Wise or Foolish?
I was very good friends with a Sister of Providence, and I think of her every time this gospel is read because she hated it. And she hated it because she thought it wasn’t the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins, it was the parable of the selfish and the foolish virgins.
Why wouldn’t they share? Isn’t that in fact what we’re told to do? It seems rather selfish not to share. But this way of thinking actually reflects a danger when it comes to the Gospels and reading the Gospels. Jesus is telling a story. He’s telling a story to make a point, and we always need to ask ourselves, what is the point of the story?
What is it that Jesus is helping us to understand? And in this particular gospel, it’s not to teach us to share. There’s something far more important going on with this gospel than learning the simple lesson of sharing. So what is it?
We need to go right to the very beginning. Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven will be like. When Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, rarely does he say, this is what the kingdom of heaven is. This is the kingdom of heaven. He generally uses what he uses today. The kingdom of heaven is like.
And that’s because the kingdom of heaven is really kind of difficult to pin down. It’s not always easy in our lives to figure out what the kingdom of heaven is. And so Jesus kind of continues to give us hints to understand something that is mysterious. Now in our Western culture, we typically are not big fans of mystery.
If we were to talk about mystery, let’s say like reading a mystery, we wouldn’t think of it as a very good mystery that we were reading if it wasn’t ultimately solved. We don’t like open, loose ends. We like things to be clear. We like things to be solved. When we’re sick, we want to know exactly why and what needs to be done. If there is a problem, we would like the problem to be solved.
But there is another way of thinking that’s far more prevalent in the Eastern culture, which suggests that mysteries are not something to be solved, they’re something to be entered into. And in many ways, we don’t understand our faith without both types of relationships with mystery.
If we see mystery only as something to be solved, then we don’t have any room for the transcendent. We don’t have any room for the God that is beyond us because He’s infinite. And if we don’t attempt to solve some problems using our gift of reason, then we would just kind of throw up our hands and live life however it came without trying to make anything better.
Jesus in today’s gospel is inviting us into mystery. This is a metaphor. This is a story that has a deeper meaning than meets the eye. So we have these virgins who are awaiting the bridegroom. That would have been an image familiar to the people who heard the story. They would have known. And if they were outside waiting for the bridegroom, then it would have been quite important to be ready. Regardless of when the bridegroom came.
And being ready means having oil. But the Church Fathers have often interpreted this oil as the gift of wisdom. Those virgins who were ready were the ones who thought in their life about what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. And they thought about how to live their life.
And without wisdom, there are some aspects of the gospel that are quite challenging indeed. Loving our enemies, praying for persecutors, those don’t seem to be wise rational things. If you love your enemies, well, what if they turn around and harm you even more? If you pray for your persecutors, what if they persecute you all the more?
There’s a wisdom that comes in recognizing the gift of faith. And often, the people that are singled out as the ones who get it are the ones who have found wisdom. And here’s the thing about wisdom. If we don’t cultivate wisdom and aren’t trying to be receptive to wisdom and aren’t trying to put ourselves into places where we can find wisdom, I can’t give you wisdom.
If you don’t want it, I can’t give it. So it wasn’t that the wise virgins were selfish. It was that given the gift of wisdom, if the foolish virgins were foolish their entire lives and never thought about wisdom, never thought about a relationship, never reflected on their life, never did anything to deepen their relationship with God, then at the last minute they couldn’t give it and they couldn’t receive it. They weren’t ready.
That’s the point that Jesus is trying to make. And what He’s trying to say to us is that He’s warning us. When it comes to these difficult, challenging aspects of our lives, we always have to be people that are reflecting on the meaning of these events in our lives. We have to be people who are seeking out the person of Jesus.
We have to be people that are joining with those who have demonstrated by the way in which they live their lives that they are wise, and we need to be ready to listen to them and to be open to them. Now, of course, therein lies the rub, because I know in my life all too often I think I am wise. I think I know all the things I need to know. I don’t need to listen to anybody else. I’m perfectly content because I know that I am wise.
And we have a word to describe me when I think that way. It’s called arrogance. If I’m really a person that’s wise, I’m one that’s always standing before the world, asking myself, where is the presence of Jesus in this situation?
For the Apostle Paul, who talks to us in the second reading, the church was in a really challenging place because people that were not Jewish were receiving the Holy Spirit and living according to the Holy Spirit, and that was causing huge problems. Now it’s easy to look and say, oh, those foolish people, why didn’t they get that the Gentiles were receiving the Holy Spirit?
But how many of us can look at someone who practices their faith in a way that makes no sense to us and not say, that’s not right? I would suggest that that’s part of the big generational challenge in our church these days. I came from a community of student brothers who are studying to be Dominican priests. The way in which they celebrate their faith, the things that they find fulfilling and helpful, they’re not the things I would have necessarily chosen to grow in my relationship in faith.
And yet, the Holy Spirit, I can say, is active and alive in their lives. They are kind. They are meeting the needs of people who suffer. They are reaching out to people who have no meaning, no purpose in providing the opportunity for them to discover it for themselves. Therein is then the choice between being wise or foolish.
Are we the types of people who can recognize that it’s really about the power and presence of God in our lives that we grow in holiness? Or do we think, really, we’ve kind of figured it all out and we don’t need to learn? Our younger student brothers recognize that they have a lot to learn from those who have experience.
With experience often comes wisdom. But perhaps the challenge for us is to recognize that if we’re not careful, wisdom can become stale. It can become old. We can get set in our ways. The wise and the foolish virgins are really stories about you and me. Will we be wise, people ready to seek out Jesus wherever it is we can find Him? Or will we be foolish, thinking we’ve figured everything out and do not need the Lord God?
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