Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
November 08 2020 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Wisdom 6:6-12 | Psalm 63:2-8
I Thessalonians 4:13-19 | Matthew 25:1-13
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Many years ago, when I was a young teenager, I was a Boy Scout. Most of my memories of scouting are unpleasant, as I was always the victim of bullying and ridicule because I was a very different person than the other kids. But I did learn some important things from scouting, among which was the Scout Motto, “Be Prepared!” That is the very stark message of today’s Gospel. “Be Prepared,” lest one suffers the consequences of being unprepared, as were those five foolish maidens who did not bring enough oil with them for their lamps as the five wise maidens did. Those five exhibited more wisdom than the five foolish ones. They were prepared for the contingency of the bridegroom’s late arrival, while the other five were not.
What is wisdom? Here is an example from secular life. After the Revolutionary War, when the delegates of the thirteen American colonies were writing a constitution, it got to the point where everyone objected to some part of the new document, and it looked as though it might never win approval. During the discussion, Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesman of the group, noted that while he also did not agree with all the provisions, he had lived long enough to know that he often changed his mind and would likely do so again. He thought that this probably was not the best document, but it was far from the worst, and he would vote for it. It soon passed overwhelmingly. His good sense, discretion, and prudent judgment gave him the right to the title “Father of American Wisdom.”
This same spirit that characterized Franklin also marks the wisdom books of the Old Testament. They are an often neglected part of the Bible but reflect an important insight into Israel’s religious ideal, which is certainly not just the same as fidelity to the Mosaic Law or obedience to the prophets.
The word “wisdom” is mentioned two hundred twenty-two times in the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom was regarded as one of the highest virtues among the Israelites, along with kindness and justice. The books of Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Job, the Song of Songs, and the so-called “Wisdom Psalms”, urge people to obtain and to increase in wisdom.
Today’s First Reading is a very appropriate reflection of today’s Gospel about the superiority of wise people over foolish people. The First Reading is from the Book of Wisdom The Book of Job describes wisdom as, “the fear of the Lord.” I don’t use the word “fear” to mean being afraid of God, but to denote an awareness of God’s presence and influence. In today’s Gospel, the bridegroom symbolizes the divine Jesus. The decision of the wise maidens acknowledged the divine presence when they prepared themselves with enough oil to be ready if the bridegroom did not come at the expected time, while the others did not.
Once we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives, wisdom manifests itself as practical, everyday knowledge gained from experience.
As is customary, the personification of wisdom in today’s First Reading is in the feminine gender as it is throughout the Old Testament. I am not surprised that wisdom is portrayed as a lady; my wife Deacon Sharon is smarter than I am in many respects. She is truly a fount of practical wisdom in my life. Countless times when things have not gone as expected for me, she reminds me, “You should have thought of that” and prepared for it. That advice helped me in my former profession as a lawyer; I was known for meticulous preparation for hearings and depositions where I was always ready for whatever curveballs the opposing side might pitch to me. To be wise is to be prepared. As retired United States Army General Colin Powell would say, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”
We spend much of our lives preparing for what comes next. Children and young adults, we hope, go to school to prepare themselves for the life ahead of them. Unfortunately, however, many of them are quite short-sighted in making their educational decisions. Many of them seek education to prepare themselves for a career as someone’s employee in a job to support themselves, and quite foolishly, in my opinion, accomplish that by taking on huge amounts of debt which has no statute of limitations and which cannot be easily discharged in bankruptcy.
Here’s an example. A young lady who worked in the hospitality industry wanted to change careers to become a medical data entry clerk. She borrowed a substantial amount of money to pay for a trade school certificate for that purpose. But when it was all said and done, she could not find a job in her chosen field. So she went back to the hospitality industry, only this time, she labored under crushing student loan debt. Due to California’s Community Property laws, her wife was on the hook for it as well.
Just like the five foolish maidens in today’s Gospel, the aforementioned young lady did not make wise choices for herself. I seriously doubt she conducted an extensive investigation of career opportunities in the medical data entry field both as to present openings and where her ultimate career path would lead beyond the keyboard and computer screen.
