32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
We are fast approaching the end of the Church’s liturgical year in just a couple of weeks, and so the Gospel readings now turn to the passages which have to do with the 2nd coming of Christ and the final judgement. These powerful Gospel passages present serious warnings from Jesus that we must always be prepared to render an account of our lives, and that this His judgment will definitively determine whether or not we are fit to enter His kingdom.
The liturgical year is carefully structured to reflect the history of salvation, beginning with man’s historical longing for a Savior; then it recalls the coming of the Messiah, followed by the mystery of his saving death and resurrection and the extension of this mystery in the life of the Church. The bulk of the liturgical year reflects on the Church in pilgrimage toward the final kingdom, reflecting on how we must live the Life that Christ gave to us in baptism. Finally, in November, the Church turns to the conclusion of salvation history, the return of Christ to judge all mankind, and the final separation of the elect who will enter His kingdom from the damned who will have cut themselves off forever by their rejection of God’s eternal will and loving mercy for the sake of an illusory self autonomy, the “I will not serve” first asserted by Satan.
The parable in today’s Gospel has to do with that second coming of Christ, and reflects the ways in which some souls will be ready for his coming judgement and others will not. This particular parable focuses on the judgment of the members of His Church, and only obscurely has to do with the universal judgement of mankind. Jesus directs our attention in this parable to the judgment of the baptized represented by the 10 virgins. Indeed, the Church herself is virginal, having but one bridegroom for whom she waits to give herself completely to Him. The fact that Jesus speaks here of the judgement of the Church is itself the first important lesson he wishes to teach, that is, that there is no room for presumption in her members that simply because they belong by baptism to His Church, they will, for that reason alone, automatically be received into the Final Kingdom, which is represented as a great wedding banquet, the eternal banquet of Heaven.
Jesus several times warned his followers against such a false presumption – that they would get to Heaven simply because they were baptized. For instance, in his parables describing the Church, he speaks of it as a great fishing net in which all kinds of things, good and bad fish alike are caught up. As the fishermen of this world are accustomed to do when they haul in their nets, so the final judgement will mean the Lord will keep the good fish and throwing back those who by their lives are not fit to keep. We see the same warning in the parable of the field which has good wheat along with weeds. The good wheat will be allowed to grow together with the weeds, both in the world and in the Church, until the great harvest, the final judgement, which will harvest the good into the heavenly kingdom while the weeds will be rejected and thrown into the fire of hell. This preaching is directed obviously to his own disciples since the wicked in the world will ignore it. These parables, including our Gospel today, are a serious warning to his disciples that it is not enough for us to be His followers in name only. We must produce good fruit from our baptism and his manifold graces, or we too will be rejected.
The parable of the ten virgins clearly has to do with these two very divergent attitudes and destinies of the members of His Church. This seems clear from the fact that all ten are “virgins” which simply means that they belong to the Church that is essentially virginal by her nature, like Mary her Mother. The attitudes of these “virgins” are described simply as “being wise” and “being foolish.” Being wise means taking care that the light of the torch, the light that is our Christian life, is kept burning faithfully until the bridegroom appears and renders His judgement that determines who shall enter the wedding banquet of heaven and who shall not, the two utterly different destinies of man, including the members of His Church.
So what more precisely do the torch, the oil and the fire represent in the parable? The torch perhaps could be seen to represent the interior light of the soul of the baptized, that supernatural light of faith and divinizing grace that make a person His disciple. The oil, on the other hand seems to represent the exterior source of this interior grace, a source of supernatural life and light that the person does not possess from his own nature, but must receive from another. This exterior source begins with the sacrament of Baptism, through which the supernatural light and life are received from God. The oil that sustains this interior light and life is nourished by the other sacraments which are distributed by the Church’s “shopkeepers,” those who administer the sacraments by the power and commission of Christ Himself, his sacred ministers, who continue the priesthood of Christ.
This “oil” of supernatural grace, which sustains and grows this interior light, we do not produce ourselves, just as we did not produce the first grace by our power or by baptizing ourselves. It comes from God through the sacred ministering of the Church established by Christ Himself to do this.
