"Keep awake! You do not know the hour or the day.” The last line of our gospel is seemingly a simple statement, leaving little to ponder or write about. Or is it?
While at one level this is a simple statement, it also raises all sorts of questions. Questions like the hour or the day of what? What does it mean to be awake? Does our awakeness make us more worthy to be included in whatever is coming? And why didn’t those virgins (that’s what bridesmaids means here) with extra oil share?
And there are a couple of problems too. The issue wasn’t whether people were awake, but that some brought extra oil and some didn’t. That line has very little to do with what goes before it. And a much more serious question is that this bears little resemblance to anything Jesus says up to this point in tone, style or content. What then are we to make of this line?
This parable is the second in a cluster of four parables; the last four Matthew has Jesus teaching. And they are set in a section which is all about the return of the Son of Man, the final judgement and the establishment of the reign of God on earth. Matthew has a lot more on this theme than any other gospel. And this is what we are to remain awake and prepared for.
Weddings were a little different back then. The groom set out from home to go get his bride and bring her back. The bridesmaids were to be ready to welcome both him and his new bride back to his family. It was a sign of welcome, honour and respect. To have run out of oil and to stand in darkness would be seen as very disrespectful and would bring dishonour on their families. The timing of that return was entirely up to the groom, not the bridesmaids. They just needed to be prepared. It wasn’t that they were not worthy to enter the party; it was that they had not prepared for the long haul.
This story is not about us being more worthy, but us sustaining our lives of faith over the long haul. It is about us being people who bring honour and respect to the Son of Man in how we live, how we treat others in the way Jesus treated those he met. As we finish Ordinary Time and prepare for Advent and Christmas we are invited to be constantly alert to the presence of God now, and open to God’s dramatic future. And we are asked what additional ways we need to develop to sustain this life of alertness.