Weddings in Jesus’ time were elaborate events that put our celebrations to shame. While not much is known about many details, we do know that marriage was usually an agreed-upon union between two families and their children. Girls were considered eligible for marriage at about 13 or 14 years old. The marriage starts with the betrothal – similar to our engagement period, however, the couple was considered legally married at betrothal. The woman would usually stay with her family until the actual wedding.
At the end of the betrothal period, which could last a year, the groom would initiate the marriage celebration by coming to the bride’s home after sunset. He would then take her to their new home, with an elaborate procession led by maidens (like the virgins in Jesus’ parable today), and at their home he would host a feast that could last a week. It was a great honor to go to that feast, and it was a matter of honor for the groom and his bride (remember how Mary was worried about the embarrassment of running out of wine at the wedding at Cana).
This is the context of Jesus’ story today. The ten virgins are members of the community who were expected to be the “headlights” of their procession in the evening. They were invited to the feast and had a definite role to play. Their “lamps” were most likely torches, with cloth tied onto a good stick. The oil was to dip the cloth in so that it would burn brightly.
As they wait for the groom, Jesus tells us that he was long delayed, and they fell asleep. I can’t blame them – it was getting late. However, when he finally did come, their lamps would have dwindled down and would have needed to be trimmed and relit. Those with oil had no problem because they were prepared; the others, however, scrambled to get help. The response of the wise virgins might seem selfish and unfair; however, that is not the point of the story.
The foolish ones did nothing to prepare for the possibility of waiting and losing some of the light. That is why Jesus labels them as “foolish” (the Greek word is moraì, whence we get “moron”). They cannot rely on the preparedness of others – the work of others – to bring them any help. Therefore, the wise ones go ahead and lead the procession. They enter the feast and enjoy the honor of sharing fellowship with the bride and groom.
This parable comes to us toward the end of our liturgical year (believe it or not!). It is what we call an “eschatological parable” – meaning that is meant to convey an understanding of our full destiny for the end of time. We will hear more next week and the week after. What Jesus is saying here is that, while we are all invited to the full feast of the kingdom of heaven, our actions here in life have consequences for that eternal destiny. And, our actions are our own – they are “non-transferable.” We cannot simply rely on being related to or associated with other people who have their act together.
Whether we like it or not, we all have an expiration date. The Bridegroom comes for each of us, and we are invited to be prepared for that encounter. Yes, we all want to enter the eternal feast; I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if that is the case, then we have to be vigilant in our readiness to receive the Groom when He comes. Of course, we all get tired, and we will nod off from time to time. However, if we do not care enough to be prepared when we are awakened, that says something to Jesus that I don’t think any of us would want to say. It says that we don’t care enough about the feast – that it is not as important as what I am doing here and now.
Think about getting to church on a Sunday. How many believe that “if I get there by the Gospel, then the Mass ‘counts’?” How about by the collection?! Wrong! We should be here from the very start! That way we get to ask forgiveness for our faults as a community; we get to praise God in the Gloria; we hear the promises contained in the Word of God. If we stroll in casually late, it says that we don’t consider it a priority. And yes, I know it’s hard to rally kids in the morning; yes, they will make you late from time to time; but that is part of parenting. Over time, you teach them that this is an important part of your family’s life, and they remember that lesson.
We don’t want to be the foolish ones – the “morons.” We want to reach the point of welcoming the Bridegroom and being about to share the joy of the procession, with our lights burning brightly. It is, in fact, what we are advised at our Baptisms. When we receive the candle lit from the Paschal flame, we are told, “Keep the flame of faith alive in your hearts. When the Lord comes, may you go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.”
Our life of faith is the oil that we keep for our lamps – the deeds of holiness that we are inspired to do by faith are signs that we take the Groom’s arrival very seriously. When Jesus comes, may we be ready to meet Him with joy, and enter the eternal wedding feast of heaven.