A while back, I was interviewed by phone on a local radio talk show. The occasion was the apparent crescendo of catastrophes in recent months —hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. And the leading question was: “Are these the end-times? Are these the final disasters predicted in the book of Revelation?”
According to the New Testament writers the end-times commenced with the advent of Jesus, especially after his death and resurrection. So we have been in the end-times for nearly two thousand years. As for the end of the end-times, the Bible gives us no clues for calculating that. The author of Revelation is more interested in how to face the future in the light of a past event—the Easter victory of the Lamb that was slain.
I won't try to reconstruct the entire interview, but it was enough to remind me that both Jesus and his New Testament interpreters are quite clear that the times and seasons of God's future end-time activity are none of our business. Mark 13:32 should be enough to make that clear: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” The verse that follows tells us where our concerns should be focused: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”
All of which should help us appreciate the import of this Sunday's Gospel. Regarding the end—be it one's own death or the end of the world—the point is not the knowledge of when but the wisdom of readiness.
To hear clearly the parable of the wise and foolish “grooms-maids,” it helps to have in mind what Matthew's readers would have known about Near Eastern marriage customs.
First, the women—simply called “virgins” in the Greek—are not best described with the familiar rendering “bridesmaids,” for the context suggests that they belong to the groom's party. The scenario appears to be the following. Since the wedding party would occur at the groom's house (or that of his father), the young women are part of his entourage sent out to form a welcoming party as he brings his bride home. The delay is likely due to the customary and ceremonious discussion of the bride-price with his father-in-law (the longer the delay, the greater the father's insistence on the worth of his daughter).
Having reached the welcoming point, the ten settle down to wait, get drowsy, and fall asleep. When a voice heralds the approach of the groom, and presumably the bride, five (called “foolish”) discover they are low on oil and run off to buy some. By the time the groom's entourage, accompanied by the five wise virgins, join the full wedding party, the foolish ones find themselves locked out. Their shout of “Lord, Lord, open the door” is answered by the chilling response, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.”
The rest of Matthew's Gospel tells us all we need to know to hear the meaning of this parable. Like the parables that frame it, the story symbolizes something about living life in view of the final coming of Christ and what it means to be ready for that moment of joy (to be wise), or deserve judgment (to be foolish).
And what precisely does it mean to be ready in the way symbolized by the wise possession of oil? The scenario here in this fifth and last speech in Matthew is fully anticipated in the first speech, the Sermon on the Mount. There too we hear of people, who had even prophesied and healed in Jesus' name, shouting “Lord, Lord” and hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you.” As in the story of the grooms-maids, we hear of wise activity (building on rock) and foolish activity (building on sand). The speech leaves no doubt that wisdom here means hearing the word of Jesus and doing it, and foolishness is failing to do so. Having enough oil parallels building on rock (disciplining one's anger, lust, and vengefulness, Mt 5), running the household responsibly (Mt 24:45), investing one's talents fully (Mt 25:20-23), and doing the corporal works of mercy spelled out in the climax of this speech—feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, receiving the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
The parables about the parousia of Christ have nothing to say about calculating the end, but they have much to say about living in readiness. The deepest wisdom and fullest readiness, it turns out, is to live chastely, honestly, nonviolently (Mt 5). and to meet our neighbors’ basic needs (Mt 25). Place yourself among the five wise women with the full jugs of oil. When the Lord comes, join the party. Now place yourself among the five foolish ones with next to no oil. When you hear of the Lord’s arrival, dash to the mall to buy some, turn up at the party, and find yourself locked out.
You have just done a meditation on heaven and hell. Reflect on what Matthew teaches regarding what it takes to live wisely.