Nov 8, 2020: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

1st Reading – Wisdom 6:12-16

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire;
Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,
for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,
and whoever for her sake keeps vigil
shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.

All societies have some type of Wisdom tradition, and ancient Israel was no exception. Wisdom is the perfection of knowledge of the righteous as a gift from God showing itself in action. As anyone who searches for the meaning of life soon realizes, human wisdom alone cannot plumb the depths of reality.

In the tradition of Israel, this wisdom is personified as a woman. Wisdom in this feminine personification is not exactly a divine characteristic, but she is very close to it (Wisdom 7:25-26).

In today’s reading, the author describes how accessible Woman Wisdom is to those who seek her.

Resplendent and unfading is Wisdom,

Proverbs, another of the seven books of wisdom literature in the Old Testament, tells us that wisdom “is more precious than corals, and none of your choice possessions can compare with her” (Proverbs 3:15).

The other wisdom books are Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, and Sirach.

and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.

This is a bold claim. Actually, the love of Wisdom (philo-sophía) and the search for Wisdom are evidence that one is already wise.

She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men’s desire; whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by his gate.

The search at dawn shows that the desire for Wisdom is uppermost in the minds of the wise.

Note that while people search for Wisdom, Wisdom is also in search of them. Hence she is found sitting by the gate, not confined in a royal palace or hidden in a far-off place.

For taking thought of her is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care;

Those do what is wise on a daily basis, those who “keep vigil,” are free from the care of worrying about when something will occur. They will always be ready.

This is exactly what Jesus teaches the disciples in our gospel reading for today.

because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her, and graciously appears to them in the ways, and meets them with all solicitude.

There seems to be a paradox here. Humans are always in search of Wisdom because she is just out of their reach. And yet Wisdom is always available to them, waiting for them, calling to them.

Although Wisdom permeates all of reality, she resides at its deepest level, so only those who venture into the deepest realms of experience will find her. However, those who find Wisdom find peace and security, meaning and fulfillment. And once she has been found, one will be able to see her everywhere.

2nd Reading – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
about those who have fallen asleep,
so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God, through Jesus,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord,
will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, console one another with these words.

The subject of Saint Paul’s instruction in today’s second reading is the final coming (parousía) of the Lord, the topic that receives the most attention in both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians.

Some of the Christians in Thessalonica had died, causing distress within the community. They wrote to ask Paul whether their dead loved ones will rise with Christ when he comes or whether they have missed out on rising with Christ.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,

Paul begins this passage in a way he frequently introduces new material (see 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:8). It is a favorite phrase of his when drawing attention to an important point.

about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.

“Fallen asleep” was a euphemism for death that was common in antiquity, just as the expression “passed away” is common today.

Paul isn’t addressing the sadness they experience because of their loss; he wants to prevent them from suffering the kind of unrestrained grief that derives from hopelessness.

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

Paul assures the Thessalonians that those who have already died will rise with Christ.

Jesus died and rose from the dead, thus conquering the control death had initially exercised over him. Through this victory, those joined to Jesus are also delivered from the power of death, for neither life nor death can separate them from the love of Christ. (See Romans 8:38-39.)

Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord,

This phrase has aroused speculation as to whether this is an otherwise unchronicled saying of Jesus or a private revelation. In any case, it is clear that Paul is speaking with the authority of Christ.

that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.

At the end of time, all believers will be decisively joined with the Lord. No precedence or favor will be shown for those still living when Christ returns or for those who have already died – both will have died in Christ.

“We think that those who have been perfected and who no longer commit sin are alive in Christ. The dead in Christ are those who are favorably disposed to the Christian faith and who prefer to live a good life but who have not, in fact, actually succeeded, but still sin, either in ignorance of the accurate true word of justice or in weakness, because their decisions are overcome by the flesh, which lusts against the spirit (Galatians 5:17). And it is conformity with these matters that Paul, conscious of himself, says, because he has already succeeded, ‘We who are alive.’ But those whom we spoke of as dead have special need of the resurrection, since not even those who are alive can be taken up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air before the dead in Christ first rise. This is why it has been written, ‘The dead in Christ shall rise first, then those who are alive,’ etc.” [Origen (226 AD), Commentaries on John 20,232-233]

For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,

Paul pivots to describing the parousía, drawing on elements from the apocalyptic tradition of Israel. Clouds, angels, and trumpet blasts frequently accompany a theophany, or manifestation of God. Their appearance at the parousía indicates that this final coming is precisely such a theophanic event.

It will begin with a mighty word of command, with the voice of an archangel and the thundering blast of a trumpet.

will come down from heaven, 

Christ will then descend from heaven, where he is enthroned in glory with God.

and the dead in Christ will rise first.

The Thessalonians would have been comforted to know that the Christians who have already died will be the first in the procession to rise and meet the Lord.

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

Paul seems to say that those who are still alive at this time will be taken up as they are. Perhaps the reunion takes place “in the air” because it occurs in the heavenly realm, and not on earth.

Notice that Paul expects to be among those still alive when the Lord comes.

Thus we shall always be with the Lord.

This is the climax of Saint Paul’s teaching: at the parousía, time ends and eternity begins.

Therefore, console one another with these words.

We must remember that Paul is seeking to comfort his audience, not make a precise prediction of the future. His immediate concern is to encourage those who are not only struggling with the death of a loved one, but with questions of faith.

Gospel – Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied,
‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

We move forward in Matthew’s gospel to Jesus’ fifth discourse, this one on eschatology (Matthew 24:1-25:46). Eschatology deals with the last things: death, heaven, hell, the second coming, judgment, and so forth.

