Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time: Preparing for the Bridegroom
The parable of the ten bridesmaids, five who are wise and five who are foolish, is not as much about bridesmaids, as it is about us who are waiting for the bridegroom.
First, a little something about ancient eastern marriage practices. There were two stages to getting married. The first was the betrothal. Representatives from both families would get together and decide if the other’s son or daughter would be a good choice for their child and their family. If they agreed, a dowry would be set, a marriage contract would be signed, and the couple would be legally married according to Jewish law. The betrothal was far more than an engagement. It was stage one of a marriage. But the couple did not live together yet. They could remain betrothed for a year or two. In Matthew 1:18-25 Mary was in this time frame. She was betrothed, legally married to Joseph, but she was not yet living with him. After the betrothal period, stage two of the marriage took place: the wedding celebration. Here is how this happened. The bridegroom would go the bride’s father’s house and make the final arrangements, perhaps bringing whatever part of the dowry he still owed. Then he would escort the bride from her house to his house or to his father’s house. This joyful procession would be led by maidens carrying torches. The bride and groom would come next, followed by members of both their families. Neighbors would stand at their doors cheering the young couple on, wishing them well and sometimes offering small presents. Once the procession got to the groom’s house, they all entered and the doors were barred. Wedding crashers were not allowed. The wedding feast began. There was a lot of food and a lot of wine. The men would do a special dance. The party could last several days. From that point on the couple lived together as husband and wife.
In the parable, the maidens or virgins, certainly unmarried girls, waited for the bridegroom to come so they could lead the procession. Only he is delayed, possibly settling a dispute in the bridal contract with his new father-in-law. “You are not getting her unless I also get this.” The five foolish girls were not prepared for a delay. Their lamps had gone out, and they did not have any oil to replenish them. The five wise virgins could not chance losing their place in the procession by giving away whatever oil they had left.
The most important and terrifying line in the parable comes when the foolish bridesmaids finally arrive late, and call out “Lord, Lord.” The groom responds, “I do not know you.” Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but whoever does the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On that day, many will say to me ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and did we not do might works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me.’”
The parable uses the story of the bridesmaids to force us to ask ourselves, “Am I ready for the bridegroom to come?” If Jesus were to come, would I be ready for him? A teenager once asked me what I would do if the Lord came today. I responded, “I guess I’d better look busy.” But really, would I be ready for Him? Would you be ready for Him? And what if instead of the Lord coming today, we were to be suddenly called to Him? Would I be ready? Would you be ready? We know that our God is merciful. But we cannot be presumptive. We cannot presume he will be merciful if we have ignored the many opportunities he has given us to trim our lamps, to serve Him.
The foolish bridesmaids were too busy doing this or that to get ready for the party. They did not do the one thing they needed to do: prepare for the bridegroom. They were exhausted. They fell asleep. They were not ready.
Our lives are very busy. With Christmas approaching, they will get even busier. But do we do the one thing we need to do? Do we prepare our lives, our family and our world for the Lord? How many times I have heard people say, “I couldn’t get to Mass this week because there was a soccer match or something on Sunday morning.” OK, but did you think of changing your schedule on Saturday, and go to Mass Saturday afternoon or Saturday evening? How about later on Sunday, like Sunday evening? Was there no time, or did you just not want to be bothered?
This is not just about the people in the pews. How many times we priests have been too busy to do the most important thing that we need to do: pray for our people? When we get so busy that we are tied up, we need to ask ourselves: Where does all this that I am doing fall in the priority of our lives? How can we let anything come before what we need to do to celebrate the Presence of God in the world?
The parable of the ten bridesmaids is placed at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to warn us to make the best use of the time we are given to serve the Lord. It tells us that God has a banquet of love waiting for us in heaven, but we have to be prepared to enter the banquet.