Sunday, November 9, 2014

the wise and foolish virgins

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

We hear many places in Sacred Scripture, both in the Old and New Testament of the importance of sharing with others. Our Lord is particularly strong on this topic. It is from him that we hear, in what is called the parable of the sheep and the goats, that in fact our own salvation can depend on whether we help those in need. So why is it in the parable we hear today that the five bridesmaids he calls wise will not share their oil with the five he calls foolish?

The answer is, of course, that this is not a parable about sharing. It is about what it takes to admitted into the Kingdom on that great and terrible day when our Lord Jesus Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead. And on that day, symbolised in the parable by the arrival of the bridegroom, the five bridesmaids called foolish are found wanting and are not allowed in, even though they beat on the doors and cry 'Lord, Lord.'

And their rejection should seem strange to us, at first reading at least. For are these not good people? There they are, waiting patiently for the Lord, like the other five who are admitted. And it is important to note that while our translation today calls them 'bridemaids' in the Greek it is parthenois or virgins. There is nothing wrong with calling them bridesmaids, for it fits in with the rest of the parable where our Lord is the bridegroom; but some of the nuance is lost. The nuance here is that in the ancient world the word virgin carried with it more than its modern sense of being a technical term of a young woman who has yet to experience sexual intercourse; it also had connotations of purity, of being undefiled.

And if we look to the Church Fathers we are told that these ten young woman represent members of Christ's Church, people who wait faithfully for his return, who have kept themselves from sin, the five foolish and the five wise alike. They are people, who if we consider them in terms of the ten commandments, who do not worship false gods or blaspheme; who are regular in their worship and always keep the Lord's Day holy; who do not lie, slander, steal, or are violent in any way; who are obedient to their parents and those in authority and dutiful in their care of the elderly; they are certainly not sexually immoral; and neither do they covet anything they have no right to.

But why then, if none of the ten are wrong-doers, are five admitted into the wedding banquet of heaven, and five kept out? To understand that, we must look to the oil and the fact that the five foolish virgins brought only what their lamps could hold; and the five wise brought extra, each carrying also a flask full of oil. The Church Fathers explain that the oil stands for good deeds or works of mercy; but to honest, I wasn't very clear as to why they taught that, until I came across a book by an Orthodox Priest, Paul Nadim Tarazi, who explains that for the significance of this we must look again to the original language and the fact that Greek word for 'oil' 'elaion' sounds very much like another Greek word 'eleison' … that last word is familiar to you, even if you do not immediately realise it. We use it when we use the penitential kyries – 'Kyrie eleison' we will sometimes say in our liturgies; or 'Lord, have mercy.'

So the five foolish virgins are lacking in works of mercy. It is not that good deeds are altogether absent in their lives, else there would be no oil at all in their lamps. But they have insufficient. Perhaps they were once very diligent in their works of charity, but they did not stay the course; as time went by they became too comfortable in their daily routine and even though they never fell into active wrong-doing, gradually their works of mercy grew less and less, and maybe even petered out altogether. And so at the time when it counted it most, on the last day, they were found wanting and excluded from the great reward in heaven.

And knowing what we now about what the different elements of the parable stand for, we can see why, can we not? They had committed no great or terrible sin; but neither had they done much good. It is like the parable of the sheep and the goats I mentioned earlier, which occurs later in this same chapter of St Matthew's Gospel; in that those who are lacking in works of mercy are also excluded from heaven, while those who were rich in such deeds are welcomed in. In that parable, those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, cared for the prisoners are given the great reward, while those who did not are cast out, into eternal punishment.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is intended as a warning from our Lord; a warning that it is not enough to call oneself a follower of his, that not all who call him 'Lord Lord' will enter into the Kingdom; that constant vigilance is needed. And so I finish with this thought; it would have been very difficult for anyone seeing those ten young women to have discerned any difference; it was only at the last that some were found wanting – wanting, it would seem, not for failing completely in their acts of mercy, in their loving generosity towards others, but in failing to be generous enough, in failing to be abundantly generous towards others. Ask yourself this: which group do you think you most closely resemble right now? And which group do you truly believe you will be found to belong to on the last day? I pray that all here will be found among the wise. Amen

No comments:

Post a Comment