Thirty-second Sunday In Ordinary Time
The Sunday liturgies of Year A, when most Sunday gospel selections are taken from Matthew, entirely omits Matthew 24 – Jesus’ final discourse or sermon. The author of Matthew’s gospel lifted most of his version of Jesus’ last discourse from the Gospel of Mark. After this final discourse, Matthew added three parables: Parable of the Ten Maidens; Parable of the Talents; The Last Judgment. The first and third of these are found only in Matthew. The second parable is found in both Matthew and Luke. The gospel selection for this Sunday is the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Virgins).
The parable begins as so many of Matthew’s collection of parables, “The kingdom of heaven will be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps, and went to meet the bridegroom.” As usual, it is difficult to know exactly what Matthew meant by “the kingdom of heaven.” Here it may mean no more than acting prudently to ensure a future life with God in Christ, who is obviously the bridegroom. Jesus as bridegroom (of the Church) is found in all four canonical gospels, Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35; John 3:28-29. It is also implied in St. Paul’s theology of marriage, Ephesians 5:21-33 and 2 Corinthians 11:2. See also Revelation 19:6-9; 21:2. Jesus as bridegroom is in turn based on the Old Testament. Isaiah 62:5 compares the Lord God in his joy over a redeemed Israel as the joy of a bridegroom over his bride. God as husband of Israel as a people or nation is found in Isaiah 54:5, “For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts….” See also Jeremiah 31:32 and Hosea 3:16.
The maidens or virgins symbolize Christians. A distinction between maidens and maidens is next, “Five of them were foolish and five were wise.” The two kinds of maidens make possible the outcome and the understanding of the parable. The parable implies that it was night. Therefore, “The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with them.” What is the meaning of the oil? The author of Matthew gives us an answer in the Sermon on the Mountain. Since the oil makes it possible for a lamp to give light, and since Matthew 5:14-16 compares light to the good works that “give glory to your Father in heaven,” the flasks of oil are good works. This parable, the following parable of the talents, and the last judgment in Matthew 25, all emphasize good works as the ticket to heavenly reward.
“Since the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.” Unlike some parables that have to do with the end times, the emphasis is not primarily on watchfulness, but rather on a state of being prepared through good works to meet the bridegroom. In this parable, all fell asleep, not just the ill-prepared maidens. “At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” We do not know much about the celebration of marriage in the time of Jesus, (except that wine was a major ingredient – Cana), but there is a description of two processions, (from about 160 B.C.), one of the bride, the other of the groom, processing to meet each other. As the bridal party was keeping watch, “there came into sight a noisy procession with much baggage, and the bridegroom, with his groomsmen and his family, came out to meet the bridal procession with tambourines and a band and military display.”
The “delay of the bridegroom” in the parable is key to understanding this parable as an end time warning. Beginning with the early letters of St. Paul, especially to the Thessalonians around 50 A.D., and moving on to the Gospel of Mark in 70 A.D., there was feverish expectation among Christians that Jesus would return momentarily. By the time Luke and Matthew composed their gospels in the mid-eighties, the imminent expectation of Jesus began to grow faint, because he had not come back for the final judgment and the expected rewards and punishments. Matthew and Luke and other New Testament documents had to deal with this “delay of the bridegroom,” or using a more conventional terminology, the delay of the Parousia. This Greek word became the technical term for Jesus’ final return. When Matthew writes that “the bridegroom was delayed,” it is clear that he is dealing with the fact that Jesus had not returned. This No-Show of Jesus was the source of mockery at Christians and some falling away from the faith. This is implied in the way the author of the Second Letter of Peter 3:3-10 handled the same problem.
In our parable, the bridegroom is delayed but eventually, he does show up. In this way, Matthew promises that the expected event has been put off for a while, but it will happen. When the bride-groom finally arrives, the foolish maidens, having no extra oil to keep their lamps alight for the wedding celebration, are off to the hardware store to replenish their supply. The prudent maid-ens, well supplied with oil (good works), enter the wedding banquet. Doors are closed and locked. The not-so-well-supplied-with-oil-maidens, now back from the hardware store, come up against locked doors. They cry out, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” The title “Lord” reveals that the bridegroom is Jesus. No friendly answer from inside the wedding banquet, beginning with an oath, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Now Matthew moves on to the theme of watchfulness rather than good works, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In other words, the Parousia will happen, just not yet. Even though the major theme of the parable was the necessity of good works, by the ending he put to the parable, Matthew confused that theme with the theme of watchfulness. A good editor would have been useful. Matt 7:21-23, part of the Sermon on the Mountain, is a good summary of this parable.