On the Five Foolish Young Women: Lamp Oil Was Never Their Problem

wise and foolish virginsAs the Church year comes to a close, this Sunday (the 32nd week in Ordinary Time, November 8), November 15, and even November 22 (the feast of Christ the King, this year the earliest it can be) all draw on Matthew 25, giving us in a row three famous teachings by Jesus that signal the nature of God’s kingdom in the end time: the parable of “the wise and foolish virgins” (1-13), the parable of the ten, five and one talents of gold entrusted to servants by their master (14-30), and the parable of the last judgment, Christ separating the sheep and goats on the basis of their care for the needy in this world (31-46).

To be honest, the weirdest of them is this week’s, which claims (Matthew 25.1) that the kingdom of heaven is like this:

"Ten virgins took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.” “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!”

But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” (Matthew 25.1-13)

Weird indeed. Think of the details, like no wedding you’ve ever been to: there is a wedding feast, but the bridegroom has not arrived, even by the middle of the night; no mention is made of a bride or of other guests; the “virgins” — young, unmarried women — are waiting for him, but without any indication when he is supposed to arrive or why there is delay; the foolish young women go off to buy more oil for their lamps in the middle of the night; when the bridegroom arrives, he rushes inside with the wise young women, and locks the door; he is then harsh toward the others who arrive too late with more oil in their lamps, rebuking them through the locked door: “I don’t know you.”

Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus tells us. Really?

If we wanted to salvage some sensible wisdom, it would be easy to interpret this as a story about prudence, the need to be realistic and prepared if we are to do the work of the kingdom. Think of the admonition in Luke 14: don’t start building a tower if you don’t have sufficient materials to complete it; don’t pick a fight if you cannot possibly win it.

But the kingdom of God seems hardly a matter of prudence of that sort, particularly in the last days that are upon us in Matthew 25. I found a better clue in an unusual academic lecture by a scholar named J. Massyngbaerde Ford, given at the University of East Africa in 1965 (contact me if you want more details). Ford says that the parable may at least indirectly be an echo of the Song of Songs, the Bible’s most beautiful book. With great poignancy, in Song 5 the beloved comes in the night and knocks on the young woman’s door, and she must with some regret arise from her sleep in order to let him in to her chamber:

"I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My beloved is knocking:
“Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one.
My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”
I have taken off my robe— must I put it on again?
I have washed my feet— must I soil them again?
My beloved thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him.
I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the bolt.

Song of SongsBut she is slow in getting there, and he is gone:

"I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had left; he was gone.
My heart sank at his departure.

I looked for him but did not find him. I called him but he did not answer. (Song of Songs 5.1-6)

Like that, the foolish young women come back too late, when the door is locked. It would take much longer for me to sort out the erudite details of Ford’s learned essay, but for today’s reflection on Matthew 25, even a possible link with the Song helps us think differently about today’s parable. In light of the Song, the young women now watching and waiting for the bridegroom turn out themselves at least symbolically to be the (otherwise missing) bride. They watch and wait because, as they may not fully realize, the wedding will be their own celebration of union with their beloved who comes in the night.

[Of course we ought not press the literal details too far. The marriage is symbolic, not a bridegroom with all five wise young women at once. Each loves fully, and is loved fully, but not in any ordinary human space. Indeed, the scene reminds me of a scene famous in Hindu India. The young god Krishna, living for a time in a quiet village, dances with the cowherd women (gopis) a dance of exuberant love — each young woman thinking that he belongs to her alone. God loves us all — yes, but God loves me. Krishna comes and goes, and those who wait for him to return will join in his dance, the dance in which they are the entire world for one another.]

In this light, Matthew 25 highlights the loss suffered by five young women who missed their rendezvous with the beloved because they worried about things like lamp oil, when the real point was to be there when the bridegroom arrives. The allegedly wise young women are hardly any better, since they will not share what they have, lest they run out of oil; hardly the attitude we expect in God's kingdom! Distracted by mundane needs, they all have missed the one thing that was important — the coming of the beloved — got distracted, and arrived too late, missing the very union each of them had long desired. As Jesus says to Martha in Luke 10, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The noble Martha was, on this occasion, a bit foolish. Do not miss what you most desire in life merely because you fell asleep or were distracted by all things you want to set right before meeting God.

Krishna and the GopisAs for us, waiting upon God even in 2020: at the core of our faith is a deep and intimate love of God, even if we think our faith is about other good things. But such love is a gift, something that happens, a surprise encounter. God comes and goes, but you have to be there wide awake, at just the right moment. You need to not be distracted by unimportant things.

Since I’ve already alluded to Hindu India, I cannot resist closing with another text from India, a lovely song from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (Garland of Songs). This stunningly beautiful book of 103 poem-songs won the Nobel Prize in 1913, a first for a non-Westerner. The whole of it is here for free. The 51st poem ever so lightly echoes Matthew 25:

"The night darkened. Our day’s works had been done. We thought that the last guest had arrived for the night and the doors in the village were all shut. Only some said, The king was to come.

We laughed and said “No, it cannot be!” It seemed there were knocks at the door and we said it was nothing but the wind. We put out the lamps and lay down to sleep. Only some said, “It is the messenger!” We laughed and said “No, it must be the wind!”

There came a sound in the dead of the night. We sleepily thought it was the distant thunder. The earth shook, the walls rocked, and it troubled us in our sleep. Only some said, it was the sound of wheels. We said in a drowsy murmur, “No, it must be the rumbling of clouds!” The night was still dark when the drum sounded.

The voice came “Wake up! Delay not! “We pressed our hands on our hearts and shuddered with fear. Some said, “Lo, there is the king’s flag!” We stood up on our feet and cried “There is no time for delay!” The king has come but where are lights, where are wreaths? Where is the throne to seat him? Oh, shame! Oh utter shame! Where is the hall, the decorations? Some one has said, “Vain is this cry! Greet him with empty hands, lead him into thy rooms all bare!” Open the doors, let the conch-shells be sounded!

In the depth of the night has come the king of our dark, dreary house. The thunder roars in the sky. The darkness shudders with lightning. Bring out thy tattered piece of mat and spread it in the courtyard. With the storm has come of a sudden our king of the fearful night. (Gitanjali 51)

This changes the dynamic, does it not? Having a house fit for the king is not the issue, just as running out of oil is not the problem. Even if you are not ready, even if you are empty-handed, your home impoverished and your heart bereft of anything at all, don’t hide, don’t run off, scurrying about to make amends. You are loved just as you are. When the king comes, just open the door as you are right now, and stand there, face to face. Give what you have, offer your simple presence, your empty hands, your expectant heart. That’s enough. Let the king have a seat in your humble home; let the bridegroom dance with all ten young women; let the feasting begin, ready or not.