Some years ago we had a Passionist brother, Jim Kent, who was a member of our community for a few years. Prior to joining us he had served in the Air Force as an MP and was assigned to night time guard duty at a remote base deep in the woods of Maine. With him was a sentry dog always at his side. One night, he told me, his dog suddenly stiffened and stared out into the deep darkness. Only several minutes later did Jim himself spot headlights coming through the woods toward the base. The incredible hearing of the alert guard dog had detected the car’s arrival far in advance.
This may seem like a strange introduction to a reflection on today’s Scripture readings but, in fact, staying alert or “staying awake” is the point of Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish virgins found in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. The parable reflects the Jewish wedding customs of Jesus’ day. A couple, perhaps already betrothed for some time, (most likely arranged by their parents), are finally able to make their home together. Young women who perhaps are relatives or friends form a joyous procession to greet the bridegroom as he comes to meet his betrothed and to have a banquet to celebrate this moment. The virgins carry lighted torches to add beauty to the ceremony. As in so many of Jesus’ parables, what starts as an ordinary slice of life seems to go in a strange direction. In this case, the arrival of the bridegroom comes abruptly and unexpectedly. Only the virgins with their lamps filled with oil and ready to go are able to join the procession. The “foolish” virgins, on the other hand, don’t have enough oil and have to go buy oil—only to arrive after the door to the wedding feast is locked and they are left out in the darkness.
What is the point of this enticing story? Commentators have suggested that the “oil” in the lamps is symbolic of good deeds; there are some Jewish stories that use this kind of symbolism. This might be the case with Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable, since throughout his Gospel Matthew emphasizes the need for doing good deeds (“It is not those who cry ‘Lord, ‘Lord’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my heavenly Father.”). This may be one of the meanings of the parable, but there is a more immediate significance emphasized by Jesus himself: “Therefore stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In fact, “staying awake,” “being alert” is a message Jesus more than once impressed upon his disciples. As disciples of Jesus, as Christians, we are urged to be ready, alert, for the moments when God’s grace comes to us and invites us to respond.
What are such moments? Perhaps being alert when we see a friend or family member seeming to be depressed or gripped with sadness, and we offer a word of encouragement or an invitation to talk about their burden. Perhaps it is being alert to what is happening in our own lives—too much tension, eating too much, drinking too much—not taking the time to reflect on how we can deepen our lives in prayer and reflection. Perhaps it is turning away from informing ourselves about what is happening in the world around us and how we as Christians can respond.
At the conclusion of his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us that even if we feel powerless before some of the monumental problems of our times—poverty, pollution, political corruption, racism, violence—we are capable of “small gestures” of love and justice that offset the multitude of toxic acts of violence, hatred and indifference that mar our world. It is at these moments Jesus in the today’s Gospel asks us to “be alert,” “be awake” and to respond in the spirit of the Gospel.
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.