The parable in today’s passage is told against the background of Palestinian wedding customs. In that culture, a marriage unfolded in various stages. It began with the betrothal (Matt 1:18). At that point, the couple were technically married, but they still lived separately. After all the necessary arrangements between the two families were settled, the bridegroom went in procession to be joined with his bride. Only then did the feast begin.

Mostly likely the virgins in this parable were part of the bridal procession, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. There is no mention of the bride, not because the woman lacked importance, but because the point of the parable is the virgins’ degree of preparedness in anticipation of the arrival of the bridegroom.

To interpret a parable, we must ask ourselves, “To whom in the story is the audience compared?” The disciples are compared to the virgins because they too await an arrival for which they want to be prepared (i.e., the end times), but they do not know when it will occur.

Jesus told his disciples this parable: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.

There is no difference in status among the virgins. They are all included in the procession, and they all came with their lamps. The difference is in their preparedness: half of them had made provision for the possible delay of the bridegroom, the other half had not. It was their responsibility to be ready at any moment.

Several features of this parable mark its eschatological character, one of them being the idea of waiting in darkness for an event to occur without knowing exactly when it will come to pass.

Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

Again, there is no difference in status — they all fall asleep, and no one was reprimanded for having done so. Their vigilance was determined by their preparedness, not by their ability to stay awake.

The wait is occurring while the families are settling details of the marriage, including the negotiation of the dowry. Because the bargaining could be a long and intricate process, no one knew for sure when the groom would be coming.

At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.

The bridegroom arrives in the middle of the night, a most unexpected timing.

The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’

As we have discussed with other parables, it’s important not to misinterpret a parable (some aspect of or character in the story is representative of the audience) as an allegory (every aspect of or character in the story represents someone). If we treat this particular parable as an allegory, the wise virgins would stand for wise disciples and the groom would stand for Christ.

However, as we will see, both the wise virgins and the groom act in decidedly unloving ways toward the unwise virgins. Should one then draw the conclusion that disciples need not share with erring, unwise people, or that at some point the redeemer of the whole human race will lose his desire to redeem?

While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.

When the groom and his friends arrived, they were greeted by the waiting bride and her bridesmaids. Then the bride and groom, together with their friends, in the light of the oil-fueled lamps carried by the bridesmaids, danced and sang their way to the groom’s house, where the feast was held.

The imagery of a wedding banquet highlights the eschatological nature of the parable. In the tradition of ancient Israel, the wedding banquet served as a symbol of eschatological fulfillment (Isaiah 25:6), and Jesus himself used the metaphor of a wedding banquet to teach lessons about the end time (Matthew 22:1-12).

Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’

The fate of the virgins who were unprepared is quite harsh. If we allegorize this parable and use it to convince ourselves that we need not respond to the needs of those who are less prudent than we are, or that Jesus rejects unwise people who call out to him, we use it to teach something that Matthew does not intend to teach.

Other parables address questions about how we must respond to those in need and about God’s mercy, about God’s attitude toward those who do not say “yes” to the kingdom “on time.” This parable does not.

That being said, we must remember that this is a story about eschatological reality: in the end time, there is an ultimate separation that cannot be altered. One is either able to cross the threshold into Christ’s kingdom, or one is not. The unwise virgins were left behind not by accident but through their own negligence. See Matthew 7:21-23; Luke 6:46.

Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Jesus concludes the parable with an exhortation that is simple but strong: Be alert (grēgoréō)!  You do not know when the end will come!

A faithful disciple will always be ready for the coming of the Lord.

Connections and Themes

A significant shift in our reflection on the reign of God takes place today. For the past Sundays, we have considered the nature of the kingdom, characterizing it as a banquet, a vineyard, and a community committed to justice. Today we fasten our gaze on the end of time, and we consider the goal of the kingdom.

The end.  At what age do we genuinely realize that we will die? Children may be struck with the realization of death when a grandparent dies. But then, from a child’s perspective, grandparents might that they have lived their lives, are worn out, and don’t seem to be enjoying life anyway.

We must entertain some feeling toward people in order to miss them when they die. But frequently what we are feeling is our own loss, not theirs. Do the dead experience the loss of life? Is life really lost? Or is death a transition from life to another form of existence? Do we have to die before we are able to realize what death really is?

The early Christians thought these questions had been answered with the resurrection of Jesus. Having entered into his death and resurrection through baptism, they believed they would now share in his victory over death. When loyal Christians began to die, not only did the old questions come back, but the community was plagued with new and difficult ones. Was it possible that those loyal Christians had not been loyal after all? Or worse, were the promises made by Jesus empty promises? Had his death been as final as have been all other deaths, and was the report of his resurrection an illusion?

No, Paul assures us. It is all true. Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again, and all the faithful will be joined with him. How it will happen, we do not know. When it will happen, we do not know. That it will happen, we are sure.

Court wisdom and be vigilant.  We cannot live as if the end is already upon us, yet we must live as if the end is imminent. How are we to do this? The readings for today give us insight: The only way to live life fully is to live it in the present. What we have from the past is the wisdom we have gleaned from it. We cannot be sure about the future because so many circumstances can overturn the plans we have set. All we have is the present. However, we cannot live myopically in the present. We must bring the wisdom of the past to bear on the present, where we live with an eye to the future.

The wisdom we have culled from life becomes the treasury from which we can bring out the prudence and insight needed to negotiate life’s paradoxes. It throws light on our strengths and weaknesses; it enables us to discern what is important and what is not; it directs us to bring extra oil for lamps. Life and the wisdom we have acquired through it have taught us that we can indeed trust the promises of God. They have been fulfilled in the past, and wisdom assures us they will be fulfilled in the future.

It is wisdom that cautions us to be vigilant, to be ready to adjust our plans. It is wisdom that prepares us for the night watches of life. It is wisdom that assures us that while we may not know the exact time of the coming of the Lord, he will indeed come into every life, perhaps at the time we least expect.