to keep our flame of faith from going out, plunging us into darkness, stopping us from following the Bridegroom? How can we properly order our five senses, and be like the wise virgins rather than the foolish, lest the Lord declare, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you”? We need oil to keep our lamps faithfully burning and follow Christ in the light. But what is that oil?
In the Old Testament, priests, prophets, and kings were anointed with holy olive oil. Jesus was revealed to be the Christ, the Messiah – titles which mean “Anointed One.” At Jesus’ baptism, St. John the Baptist knew Jesus was the “Anointed One” when he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him. And then at Nazareth, Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” So the Holy Spirit, who descended upon Jesus, our priest, prophet, and king, is like anointing oil. The Holy Spirit is the oil we need for our burning lamps. If we are wise we will invite and welcome this third divine Person to pour out upon us, fill us, and fuel us. He will keep our faith burning and direct our bodily senses so that we may wisely follow Christ our Bridegroom into joy.
“Come Holy Spirit,
fill the hearts of your faithful
& kindle in them the fire of your love.”