77. Staying Ready (Matthew 25:1-13)
“It is not enough for us, then, to be content with his first coming; we must wait in hope of his second coming.” - St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Matthew 25:1-13: ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones did take their lamps, but they brought no oil, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, The bridegroom is here! Go out and meet him. At this, all those bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out. But they replied, There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves. They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other bridesmaids arrived later. Lord, Lord, they said open the door for us. But he replied, I tell you solemnly, I do not know you. So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.’
Christ the Lord Jesus and his apostles are still sitting on the slope of Mount Olivet, looking down on Jerusalem as his passion draws near. The Lord has given his ambassadors a briefing on what will happen in the messianic age, which he was even then inaugurating. In Chapter 25, St Matthew shows our Lord stressing the lessons he wants his disciples to glean from their privileged knowledge of what is to come. He has painted the future in broad strokes: persecution, transformation, dissension, and through it all the glorious sign of the Son of Man shining over the redeemed world through the marvelous growth of the Church. His Kingdom will triumph. It may start small, like a mustard seed, but it will grow to immense proportions, until it attracts the very birds of the air – the farthest nations of the earth – to come and dwell in its branches. His assurance is breathtaking. Perhaps he only spoke this discourse to his Twelve because only they knew him well enough to take seriously such colossal claims – that he knows the future, governs it, and sends the leaders of his Church to conquer the entire world for his Kingdom. If Jesus had left any room for doubt about his being the Lord, he removes it here. No mere philosopher, reformer, political revolutionary, or even prophet could speak so definitively; this Lord is worthy of our faith.
Jesus, however, is more than a Lord; he is also a Bridegroom. The image of a wedding banquet, already present in the Old Testament, appears multiple times in his own preaching. Each soul is his bride; the Church is his bride; and the goal of each individual life and of human history is a spousal union, a complete communion of persons, of hearts, between the Lord and his subjects. The parable reminds us of what Jesus thinks about those he came to save and to rule, and it reminds us that he is looking forward to his wedding day. Are we?
Christ the Teacher The parable of the ten bridesmaids is the first of three St Matthew records in Chapter 25. Each one amplifies the previous discourse, where Jesus explains the coming destruction of the Temple and the events leading up to and surrounding it – a historical reality that, as we have seen, is prophetic: it foreshadows what will happen to the entire cosmos throughout the messianic age before Christ’s Second Coming; it also sets the pattern for what will happen in the life of each person as death approaches. These three levels of meaning (the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of history, and individual death) overlap and reinforce one another. Each of the three parables brings special light to bear on one level of meaning, while still being relevant for all levels.
This first parable illustrates most especially the coming destruction of the Temple and the Old Covenant. The Messiah is Israel’s bridegroom. The people of Israel are the bridesmaids: as the Chosen People, they were given a special invitation to accompany the nuptial celebration. In the time of Christ and during the first wave of evangelization before 70 AD (the destruction of the Temple), the Bridegroom arrives and, through his passion, death, and resurrection, consummates the promised communion between mankind and God. Many contemporary Jews (like the apostles) recognize Christ’s coming, accept him, and enter into the joy of the Kingdom – the wise bridesmaids. Many others, however, reject him (especially the leaders of the Holy City), and they suffer exile after the Romans destroy Jerusalem – the foolish bridesmaids. The wise bridesmaids stand for those who not only believed in God’s promises (this faith is symbolized by the lamp), but also strove to live a life of humility and virtue – of godly actions and good works (symbolized by the extra oil). The Pharisees and Sadducees, on the other hand, had faith, but no virtuous acts; their religion was superficial, and so when the Messiah came they were caught unawares and missed him.
Likewise for every believer: faith in Christ must lead to a life increasingly like Christ’s. As St James puts it, “Faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead” (James 2:17). Jesus wants us all to be integral, mature Christians, ready for his coming at any moment. He warns us as clearly as he can not to be foolish, and he gives us the secret to wisdom. The lamp in this sense stands for a living knowledge of him, friendship with him, a vital and personal relationship with him, a relationship that has been lived and cultivated throughout our terrestrial pilgrimage (the extra oil refers to the ongoing cultivation of that relationship). Because of this friendship, this life of grace, how would he ever be able to say to us, “I do not know you”? He will not, and we will find ourselves with lighted lamp in the family of God as it celebrates the wedding of the Lamb.
Christ the Friend Christ also paints quite a lively picture of heaven in this passage, and in other similar passages. What produces more intense joy than a wedding and its celebration? In human terms, it is hard to come up with something to top it. When we think of heaven, Christ wants us to think in those terms: joy, delight, pleasure, the communion of hearts and minds, a celebration. Even our wildest imaginary exaggerations will fall almost infinitely short of the reality, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. The great Christian virtue of hope allows us to envision in our mind’s eye the total fulfillment of all the deepest yearnings of our heart upon arrival to the Father’s house. Keeping heaven in mind and activating our faith in what Christ has revealed about it should motivate us in our battle to be his faithful friends, to build and spread his Kingdom. After all, it was to open heaven’s gates – which sin had closed – that Christ became a man, lived, died, and rose again; and so, to let heaven fade out of our thoughts would be a monstrous insult, at the very least.
Christ in My Life Open my mind to know you better, Lord. I want to know your love as it really is. Only your love for me can cast out my fears and fill me with peace, confidence, and lasting joy in the midst of life’s troubles. Why can’t I see you more clearly? Show me your face, Lord; show me your heart. I want to see you!…
Am I ready, Lord? Am I really living out my faith, or has it grown cold, superficial, or overly intellectual? Does it give light and meaning to everything I do, to every relationship? If you told this parable to your apostles, it’s because you knew they needed to hear it. I am sure I need to hear it too. I’m already good at being foolish, Lord, so help me to be wise…
You tell this parable because you love us. You want us to know how to enter into your grace now and for all eternity. Please pour that same love into my heart, so I will be creative and courageous in spreading your good news. Why doesn’t my heart burn more ardently to save souls? With the love of your heart, Lord, inflame my heart…
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