Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the book of Wisdom. Here the author describes wisdom as being “bright, and does not grow dim.” Also, “[w]atch for her early and you will have no trouble; you will find her sitting at your gates.” Matthew’s Gospel describes a parable where ten bridesmaids await the arrival of the groom for a wedding. They all carried torches but only five brought oil. The groom was delayed and it was night when he arrived. The five who had oil lit their torches but the other five could not. Because they had no way of lighting their torches they were denied entry to the wedding. Jesus ended the parable by telling his followers to “stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the time.”
OK, (virtual) show of hands: How many of us were told today’s Gospel parable pointed to children who didn’t study for their tests? I’m guessing I’m not the only one. We were told that the foolish bridesmaids didn’t bother to bring oil because they were foolish or lazy, or they thought it didn’t matter. And when they were caught short they asked for mercy but it was too late.
But even as a child I recognized that this Gospel didn’t make sense in the larger context of following Jesus. From what I’ve been able to research it appears that the groom traveled to another village to meet his bride and return to his home for the wedding. In the days before google maps, whatsapp, etc. nobody knew the exact time of someone’s return and the welcoming party needed to be ready. That would explain the torches, but not the oil. Why would anyone bother to carry a torch that she couldn’t light? If you expected the groom’s return during the day, why bother to carry a torch at all?
And finally it appears that the foolish bridegrooms were criticized for not having oil, but it also appeared that all the bridegrooms fell asleep waiting for the groom. At the end of the Gospel, though, Jesus doesn’t tell those gathered to bring oil, but to stay awake.
Perhaps this means we shouldn’t begin with the Gospel, but with the reading from Wisdom.
Longtime readers of mine know that I’ve always valued wisdom. I define wisdom as the ability to know how to decide something on the spur of the moment and have it be the same as if I had time to think about it. When I was a priest hearing confessions I would often suggest that the penitent pray for wisdom.
And that’s true, as far as it goes. But Wisdom, as I now understand it, goes much deeper. Wisdom isn’t simply a habit or a choice in a given circumstance, it’s a way of life. And it’s a holy way of life. Simply put, wisdom is Godly.
Wisdom is also feminine: “By those who love her she is readily seen.” At the risk of creating controversy, we’ve recognized recently that any community that ignores or marginalizes half its group misses an opportunity. If wisdom is feminine, we have a great to learn from the feminine.
I also believe that wisdom looks to the entirety of the situation, not just to “what needs to be done now.” Here in San Diego we have (as do most Catholic diocese) Catholic Charities who provide aid to the poor. But they don’t just give food to the hungry. They constantly look to the root causes of hunger: they also provide shelter, job training, counseling, literacy, peer support, and many other services. Their goal isn’t just to fill someone’s stomach, but to fill their soul in the hopes that those they serve will be able to climb out of poverty and be able to give back.
That’s what Jesus did. He fed the poor and freed people from suffering, but he also provided encouragement and love. He recognized that feeding someone who is hungry is a step in the right direction, but not the final step. I once worked for an agency where I didn’t last long. I had several fruitless discussion with my supervisor where I tried to explain that a quick fix to a complex problem is not a solution, even if it feels satisfying in the moment. I’d like to claim conversion but I didn’t. She accused me of being a pain in the neck who used my position as chaplain to create problems. By the way, I no longer work for that agency.
Maybe now it’s time to revisit the Gospel and the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Perhaps the foolish bridesmaids took torches to give the appearance of providing for the wedding party. Much as they wanted to have the wedding party believe they were prepared, they took a shortcut, convinced that they would not be found out.
But they didn’t and in the end they did not provide for the needs of the wedding party. There’s a wonderful phrase often used in Alcoholics Anonymous: Half measures availed us nothing.
To act with wisdom, to act in a Godly way, to act as Jesus calls us means that we don’t provide enough to make us look good in front of others. It also sometimes means that we don’t do only what is requested of us. To act with wisdom calls us to look on a situation with love, with God’s love, and recognize that we are called to reach beyond “good enough.”
If someone is hungry it’s good to feed them, but wisdom calls us to explore why they are hungry (and not take the easy way out and say they are lazy). If someone is escaping a violent situation it’s good to shelter them, but wisdom calls us to ask what we can do to heal the violent situation.
Too often I think we can be tempted to look through our own eyes and strive for “what will make me look good in the eyes of others.” Wisdom dreams better than that for us. Wisdom calls us to see through God’s eyes.