On Matthew 25:1-13
Over the last three Sundays of the year we have the last three parables in St. Matthew’s Gospel, all given in Chapter 25. They are the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, today, the parable of the Talents, then finally the great Last Judgment scene, which depicts the separation of the good from the wicked, as sheep are separated from goats. Each of these parables is about the Second Coming and the end of time. All three parables incidentally are reported by St. Matthew only. After them St. Matthew begins his Passion narrative.
The symbolism of today’s story is plain enough. Jesus has already referred to himself as the Bridegroom in this Gospel, in the dispute with the Pharisees about fasting (9:15). The image of Jesus as Bridegroom and the Church as Bride is quite frequent elsewhere in the New Testament: in John, and Paul, and Apocalypse. Clearly then the bridesmaids represent all Christians waiting for Christ’s coming. Their lamps we can take to be the light of faith. The oil in the lamps is usually thought of as charity, or good works, or an upright conscience.
The picture of a wedding feast is a lovely symbol for heaven. We think of wedding feasts as full of good things for everyone, with an atmosphere of joy, happiness, close fellowship in communion, and above all the union of the Bride and the Groom.
But like the other wedding feast parable in St. Matthew’s Gospel, there’s a lot of negativity in this one. Both stories really read as a threat, or a dire warning. In the previous parable, in chapter 22, the guests who were first invited by the King are all killed, and the story ends with a guest caught without a wedding garment. He is ordered to be bound hand and foot, and cast into outer darkness.
In today’s parable perhaps the threat is even stronger, in that not just one, but fully half of all the bridesmaids land up being excluded, and left outside in the dark. And it’s not as if they didn’t want to come in. They represent not pagans or secularists, but Christians who want to go to heaven. But they were lazy and slack about making the necessary preparations, and so they hear the terrible sentence: I do not know you.
Of course our motivation for loving the Lord and being with him forever in heaven should above all be positive. But Jesus does us a service in revealing to us the negative side also. We need to be aware that it’s very possible for us to go astray, and through our own fault to miss heaven altogether. It does us no harm to have some salutary fear about that. We need it: especially in times of temptation. Sometimes, perhaps, it is this fear alone which can stand between a person and their going to eternal ruin.
Nowadays the common assumption is that because Jesus is nice, everyone will go to heaven, so really there’s nothing to worry, or bother, about. It must therefore be the duty of the preacher to point out, every now and then, that such an assumption has no scriptural warranty whatever, and indeed Jesus very strongly and repeatedly insists that the opposite is the case. Not that he will actually exclude people, as if in some arbitrary way; or as if he somehow enjoyed punishing them. No: it’s that heaven means union with Jesus, and if by our actions we have made ourselves unfit for that, we will find that we have already excluded ourselves.
Winter is closing in, the liturgical year is drawing to a close, and today the Church wants us to consider very soberly the prospect of our end, and our meeting with our Judge: and to realise that we would be foolish to approach that all unprepared.
I think it’s worth saying that in thinking about the Last Things, the focus of our reflections should be ourselves, not other people. We have no right, and no ability, to judge other people as Jesus judges them. For each individual, even very wicked ones indeed, we can and probably should always hope for mercy and salvation. It’s a consolation that we can pray for them in life, and also after their death. We pray that indeed they arrive eventually at the great joyful banquet that is the eternal joy of heaven.
As for ourselves, gloomy speculation about our chances of heaven or hell are excluded by the virtues of hope and trust. Nevertheless, we need to be very aware of our need not to slacken off.
Let me leave you with a reflection on the lamps of the parable as the outward framework of our Christian life, and the oil in them as our living relationship with Jesus. To keep that relationship going, we need to pray. In prayer we speak with the Lord, and he speaks with us, in terms of intimacy and friendship. Yet surely all of us at times find prayer difficult, and we’re tempted to let it drift into a few perfunctory words, lasting maybe a few seconds, or perhaps not even that.
If this becomes habitual, we can find ourselves indeed coasting through our Christian lives with empty fuel tanks. Then when he comes to find us, perhaps he might discover that we don’t know him, and he doesn’t know us, because there’s no actual relationship in place. There’s been no real communication, only routine duties carried out in hasty and bored indifference. What a dreadful thought that is. So our relationship of friendship with the Lord, like all relationships, has to be kept alive through continual communication: through continual prayer.
Of course the supremely efficacious way of prayer is participation in the Holy Eucharist. Through the Mass oil is indeed put into our lamps – in both word and sacrament. In the Mass we have a true foretaste of the banquet of heaven, for here Jesus gives himself to us, without reserve. He does so in order that we might be in communion with him; that we might live in a relationship of love with him; and that we might be made fit to rejoice with him, and all the Saints, forever in heaven.