The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This reading is about wakefulness, watchfulness: a central factor in any spirituality. When I'm asleep I don’t know what is happening. If I walk in my sleep I don’t know where I'm going, or why; I'm capable of stepping through a window to my death. What then if my waking life is also a kind of sleeping? What if my fits of anger and fear, and the non-stop craving in my life, are just like wheels turning by themselves, with no one in charge? People only have to press the right button and there’s my anger; press another and I cringe with fear; show me an advertisement and I buy a product I don’t need. I'm a machine, reacting to stimuli, not a conscious being responding to life. Or, to say it another way, I'm sound asleep.
No one could like those wise bridesmaids in today's parable, I think. They remain awake all right, but they are not the kind of people you would go to if you had a problem. Some ‘good’ people are like that. But this is to misread the parable, which is a parable and not an allegory. An allegory has points of application all along the line, but a parable has only one point. The point of this one is the need to stay awake. (It would be wrong to apply it in other ways: for example, to deduce from it that we shouldn’t help people who are in need, if it is their own fault.) The meaning of the parable is in the last line, “Stay awake!”
St Augustine did his best to make those bridesmaids attractive. “What does the oil signify?” he asked. “Do you think it might be love…? I will tell you why. [St Paul] says, ‘I will show you a more excellent way (1 Cor 12:31)… It is [the way of love], ‘that way above the rest.…’ Now, oil swims above all liquids.” Nice try.
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