Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A
Wisdom 6:13-18; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
A priest and a deacon stood holding signs near a sharp curve on a road. “The end is near!” read the priest’s sign, while the deacon’s warned, “Turn around before it’s too late!” As he passed by, an atheist in a sports car yelled, “You people don’t know what you are talking about.” And with an unkind gesture, he tore off. He must have hit 80 before he went around the bend in the road. Moments later the clerics heard the sound of screeching tires followed by a loud crash. The priest turned to the deacon and said, “Maybe we should change our signs to say ‘Fallen Tree Across the Road’.”
Well, the atheist in this story was wrong in two respects: about the road, certainly, but also about life here on earth. But many Christians get that wrong as well, but for different reasons. This was the purpose behind Saint Paul’s words we just heard in the second reading. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, for the second reading we’ve been working through the oldest book in the New Testament, First Thessalonians. In all of Paul’s letters, between the introductory salutations and the letter’s conclusion, he talks about topics of Christian faith that he feels that the congregation that he is writing to needs to be instructed about. Before writing this letter, he has been told that many of the Thessalonians got the impression that the Second Coming of Christ would come very soon. In fact, based on Paul’s writing, most scholars believe that Paul himself was expecting the Second Coming very soon. And since it hadn’t occurred yet, some Thessalonians were upset that family and friends that had already died would miss out on Christ’s return and the promises he made about eternal life. Not so, Paul tells them. The living and the dead will both participate in this great event, the culmination of the work of Jesus to win our salvation. That is what Paul is trying to say, and once we get to that point of understanding, we should spend our time and energy finding out what we should do make ourselves worthy of participating in that event, to demonstrate the faith that God blesses us with and to do the will of God. But some people don’t stop there. They insist that they have to know exactly how God will accomplish this great resurrection of the faithful.
Saint Paul added some details about the final coming that he took from Jewish writings called apocalyptic literature, where our word Apocalypse comes from. There is the New Testament Book of Revelations that uses this same format. These details are very figurative, and should not to be taken literally. They are attempts by the writer to come to grips with something that is so far beyond their ability to describe that their attempt is like a kindergartner using construction paper and pipe cleaners to describe how a nuclear reactor works. Paul, in his later letters, doesn't repeat this attempt to describe the mechanics of the event, and merely points to the teachings of Christ, which tell us that the important thing is not the when and the what – you don’t hear this in any of the Gospels, and in fact Jesus, because of the limitations of his human nature, denies that he even know the time that it will happen. The important things are the “who,” the “why,” and the “how we prepare for it,” however it happens. And this is what we get from the First Reading and the Gospel.
The “who” is simple: God. The “why” is throughout scripture, summed up in the simple word “salvation,” that is to say, unity with God. The “how to prepare” is also summed up in one word: love. All these are simply stated, all are complex to understand. Christ spends all of his time on earth dealing with these questions, and the readings today tell us, if we are wise, we too will spend time working towards an understanding of them and a life centered around living them out, rather than be distracted by accounts of the rapture that demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how to read apocalyptic scripture.
In today’s Gospel, we have Christ dealing with his return, not in fanciful apocalyptic images of people rising in the air or loud trumpet blasts or archangels. He uses a simple story, a parable of an event we have all experienced many times: a wedding. Now this image was a little simpler for the audience at the time Christ used it, but since wedding customs have changed over time and across cultures, I'll relate some history about it that I've learned. At the time that Jesus lived, it was customary that the wife left her family and started living with the family of the husband. And on the night that the couple were to start living together, the groom would go to the home of the bride’s family and get her, haggling a little more about the dowry, and then return to their new home at or near the home of his parents, along with the family of the bride, to celebrate all night long. As a part of this, it was customary that all of the unwed women from the groom’s family, those called virgins in the parable, to wait outside the new home for the groom and bride to return, so that the party could begin.
Now, knowing these facts, the parable becomes rather straightforward. The groom is Christ, who will return, and consistent with the misunderstanding of the Thessalonians, he did not return as quickly as some imagined; certainly not as soon as the foolish virgins thought he would. The virgins represent us, the members of Christ's Body, the Church. And so if you are smart, like the wise virgins, you will be prepared. By prepared, Jesus means doing what he asked us to do. If we do this, we will be ready for his coming, no matter when it happens or how it happens. And we must be ready, since if we are not, the parable also teaches us that it will be too late, whether Christ's Second Coming happens in our lifetime or, more probably, we die first and then it happens, and of course we don't know when we will die either.
So, like the atheist motorist or the unwise virgins, we can ignore the signs that are out there, signs that we should heed about what will happen in the future. Or we can be like the wise virgins who had oil, who Jesus refers to earlier in Matthew as ones that “store up treasure” [Matthew 6:20]. If we can do this, we are truly wise and are ready to account for our actions in life when it ends. Now fantasizing or reading about predictions of the end times is not in itself a bad thing; it can be an innocent diversion no different than any sport or hobby that we might have. Certainly in the parable, both the wise and the foolish virgins slept while waiting, so as to get some rest. The problem is only when these become more than diversions, they become distractions that take our attention away from what is most important: living out a life in the here and now in conformance with Christ’s law of love of God and neighbor, wisely preparing to meet our Savior when he returns, whenever and however that is.
As we continue with the Mass, may the Body and Blood of Christ bless us with the wisdom to know what is truly important in this life, and what is just distracting noise. May we all be prepared at any time to meet Jesus, the bridegroom, when he returns to spend the rest of eternity with this bride, the Church. Then we will be in the proper state of being, with the love of God and neighbor in our minds and in our hearts, and can say along with the psalmist today, “For your love is better than life; my lips shall ever praise you!” [Psalm 63:4 NABRE].