1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
When I was a kid, I remember thinking that I had it all figured out about how to game the system. You could do whatever you wanted during your life but just make sure that you went to confession right before you died. Of course, the problem with this was always the question of what you risked if you died suddenly before you could repent of all you'd done. Even as a kid I was wise enough to know that this is the Achilles' heel of that system. Then, when I was taking the History of the Church course for my theology degree for the diaconate, I found out that Emperor Constantine, that is to say, Saint Constantine that converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in the Fourth Century, did just that: he waited to be baptized until he was on his death bed so that the forgiveness of sins that baptism carried would ensure that nothing he did as emperor would be held against him after he died. And Roman emperors, to get and hold power, did a lot of things that would run afoul of the “love your neighbor as yourself” category of grave sin. But I think most people understand that this is an unwise and risky plan.
However, one other problem with this way of thinking, which a lot of people never understand, is its assumption that to sin in this world is a thing that we should want to do in the first place. Many people firmly believe that sin gives us some real benefits compared with a life that earnestly tries to avoid it. A child thinks that getting away with things he knows he’s not supposed to do but wants to do will bring happiness, the same way an emperor, or any politician, believes that staying in power is a source of happiness. They point to the human will and its free exercise, unencumbered with any restraint either human or divine, as the source of happiness. This is folly, and people learn that lesson every day, but still, we are foolish and continue to believe it. We may not be as obvious as the stereotypical crazy uncle with his get-rich-quick-schemes, but deep down we all think that happiness can be forced to come to us by our own willpower. Study and contemplation of today’s readings should lead us to feel otherwise.
The first reading talks in poetic language about true wisdom, and the benefits that it brings. This reading is from what we today call the “Book of Wisdom,” but in the Old Testament used in the time of the Apostles, it was called “The Wisdom of Solomon,” not because Solomon wrote it but to use his name to give its contents added credibility. And when most people think of wisdom, they think of those who, like Solomon, make wise decisions as leaders, and this is true, but true wisdom is much more than that. We too, from the mightiest in the land to the meekest and humble, can have wisdom, and it is of this more everyday sense that Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel reading.
I was contemplating the meaning of these wisdom readings when I considered our parish's intention for the week: the non-believer. It struck me that the fullest meaning of this Gospel can be truly appreciated when one also considers it from the vantage point of an atheist. For those who do not believe in God, the world degenerates to a “grab what you can while you can” existence. If there is nothing higher or better than what we sense every day, how does one keep from simply trying to string together a series of sensual pleasures, and find any really deep meaning to one's life? Many unbelievers will agree with the values consistent with Christian moral teachings, but they have merely been ingrained into them by societal and legal norms as they grew up and they cannot articulate any particular reason that they hold them and abide by them other than escaping legal consequences or social scorn if they do not. Where is the wisdom in leading a base biological existence without a conviction that there is more to life than that? We must pray for non-believers, in the hopes that God blesses them with wisdom and fulfillment that comes from God alone.
However, the foolish virgins in the Gospel are actually not non-believers, since they believe that the groom, representing Christ, will be arriving. Their fault is that they do nothing to prepare for that coming. They are not self-disciplined and do not think through their preparations. Even when confronted with their predicament, they still don't think through the problem, asking the others who did prepare to share with them, which would only make sure that both the wise and the foolish ran out of oil. This would not fix the problem, but make it worse.
The upshot of this parable is in the first sentence, “The kingdom of heaven will be like” the virgins in the parable, that is to say, that those who wisely prepare in this life will receive the joys of heaven. In addition to this, however, there is another deeper lesson in this parable. Consider this: the wise virgins were no less joyful in their anticipation of the groom’s arrival than those who were foolish. This accords with the experience of many wise people, for it is a common perception that those who try to get out of doing their share of the work in any group often spend as much energy in dodging their responsibilities as they would have done to do their fair share of the work in the first place. They are no happier, just more foolish. This is the same foolishness of a child or an emperor who feel that sinful pleasures will bring more joy to life than finding fulfillment in God. They end up being unhappy in both this life and the next.
This lesson is not lost on Pope Francis. His first major writing after becoming pope was the encyclical “The Joy of the Gospel.” His opening paragraphs are very powerful: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness, and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. … The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it and end up resentful, angry, and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ” [Evangelii Gaudium, 1-2, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html].
Catholics are not a Lenten people, we are an Easter people. We can expect and actually find joy in this life, a taste of heaven here on earth. We know that endless pursuits for possessions, power, thrills, or whatever, is never truly satisfying, at least for very long, and we’re once again on the lookout for the next shiny brass ring that shows itself. Wisdom comes from somewhere deeper, and as the saints, we venerated last week on All Saints Day have shown us, God is the path to the inner recesses of our soul that unlocks true joy.
As we continue with the Mass, let us ask God to come to us in the Eucharist and help us to find true joy in our lives. May He give us the wisdom to know how to trim our lamps so as to be prepared for Christ’s coming. May we become joyful disciples spreading that joy to all around us, and have the wisdom to enjoy the fruits of heaven both now and forever.