The young lady in question may have relied on the representations by the admissions representative for the trade school, who, of course, had a vested interest in signing her up as a student. That was most unwise. Common sense would dictate that someone in her situation would independently, and very thoroughly, investigate the relevant information before signing on the dotted line for a substantial indefeasible financial obligation. Clearly, like the five foolish maidens who journeyed to the wedding feast, she did not properly prepare by doing the necessary investigation before she started on her educational journey.
The five wise maidens anticipated that something could go wrong, and it did. Since they took enough lamp oil with them, they were prepared for the late arrival of the bridegroom. But our medical billing student did not prepare for the possibility that she might not find the job she wanted and is now stuck with the consequences, just as the foolish maidens in today’s Gospel who were turned away from the wedding feast because they were unprepared.
Life does not always unfold as we expect it. Life throws curveballs at us, balls that look like they are coming straight in over home plate but which dip, dive or break at the last second causing the batter to swing and miss. A smart batter will anticipate that a pitcher might throw a breaking pitch and be prepared to hit it, particularly a waist-high hanging slider, which a reasonably good hitter will power out of the ballpark for a home run.
In this parable, the arrival of the bridegroom at a wedding feast is meant to show that the Kingdom of Heaven will be established with the second coming of Jesus, which scholars call the Parousia. Some will be ready for it, others not. We do not know how or when the Kingdom of Heaven will come. Such an event will truly be unexpected from a human viewpoint, yet we are expected to be ready for it. Many, however, will be caught flatfooted and unprepared when the reign of God replaces the present earthly situation.
What, precisely, is the Kingdom of Heaven, the term the Gospel of Matthew uses to mean the Kingdom of God? Historically, the Church presented three separate interpretations of the Kingdom of God: the first, by Origen in the Third Century, was that Jesus himself represents the Kingdom. The second interpretation, also by Origen, is that the Kingdom represents the hearts and minds of the faithful captured by the love of God and the pursuit of Christian teachings. The third interpretation, by Eusebius, is that the Kingdom represents the Christian Church composed of the faithful.
For me, the answer is expressed in very simple terms in the Our Father we sing every Sunday: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.” God wants our home on earth to be like God’s home in heaven, where God reigns omnipotently and forever.
Eastern Christians take that idea a bit further. They say that the Kingdom of God is present within the Church and is communicated to believers as it interacts with them. That is what we try to do here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community. Throughout the synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells us what that Kingdom will be like. In at least two of the Gospel readings we’ve heard this summer, Jesus tells us it will be a sumptuous banquet where all are welcome who are ready to receive our Lord, just like here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, where before the pandemic, we offered all sacraments to everyone, as we will again once the church reopens to the public. We were, and will be, prepared for all who enter our doors prepared to receive Jesus.
That the Church must be Jesus-like to effectuate the realization of the Kingdom of God in our lives here and now is an undebatable given. Thus, the Church can, and must, be prepared to demonstrate the love and mercy that God truly is in the way it deals with the people of God. That means using the Gospel to guide our dealings with one another, particularly when the teachings of Jesus clash with secular norms.
Indeed, the most significant challenge for the people of God in realizing God’s Kingdom in today’s world is the clash between God and secularism, just as in the days of Jesus and in the early church there were clashes between Jesus and his followers with the Roman Empire. We must prepare for that sort of thing, lest we be left out in the cold. Christians must ask themselves whether are they prepared to deal with a government that operates on a decidedly non-Christian philosophical foundation, using the so-called “free market” instead of human compassion to distribute the basic rights of human survival: food, medical care and housing. A society where those with the most money get the best food, medical care and housing while those with the least live without a roof over their heads, hungry and unhealthy, is not acceptable.
If in fact, there is a second coming of Jesus, which has often been the interpretation of the parable in today’s Gospel, what would Jesus think of our unpreparedness? Would Jesus say he doesn’t know us, as the bridegroom told the unprepared, foolish maidens?
