When I was in the Minor/High School Seminary, we had some teachers who gave us tests during the revision week before exams. For such teachers, we always waited for the end of the term before we began to prepare for their tests. There were other teachers who always gave us a week notice, and for them, we waited until they told us before we began to prepare for tests. But we had one teacher, who taught us Agricultural Science and Physical and Health Education. He never gave us any hint regarding when his tests would be. There were times he gave us tests on the very first day of the term, there were times he would give us tests in the middle of his class. We spent more time trying to figure out his tests schedule than the content of the subjects he taught us. At a point, we thought we got a clue. Some students observed that he always wore a particular red T-shirt to school any day he planned to give us a test. We all started looking out for the red T-shirt. Whenever we saw him in his red T-shirt, we would miss other classes before his class on that day to enable us do our last minute preparations. I remember how the red T-shirt formula worked for me many times, but after a while, we noticed he started giving us tests even on days he wore other shirts. Upon this realization, I made up my mind that the best way to pass his tests would be to presume that every day was a day of test, so I made sure I studied his subjects every day.
As we reflect on today’s Gospel passage, it is important to note that a parable is different from an allegory. In an allegory, we have a story in which each element stands for something outside the story. But for a parable, some details may just be there to sustain the attention of the audience. They may not mean anything special outside the story. The most important thing to look out for in a parable, is the punch line. The story in today’s Gospel passage is a parable, as such, we must not be carried away by the quest for the meaning of each element. Our task should be to find out what the punch line is. Jesus gives us the punchline as, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
The context of the parable is that of the wedding custom of first-century Palestine. The groom goes to the house of the bride’s parents to make negotiations for the bride price and to bring his bride to his home. Meanwhile, the bridal party waits for the arrival of the groom at his home where the wedding feast would take place. More often than not, the bridegroom takes a long time in coming because of the negotiations at the bride’s home. Coming back to catch the bridal party napping was considered an achievement for the groom. Since the five wise maidens in today’s parable knew about the unpredictability of the bridegroom’s arrival, they made provisions for what was most essential, the oil, but the five foolish ones probably were distracted by non-essentials.
The primary interpretation of this parable refers to some of the Jews who were told long ago that the Messiah was coming but when the Messiah came in the person of Jesus, they were unprepared and so they lost their opportunity. The parable also applies to us today as we prepare for our individual death and for the final coming of Jesus. In spite of all human efforts, predicting the time of death continues to meet a lot of failure. Even with advancement in medical sciences, there have been cases where a doctor said a particular patient had two weeks to live, but the patient lived many years after while the doctor died a week after his prediction/prognosis. So, the way out is to be always prepared.
Even though our point of interest in a parable is the punch line, there is one element in today’s parable that continues to raise questions. It is the refusal of the wise maidens to share their oil. We need to make it clear at this point that Jesus is not encouraging selfishness here. The point is that there are some things that cannot be shared. There are some things that we must work out ourselves without relying on others. The personal aspect of our relationship with God cannot be borrowed from others. You cannot go to confession on behalf of your family member or friend. You cannot receive any of the Sacraments on behalf of anybody. My family members and my friends cannot stop praying because they have a priest in the family or because they have a priest friend whose duty it is to pray. In Nigeria we say, “Every goat must learn to carry its own tail.” Martin Luther is quoted to have said, “You are going to die alone. You had better believe alone.”
As we approach the end of this liturgical year, let us pray for the grace to live each moment as if it were our last so that the coming of Jesus, the bridegroom, may not be a surprise, through the same Christ out Lord. Amen.