Smith, RSM, Ph.D.
Smith, RSM, Ph.D.
When I saw the Gospel for November 8 I thought, “O great! What do I do with this?” Here is another occasion, among so many in the ancient world, where females appear ditzy and not very responsible. What can we overlook as a product of its time? What can we take away from today’s parable?
To understand what is going on in our Gospel, we have to recall something about our ancestors in the Christian faith. For years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers lived with the active hope that he would return to them soon. The risen Christ would gather the elect, call them to account for their lives and truly establish the reign of God. So, they were preoccupied with living appropriately in this time of waiting for his return. Now, waiting for anything is always a time of uncertainty. But, just as we live in such a time today, so did they, asking themselves “How are we to live now – with more questions than answers, more change than stability, more unknowns than knowns?” The entire Gospel, both before and after our passage, is about the proper response to that question. How are we to live now?
The setting of our parable is that of the wedding custom at the time of Jesus. Bridesmaids (young girls often age 12 or 13) wait with a bride for her intended groom, who comes to her father’s house to negotiate (at, length, it appears) the terms of the marriage contract. The role of the bridesmaids is to escort the couple to the groom’s house for a big feast. Jesus makes the point of the parable: all are to live in constant vigilance, lest they be caught off guard by the groom’s arrival. Even if they doze off, the bridesmaids are to be ready to perform their welcoming role, because they will have filled their lamps with oil.
But wait. Half of the bridesmaids are fully prepared to light their lamps and lead the procession. The other half have to find an open 7-Eleven. Now, in that culture, “oil” was more than a means to light lamps. It was a symbol for good works, especially the good works of justice and mercy. That is why this chapter in Matthew ends with the words “I was hungry and you gave me food," etc. The groom’s refusal to let the foolish five into the party is echoed later in those who did not give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, etc. Doing the oil of good works is the key to entering the reign of God.
I need to stop here and speculate, taking us beyond what happens in our story. I wonder why the five wise bridesmaids couldn’t have shared some of their oil (some of their good works). That would have been a very appropriate response to what had happened in Jesus’ ministry with the feeding of the five thousand. They could have multiplied the goodness rather than keeping it for themselves. They could have broadened the whole experience of community support for the couple. But I guess that would have missed the point of the story. Which is: life presents us with lots of unknowns. Always be ready for them. The poet Maya Angelou puts it this way: “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.”
In their time, Matthew’s audience were ardently awaiting the final coming, the end of the world as they knew it. As that didn’t happen, later generations transferred the hope of Christ’s coming to one’s own personal life at the moment of death. “You know not the day nor the hour.” I suggest returning to the original practice. Thomas Merton puts it well. He says “The great historical event, the coming of the Kingdom, is made clear and is ‘realized’ in proportion as Christians live the life of the Kingdom in the circumstances of their own place and time.” And so, in each and every moment, we must be ever vigilant to continue to share the oil of justice, mercy, and all the blessings so critically needed in our world today. You know what they are.
On another note. I was happy to see that the poetry of our first reading contrasts with the negative image of the five foolish bridesmaids. The poem praises the beautiful image of Wisdom – a feminine image, a “she.” This title presents an alternative to the exclusively patriarchal language about God – like father, warrior, king. At its deepest level, Wisdom is a female symbol for the very mystery of God. She is the personification of God’s presence and activity in the created world. She lures God’s creatures along the right path in life. She delights in human beings. She is God’s creative energy, involved with the world.
This first reading introduces the Gospel’s themes of light and watchfulness. Wisdom is eminently attractive and attracting (resplendent). She is near us (sitting by our side, making her rounds). She is gracious, appearing everywhere to those who seek her. Taking Wisdom seriously provides new images of the Holy One, especially (though not exclusively) welcomed by many women and girls today. May we be ever watchful for these images. May Wisdom enlighten all of us to the power of God’s gracious, patient love already enveloping us in her open arms today.
Patricia Smith, RSM, Ph.D.
Patricia Smith, RSM, Ph.D.
A Sister of Mercy, Pat Smith is the former Chair of the Board of Mercy High School Baltimore, and a Theological Consultant. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Latin Education from Mount Saint Agnes College, Baltimore; her Master’s degree in Theology from the University of San Francisco; her PhD in Theology from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. She has taught in high school, colleges and at the graduate level. She was Professor of Theology and Academic Dean at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, and served as community theologian for the Sisters of Mercy, Baltimore.
From 2000 to 2008, Pat was Vice-President of the Sisters of Mercy, Baltimore. For eight years, she was Assistant to the President for Theology, Mission and Ethics at Mercy Medical Center. In that role, she worked with managers, staff and physicians to integrate the mission of Catholic Healthcare in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy into every area of organizational life. Returning to Mercy Medical in 2010, she served in Leadership Development of managers and staff.
Pat’s academic interests include the Formation of the Scriptures, Women in Scripture, the Gospels, Sacramental Theology and Mariology. She also speaks on Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy. Special interests include the Vocation of Teaching, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Poetry as a Lens into Healing. She is the author of Teaching Sacraments(Michael Glazier, 1985) and numerous articles.
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