Our world is ill-prepared to receive Jesus. Jesus would be hard-pressed to recognize present-day humanity as his own flock due to massive disparities of wealth and income, the exaltation of self-centeredness as a virtue in continued incantations of I-first life philosophies, and blaming the victims of misfortune for their plight. These are among things that could invite Jesus to say, “I do not know you.” For Jesus to know us, we must be prepared for Jesus, remembering that Jesus does not always operate on our schedule or act according to our preferences. Jesus will do what Jesus does. It is up to us to be prepared for Jesus.
The key to the preparedness that will get Jesus to recognize us is to prepare ourselves by making wise choices. That is true for all of humanity, not just Christians and Jews, but for people of all religious and philosophical traditions. Wisdom teaching is universal. It can be found among Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and the Oriental religions of the Far East.
Wisdom in Hinduism is a state of mind and soul where a person achieves liberation through knowing the truth within oneself. Truth is the basis for the entire Creation. Wisdom means a person with self-awareness as one who witnesses the entire creation in all its facets and forms, realizing that an individual through right conduct and right living over an unspecified period comes to realize their true relationship with the creation. The Sanskrit verse to attain knowledge is:
“Lead me from the unreal to the real.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.
May there be peace, peace, and peace”.
Buddhist scriptures teach that a wise person is usually endowed with good bodily, verbal, and mental conduct. A wise person does actions that are unpleasant but give good results, and doesn’t do actions that are pleasant but give bad results. Wisdom is the antidote to the self-chosen poison of ignorance.
The Quran, the holy book of Islam, tells us,
“Allah gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding.”
The Sufi philosopher Arabi considers Wisdom as one of the names of the Creator God. And the first Arab philosopher, Al-Kindi, tells us,
“We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaned or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.”
And looking further east, we have the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who told us,
“Love of learning is akin to wisdom. To practice with vigor is akin to humanity. “The Way of learning to be great consists in manifesting the clear character, loving the people, and abiding in the highest good.”
So how does all of that help us in assessing what the wise and foolish maidens did? Here’s how. You might ask, if, out of compassion, the wise maidens should have shared their oil with the foolish maidens. The question to be asked is whether an action that appears to be compassionate on the surface is always a wise decision. The answer is no, not always.
To assess the decision of the wise maidens not to share their oil with the foolish maidens who did not bring enough oil, let’s look at the overall picture of the situation. In the time of Jesus, people didn’t fall in love and get married like we do today. Instead, marriages were arranged between the fathers of the partners, influenced by the mothers of the partners.
When the wedding time arrived, the bridegroom would go to the bride’s house in the evening to pick up his bride and take her to his father’s house, where the celebration would occur. So the arrival of the bridegroom with his bride was the most important part of the ceremony. The maidens carried lamps to be torchbearers as part of the people greeting the new couple. The wise maidens, therefore, understandably did not share their oil, because, as they said, they would not have enough for themselves. The result would have been the arriving bride and bridegroom would have no torchbearers at all. Remember, in those days, there were no electric lights of any kind, so the couple might have had trouble navigating their way when they arrived, and those at the party might have trouble seeing.
The point is, as the perspective of our interfaith partners emphasize, wisdom works with and must be compatible with, objective truth. At its highest manifestation, wisdom works with the facts on the ground as they are, not as we want them to be. Wisdom and learning go together. While the foolish maidens were not able to attend the wedding, the situation was nonetheless an educational experience for them.
So much in life is not planned, yet we must be ready for it. That requires preparedness for what comes next, but more importantly, that which comes unexpectedly. Our knowledge and experience help us to discern wisdom. That requires that we have a good relationship with the truth, to fully understand the objective facts of our situation rather than proceed based on desired, but unrealistic, expectations. As Christians, Jews, and our interfaith partners all recognize objective reality matters. We must deal with life not as we wish it, but how it really is. That is what enables us to be prepared to handle unexpected situations, just like those very wise maidens did. AMEN.