Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“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 no know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
There is a church in Cork that has carvings of the wise and foolish bridesmaids at the entrance – the wise at one side and the foolish at the other. I’m afraid the foolish ones look much more interesting that the others! They look more individual, more alive, more human. In the Gospel story too the wise bridesmaids are far less likeable characters than the foolish! If you were really stuck, you would be more likely to get help from one of those foolish bridesmaids than from any of the wise ones. Nobody loves a little ‘Miss Perfect’ (unless it be her mother!). And these Miss Perfects refused help when they were asked for it. Was Jesus having a bad day when he composed this story?
We have to remember that a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story that has many points of reference to human experience – many punch-lines, so to speak – but a parable has only one. The development of the story itself has only one purpose in a parable: to add strength to the one point. For that reason, the refusal of the wise to help the foolish is not being held up as model behaviour for us. Jesus himself had a partiality for “the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed, the lost” (See Ezech 34, as the model for his ‘lost sheep’ parable). The one point of this parable of the bridesmaids is readiness. Jesus was continuously telling people to wake up and stay awake.
But to come back to those ten bridesmaids…. Why do the wise ones seem so boring? And the foolish ones so much more interesting? Maybe the reason is this: while our foolishness is our own, our wisdom is usually borrowed; our wisdom is all too often a pretence, an imitation, and it doesn’t fit us as well as our foolishness! We care little for goodness and wisdom; in truth we are bored by them, and it shows in our face!
Can wisdom be mine, really mine? Are the best things really for me? Or can I only look on and imitate, like a football supporter wearing the colours of ‘my’ team? Goodness was obligatory at home and in school, and so from earliest childhood we may have seen it as ‘what other people want’. Evil then became identified with what we wanted ourselves! We may never really have interiorised goodness. We may then feel that it must be the same with everyone else: that goodness is always false. That would be the final caricature of Christian education. We must face the fact that many children now grow to adulthood with nothing more than this.
Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body. It is of no use unless it is yours. Information can be anybody’s: you can just google it. But wisdom has to be your own. ‘Sapor’, a Latin word that means ‘taste’, was used to describe the gift of wisdom: wisdom is ‘sapida scientia’, tasted knowledge. Not knowledge in a book or in someone else’s head, but in me: in my mouth, so to speak, in my heart, living through me. I heard someone say, “English is only our second language. What we are is our first language!”