An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Second Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:1-11, November 7, 2011
WHEN FAHRAKORB RIKKIATGYM, the Thai challenger in the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super bantamweight division, climbed up the ring at the RMC stadium in Davao City sometime in 2002, he packed a record of 33 straight wins, 22 by knockouts, and 2 losses. Confident that he could snatch the crown from Manny Pacquiao, he hoped, it was said, to return to Thailand with the title as a gift to his king and his people. What he did not know was that the lone reigning Filipino world boxing champion was very much in shape and well honed, swearing in fact that he was ready for the gory. No soon than the first round began than a right ram, which could have been mistaken for a set-up jab, landed on the bewildered Thai, mercilessly sending him to the floor. Seconds later, another blitzkrieg of punches was unleashed and floored the poor challenger, and after he was able to get up, another power-packed punch proved difficult to absorb. Before the first round was finished, the goner was flat on the floor, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Pacquiao is, of course, known for his lethal left, but it was claimed that for two months he perfected his right punch, and its awesome impact was more than enough to retain the crown.
Obviously, Rikkiatgym did not watch the right hand of the Filipino champion; or if he did, he was not prepared enough. That is why he suffered a stunning defeat. A similar lesson is presented in today’s Gospel—one who does not watch, or does not prepare himself adequately at the coming of the Son of Man will suffer exclusion from the victory of the Christian community. In view of the delay of Christ’s arrival, the proper attitude of the Christian is constant readiness and vigilance. Matthew stresses this point in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-12). If one assumes that Jesus told this story, the parable may have referred to the imminent but unpredictable arrival of the Kingdom of God. Seen in this perspective, it must have taught that those who accept Jesus’ message about the coming of the Kingdom will have access to it when it finally comes, but for those who rejected it, it will be too late for them to realize that they will not be given entry. But as we find it in the Gospel, it is an allegory that the Church applied to those who follow Jesus in their watchful expectation of Jesus’ return. In this allegory, the ten virgins—the first five foolish, the second wise—are supposed to represent Christians in the community, some of whom are ill-prepared, the others well prepared for the parousia; the bridegroom is Christ, the Son of Man; the return of the bridegroom is the second coming of Christ; the delay in his coming is the postponement of the parousia; and the wedding feast is the messianic banquet.
In trying to emphasize the need of vigilance, Matthew warns us about the fate of the five foolish virgins. Since they were not ready for the moment when the groom arrived, they were excluded from the wedding banquet, in much the same way that Rikkiatgym failed to get the crown, as he did not watch Pacquiao’s right hand. In effect, the parable is about practical wisdom—what is a Christian ought to do, as the Son of Man is delayed in his arrival? That one needs this practical wisdom to be saved is the point of the First Reading: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men’s desire; he who watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her at the gate” (Wisd 6:13-14). If one possesses this wisdom, it is certain that he will survive the last judgment. When this time comes, God will bring forth with him from the dead the wise believers who have fallen asleep. At the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet, they will rise first, and the wise who are still living will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air—an event that born-against Christians call “rapture” (1 Thess 4:16-17). But this is an apocalyptic imagery that cannot be taken literally; but what this means to us is that the wise believer is assured that he will be restored in the Christian community, now transformed into a perfect one, in fellowship and love.
It is Matthew’s wish that the members of the Christian community on earth should not be excluded from this fellowship at the end of time. They should be wise enough to be in a permanent state of readiness for the arrival of the Son of Man. For this reason, he presents us model of Christian behavior the five wise virgins who never ran out of oil. Unlike the foolish ones who, in bringing their torches to meet the bridegroom, brought no oil along, the wise virgins, sensible as they were, took flasks of oil. Because of the long wait for the bridegroom, the foolish ones realized later that their torches used up the oil they contained. For Matthew, a sensible Christian should not run out of oil. By what is meant by oil? The popular suggestion is that this refers to good works. Comparison is often made with the guest without a wedding garment in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:11-14) and the five foolish virgins without oil, and what is lacking in both is supposed to be good works. Of course, the theme of good works is not foreign to Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christians are exhorted to let their light shine so that people will see their good works and glorify their father in heaven (Matt 5:16). But as Garland suggests, it might be more consistent with Matthew’s theology to take oil not allegorically but parabolically. Since the main point of the story is that the foolish virgins were not ready when the great moment finally came, Matthew could have identified the oil not simply with the performance of good works, but with the tireless doing of other obligations—abstinence from bad behavior (15:19), love for enemies (5:44), love of other Christians (24:12), forgiveness of others (18:21-35), unhesitating faith (21:21), loyalty to Jesus (10:32), and love for God (22:37).
In other words, the parable is basically an exhortation on living out the Christian faith. Only those who live out their faith in every circumstance of their lives keep their eyes open (Matt 25:13). In the parable, the five wise virgins represent them. Of course, the problem of division in the Christian community between those who live out and those who do not is a reality. Today, the Church sees the flourishing of various faith communities and movements, where members take seriously their Christian faith and obligations, but one is afraid that enthusiasm might easily wane. In the 1960s, the Cursillo movement took the Philippines as if by storm; one found the movement in almost every parish. Today, they are few and far between. Indeed, for many, being Christian may not be more than just a name. If Christian faith finds its communal expression in the Sunday Eucharist, one wonders about the percentage of the baptized who really go to Mass and who fulfill their other Christian obligations.