We might then see the fire of the torch as the visible good works which have their source in the interior light of the soul and are external, visible manifestations of that hidden interior light and life. Christ told his followers that they must allow their light to shine before men as the witness of His truth and His grace.
This external manifestation of light, the fire of good works, simultaneously gives glory to God, because it is ultimately is produced by the oil of His grace, and draws others, not yet his followers, to its source, to Christ who lives and works in an through the souls of all of His disciples The disciple must for these two reasons keep this light burning brightly so that when the master returns, they will be found fit to enter into His final Kingdom. Those who do will show their great wisdom. Those who allow the oil to run out, and thus their light to be extinguished, will be the most truly foolish of men, for it will cause their own exclusion from His kingdom.
In short, letting the oil run out and the fire to be extinguished represents the loss of sanctifying grace in the soul. Notice the five foolish virgins have fallen asleep, and they become aware of their perilous situation only when the Bridegroom suddenly appears, for judgement. It’s all a warning to be taken seriously. In this world, how many souls lose the grace of God through grave sin, and then remain in a sleep-like state, unaware of the peril to their eternal destiny should Christ return unexpected as he does in the parable, which means at the point of their death. Then there is no time to get to the shopkeepers, to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to have this oil (grace) restored to the lamp (the soul). Nor can this oil be transferred from one lamp to another, from one soul to another.
What terribly foolish presumption to think that we will have time enough to get to confession, as if Christ will surely not come like the thief in the night, as he warns in yet another passage. And how utterly foolish to think that even if wee are not ready to meet Christ at our death, we can simply ride into heaven on the coattails of others, “give us some your oil.” And, finally, how wickedly foolish to think that we can show up at our judgement without His grace, that is, without the wedding garment received in our Baptism, the garment lost by unrepented grave sin, because we fell asleep. To presume that God’s compassion will get us into the banquet is perhaps the ultimate form of deadly presumption. God’s mercy is certainly everlasting and infinitely great, and that means that sin in itself is not an irremovable barrier to our final salvation. But it has to be removed by our cooperation before we stand before our Judge. And this requires the genuine repentance which opens us to merciful forgiveness merited by Jesus and distributed most powerfully through the sacrament of his mercy, the sacrament in which he restores to life those who have foolishly allowed the light of God’s grace to be extinguished in their souls.
Thus the ultimate threat to our salvation is not sin as such, which can be overcome, but this fearful attitude of presumption displayed in the five foolish virgins, that one can live in this perilous state of sin without concern because we will always have time to get to the shopkeepers for confession. Or, even more presumptiously, that we will be able to show up at our judgement without the supernatural grace of our Baptism, and that God will accept us for our purely natural qualities. One often hears people suggest this today, saying of a person who showed no concern to be God’s servant, or to reform a sinful life, that he was a friendly man, or polite man and so surely he will be in heaven.
However, Jesus did not say that it would be enough to be a nice or friendly person in order to enter his kingdom. That is precisely the warning present in his parables. Natural virtues are simply not enough! His Kingdom is not of this world. It is a supernatural reality, and only with His supernatural life in our souls can we enter into His Kingdom. That is why there is a real urgency in Jesus’ parables that insists that we must stay awake, keep His fire burning and be ready to meet him when he comes for us. Without that supernatural grace in our souls, without its shining for others to see and give glory to God, one shall surely not enter His eternal banquet. Rather that person will surely hear the terrible words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: depart from me I do not know you.
Without the grace of Baptism, Jesus does not recognize us as His supernatural children. That is precisely why Jesus is so very urgent in his parable warnings: he absolutely desires our salvation far more than we ourselves desire to be saved. And because he knows the kind of presumption in men that leads them to neglect their immortal souls and show up at their judgement without the light of grace received in their Baptism, he tries to make us understand all this. If we do so, then we will for sure be like the wise virgins who keep the fire of grace burning brightly and joyfully and prudently long for His coming and for the unending banquet of God’s love.