32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence (Wisdom 6:15)
We are fast approaching the end of the Church’s liturgical year which concludes in just a couple of weeks, and so the Gospel readings now turn to the passages which have to do with the last things, the 2nd coming of Christ and the final judgment. These powerful Gospel passages present serious warnings from Jesus that each of us must always be prepared to render an account of our life, and that His judgment will definitively determine whether or not we are fit to enter His heavenly kingdom.
The liturgical year is generally structured to reflect the history of salvation, beginning with mankind’s historical longing for a Savior; then the coming of the Messiah, followed by the mystery of his saving death and resurrection and the extension of this mystery into the life of the Church. The bulk of the liturgical year reflects on the Church in pilgrimage toward the final kingdom, and it helps us reflect on how we must live the Life that Christ gave to us in Baptism. Finally, in November, the Church turns to the future culmination of the history of salvation with the return of Christ to judge all mankind, and the final separation of the elect, who will be welcomed into His kingdom, from the damned who will have cut themselves off forever by their free rejection of God’s eternal will and loving mercy for the sake of an illusory self autonomy, the same “I will not serve” as was 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 prudently ready for his coming judgment and others will be imprudently unprepared. This particular parable focuses on the judgment of the actual members of His Church and only secondarily with the universal judgment of mankind. Jesus directs our attention in this parable to the judgment of the baptized represented by the 10 virgins who carry their lamps, reminding us of the candles received at Baptism. Indeed, the Church herself is virginal, and she has only one bridegroom for whom she waits to give herself completely. The fact that Jesus speaks here of the judgment of the Church is itself the first important lesson he wishes to teach us, that is, that there is no room for presumption in her members. They are not to presume 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 here and elsewhere as a great wedding banquet, the eternal banquet of Heaven.
Now, Jesus warned his followers numerous times against just such a false and perilous presumption that they would get to Heaven simply because they were baptized. For instance, in 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 judgment will mean the Lord will keep the good fish and cast away those who by their lives have become unfit for the Kingdom.
Again, we see the same warning in the parable of the field which contains good wheat along with weeds. The good wheat will be allowed to grow together with the weeds, being part of the Church for the most part, until the great harvest in the final judgment, which will harvest the good into the heavenly kingdom while the weeds will be rejected and thrown into the fires of hell. Now this warning is obviously directed to his own baptized disciples since the wicked who belong to the world will largely ignore it. These parables, including our Gospel today, are then a serious warning to His own disciples that it is not enough for us to be His followers in name only due to our Baptism. We must also produce good fruit from our Baptism supported by his additional manifold graces, or we too will end up rejected.
So, the parable of the ten virgins clearly has to do with these two very divergent attitudes and destinies of the members of the Church. This seems abundantly clear from the fact that all ten are “virgins” which simply means that they belong to the Church which is essentially virginal by her nature, like Mary her Mother. The differing attitudes of these “virgins” are described simply as “being wise” and “being foolish.” Being wise means t, being prudent and 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 judgment that determines who shall enter the wedding banquet of heaven and who shall not, the two utterly different destinies of mankind, including the members of His Church.
Again, we can see a reference to Christian life and the Christian virtue of prudence in the torch and the oil in the parable? The torch can easily 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 might be seen to represent the additional gifts of grace that keep the light of Baptism burning as we await the Bridegroom’s return. This interior light of Baptism, Sanctifying grace, needs to be constantly nourished by the other sacraments and by the grace merited by good works. The oil of the sacraments, sanctifying grace, is distributed by the Church’s “shopkeepers,” those who administer the sacraments by the power and commission of Christ Himself. In addition, the baptized can merit additional oil/grace by their good works and pure conscience which is an exercise of their own baptismal share in the universal priesthood of Christ.
However, in both instances, this increase of the “oil” of supernatural grace, which sustains and increases this interior light, is not something we ourselves actually produce, just as we did not produce the first Grace by our own power by baptizing ourselves. It comes only from God, either through the sacramental ministry of the Church established by Christ Himself, or as something merited by the faithful through their good works. After all, Christ told his followers that they must allow their light to shine before men as the witness of His truth and His grace, and this is truly a priestly act made possible by Baptism.
Now, this external manifestation of interior light in good works, simultaneously gives glory to God, because it is ultimately made possible by the oil of His grace, and it draws others, not yet his followers, to its source, that is, to Christ who lives and works in an through the souls of all of His disciples The disciple must for these two reasons alone be prudent and 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 and prudence. Those who allow the oil to run out, and thus the light of Sanctifying grace to be extinguished, will truly be the most foolish of men, for this ultimate form of imprudence will cause their own exclusion from His kingdom.
In short, we can see that 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 judgment. It’s all a great warning to be taken quite 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 unexpectedly return as he does in the parable, which can also mean simply 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/Grace ever be transferred from one lamp to another, from one soul to another. We can’t produce it or transfer it.
What ultimately foolish presumption, then, to think that we will have time enough to get to confession, or even make a perfect act of contrition, as if Christ will surely not come like the thief in the night, while we sleep, as he warns in yet another passage. And how utterly foolish to think that even if we are not ready to meet Christ at our death, we can simply ride into heaven on the coattails of others, as the foolish virgins think when they ask “give us some your oil.” And, finally, how wickedly foolish to think that we can show up at our judgment without His Grace, that is, without the wedding garment received in our Baptism, the garment lost by unrepented grave sin, because we fell asleep.
Yes, to presume that God’s compassion will get us into the banquet even without Grace in our soul 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 and before we stand before our Judge. And this requires a genuine repentance which opens us to merciful forgiveness merited by Jesus and distributed most powerfully and most commonly through the sacrament of His mercy, the sacrament in which He personally restores to Life those who have foolishly allowed the light of God’s grace to be extinguished in their souls.
In conclusion, we must understand that the ultimate threat to our salvation is not sin as such, which can be overcome by sacramental Grace, 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 presumptuously, that we will be able to show up at our judgment without the supernatural Sanctifying Grace of our Baptism, and that God will simply accept us for our purely natural qualities. One often hears people suggest this today, saying of a deceased person who lived showing no concern to be God’s servant or reforming their sinful life, that he was a friendly man, or polite man and so surely he will be in heaven.
However, Jesus never even hinted that it would be enough to be a nice or friendly person in order to enter his Kingdom. Indeed, 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 genuine and 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, and 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.
Think about that! 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 often found in men that leads them to neglect their immortal souls and show up at their judgment without the light of grace received in their Baptism, he tries to make such men understand their peril. Those who do so will change and become like the wise virgins who keep the fire of grace burning brightly and thus joyfully and prudently long for His coming and for the unending banquet of God’s love.