Our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom, which Catholics accept but Protestants and Jews do not. This book personifies wisdom and describes her as a brightness that does not go dim. Wisdom is quick “to anticipate those who desire her, she makes herself known to them. “She herself walks about looking for those who are worthy of her.” Today’s Gospel tells of wise and foolish virgins. Ten are called to await the expected bridegroom; they all carried torches but only five of them had oil to fuel the torches. The bridegroom was delayed until after dark. When the virgins were awakened, the wise ones (who had oil) accompanied the bridegroom while the foolish ones went in search of oil for their torches. By the time they found oil, the banquet door was barred and these virgins were left out. The Gospel ends with this warning: Keep awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour.
We’re getting into a time of the year that I dread; maybe you do too. While our calendar year gives us another seven weeks, our liturgical year ends in just two weeks. Alas, the readings for the end of the liturgical year mean to scare us into thinking that time is short and we need to be frightened over events beyond our control.
That said, I love the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. Any decent writer (and I pray I am one) will tell you that metaphors make good writing possible. Metaphors make sense and explain realities to the reader that can’t be made another way. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird the father figure (lawyer Atticus Finch) tells his son that shooting a mockingbird is a sin because mockingbirds do nothing but provide good music. Later in the novel his son recognizes that his father’s defendant (Tom) is falsely accused and killing him would also be a sin because Tom did nothing wrong.
Does this speak to us about wisdom? I think it does. When I was a priest and heard confessions I often spoke with people who told me about times when they reacted poorly to events in their life that they now regret. They came to me to ask for forgiveness, and I was happy to provide them, but I also spoke with them about choosing differently when faced with the same event. I often suggested that they pray for the gift of wisdom and would sometimes suggest that they read parts of this book. I told them that wisdom allows us to make a snap decision that would have been the same decision we would have made if we had time to consider it. When asked for the thousandth time by a child for a candy bar, wisdom allows us to say: “No, you know candy is only for special occasions” instead of “For the love of God will you ever shut up about that damned candy bar?” Wisdom allows us to see someone cut us off in traffic and assume the other driver is in the middle of an emergency instead of responding with road rage.
When we read from Wisdom I many of us notice that Wisdom is portrayed as female. And while I suspect some will assume this is some ancient attempt at political correctness, I doubt that’s true. The Old Testament certainly does not lack for male imagery but when I think of wisdom certain words come to mind: mindfulness, patience, and faithfulness. And for lack of a better word, I see a gentleness here. I see these as feminine gifts, but gifts that benefit all of us, men and women.
I’m also struck that the reader is instructed to seek wisdom; wisdom is to be approached. She will not seek or force herself on us but insist that we recognize her. Earlier I spoke about how wisdom allows us to make good decisions in the moment, but it does more than that. I like to think that wisdom can get a “gateway virtue” that can lead us to other virtues. Wisdom compels us to look at others with different eyes, and virtually forces us to compassion. Imagine what our world would look like if all of us gained wisdom. That would indeed be the kingdom of heaven that Jesus spoke about.
OK, now comes a problem that continues to trouble me. At first glance, today’s Gospel flows directly from Wisdom. Wisdom calls us to “be alert for her” and Matthew’s Gospel divides the world into the wise and foolish. Those who were wise enough to purchase oil for their torches made out well, and those who didn’t make it to heaven. The simplest understanding of the Gospel is this: at some point the world is going to end. Some will be ready and others will not. Those who are not deserve no sympathy because they knew the rules and they have no one to blame but themselves.
But when I think of Jesus’ invitation to us to find salvation in him, I don’t see this interpretation of the Gospel. This Gospel appears (at least to me) to scold us for not preparing for a test in school or keeping our gas tanks full. And that same laziness may someday cost us our very souls.
And I’m also troubled with the selfishness of the wise virgins. When given the choice of compassion (“Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out”), the wise virgins choose fear (“There may not be enough for us and you”). Was there not enough light for everyone? Is the kingdom of heaven dependent on a finite amount of oil? I hope not.
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this Gospel and perhaps I’m giving to much weight to this single encounter between the wise and foolish virgins. But I am struck by the belief I carried for many years that the foolish virgins somehow had more fun than they should have and the wise virgins traded in fun for seriousness. I’m reminded of a song by the American songwriter Billy Joel from the 1970s. The song was entitled Only the Good Die Young and it contained this line: “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”
Of course it’s my belief that we are all sinners working to become saints and the world is not so easily divided. It’s been my experience that most saints don’t cry, and most sinners are not truly happy. It’s been my experience that the truly wise people in my life are the happiest.
I still struggle with this Gospel (and perhaps in three years when this reading comes about again) I’ll have a greater insight. But let me say this: I can’t envision a kingdom of heaven that excludes the foolish, but I can envision a kingdom where those who have intentionally avoided wisdom don’t see value in the kingdom of heaven.
We’ll see where I am in 2020.