Commentary to the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
It is not difficult to believe but to persevere in the faith
Israel has experienced the faithfulness of his God. For him, Israel coined the term hesed we 'emet that occurs frequently in the Bible and which can be translated as: faithful in love. When the Lord stipulates an alliance, he is faithful to it even if the other party betrays its commitments. When He makes a promise, he never misses a word.
Paul was deeply convinced of it: “The faithful God who has called” (1 Cor 1:9); “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13) and, recalling the unfaithfulness of Israel, he says: “Will their unfaithfulness do away with the faithfulness of God? Of course not” (Rom 3:3-4).
But will people ever match this love?
The Bible speaks of the hasidim (the faithful: from hesed, loyal). Even before Christ, a group of pious and virtuous men—who were given this name—were meant to embody the loyal, law-abiding Israelite, willing even to be martyrs rather than betray their faith. This spiritual power has remained to this day in the Jewish people. Here is what one of these hasidim has written in front of the gas chamber: “God of Israel, you have made the possible so that I would not believe in you. If you thought of being able to divert me from my way, well I’ll tell you, my God, the God of my fathers, you will not succeed. You can hit me, take away from me whatever is precious and dear I have on earth, you can torment me to death, but I will always believe in you. I’ll love you forever. I die as I have lived, firmly believing in you.”
When the wind of test blows “the lamp of the godless is extinguished, the light of the virtuous is bright” (Pro 13:9).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Grant, O Lord, that on the last day, I can repeat, like Paul, ‘I have finished my course, I have kept myself faithful”
First Reading: Wisdom 6:12-16
The Israelites, like all the other nations of antiquity, esteemed "wisdom" more than wealth, beauty, and strength. They appreciated those who examined the secrets of nature, who composed proverbs, songs, and poems, who reflected on the enigmas of the world, life, and death, joy, and pain. The most famous of the wise was Solomon whose wisdom “was greater than that of all the Orientals and all the land of Egypt” (1 K 5:9-14).
When the Bible speaks of “wisdom” it refers, above all, to the artof directing one’s own life well. Wiseis he who,reflecting on one’s own experience, on the teachingsof the sages who preceded him,on the historical events of his people, draws useful lessons forhimself andfor others. Heis able to distinguishwhat isgood and whatis bad, what isright and whatis wrong.He controlshis instinctsand passions, acts withcare, loyalinword and deed, humbleand modest.
In the world, there is not one wisdom. Next, to that of God, there is also that of the “snake.” The Bible presents it as the most cunning of creatures made by the Lord God (Gen 3:1). It is the image of the cunning person who claims to become the absolute master of his own destiny, but that, by excluding God from his own life, eventually enacts his own downfall. Can he claim the title “wise”? The Bible’s answer is ‘no.’ It is the foolish who, in his heart, cries mockingly: “God does not exist” (Ps 14:1).
It is, therefore, essentialfor every person, family, and people to checkwhat is the“wisdom”that guides them, taking them bythe hand. Is it that of God orthat of the“snake”? From what“wisdom”were thedecisions taken depend?It is a choicebetweenlife and death.
The author of today’s proposed passage is a wise man who discovered the wisdom of God and wants his readers to fall in love with it. So he presents it, personified as a beautiful girl, as a young girl who plays and jokes before God: “it is bright and incorruptible, he who loves it never tires of contemplating it” (v. 12).
And the pains of love? The one who feels rejected, who sees the beloved continually escaping, who discovers that the woman of his dreams is unreachable, experiences it. Is obtaining God’s wisdom perhaps so difficult?
No!—answers our author. She willingly lets herself be seen by those who love her (v. 12), indeed, she hastens to meet those who long for her. She puts in place a thousand charms to be noticed, to be known (v. 13). From morning she goes in search of a wise man to entertain him with her beauty and to seduce him. She makes herself seen at the door of her house (v. 14).
She herself goes in search of some. She is fascinated because “they are worthy of her.” When she discovers them, she does not abandon them. She accompanies them all along the way (v. 16).
The passage ends by proclaiming blessed and free from care the one who makes the wisdom of God his own and trusts his life on it (v. 15).
Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In the early Christian communities, there was a widespread belief that Jesus would return very soon to catch up with his disciples and introduce them in the Father’s kingdom. Paul also shared this idea. From where did it come from? How did it begin?
It is spontaneous and natural to imagine that one’s generation would be the last and the world ends with us. So far there’s nothing strange in it, but when the so-called millennialists appeared, then the troubles start. Taking advantage of the naivety of the people, they announce frightening events and make someone lose his head, convincing him that the “last days” are here. The consequences of such fanaticism can also be tragic.
At thetime of Paul,the expectationof the imminentend of the worldwasfueledabove allby the rabbis. They saidthat, becauseof the manymisfortunes thathadbefallen theirpeopleandso much sufferings, humiliation, violencethatIsraelcontinued toendure every day,Godwould soonintervene tobegin hisreign. But evena few phrasesof Jesus, literally and incorrectly interpreted,had helpedto raisethis expectation(Mt24).
In Thessalonica,the expectationof the imminentend of the worldwas beginning tocreate serious problems, so much so that Paulfelt the need tointervene.Some, convinced that a short time to liveremains andthatfood suppliescouldbe sufficient,hadstopped working,had becometheidlers, thusdiscreditingthe whole community.
There was also atheological problemthatraisedconcernsandquestions. Itwas about thefateof the dead.Theywonderedifthe Lord comesto takethem,the living, what about the relativesandfriendswho have died?
In today’s reading, the second problem is clarified. On the issue of abstention from work, a second letter written to the same community will answer it.
Paul begins by recalling some fundamental truths: in the face of death, pagans, and Christians’ positions are not only distant but opposite. The first ones “have no hope” and then, in the face of death, they cannot help but despair. For them, it is the end of everything. Instead, Christians believe in eternal life. They know that the life of God, received in baptism, is not interrupted by death; while suffering the separation from a loved one, they do not grieve “as those who have no hope” (v. 13).
The second truth which the Thessalonians must refer to is the resurrection of Christ (v. 14). Jesus has conquered death; he entered into the glory of the Father and will bring with him all those who, in baptism, have been united with him.
The thirdconsoling truth(vv. 15-17) is that, at thecoming of Christ,there will be nodifference between those whoare already deadandthose who will befoundalive. Allwill be gathered, andthey will beforeverwith the Lord.
In these truths—that constitute the core of the faith—Christians must find the answer to the riddle of death that has always distressed people.
Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
In today’s parable, there are some strange, unlikely, even contradictory details. I list some of them: why don’t the foolish virgins join the wedding with the little oil they still have? What goes through their minds to go to the market to buy some oil? At midnight, the markets are closed. The wise virgins are introduced with great honor at the wedding feast, but we would want to drive them away. We would not know what to make of so selfish friends. The recommendation which concludes the story: “So stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (v. 13) has nothing to dowith the parablebecause eventhe wise virginsslept,andnone has beenvigilant.
Even the figureof the groom(whoclearly isChrist) is not at allsympathetic. He isa strange one. He arrives at an inappropriate time.Then on the very day onwhich he shouldappearfriendly with everyone, he startsto threaten andchasepeople out for no fault of their own. On hisfeast, we allwould participatewithapprehension.
To understand these strange details, it must be remembered, first, that we are dealing with a parable. In these stories, not all is logical. Sometimes elements are introduced that are designed solely to provoke the imagination of the listener, to keep them interested and attentive, to make it easier for them to assimilate the message. The details of our dramatic parable are due—as I have said on other occasions—to the typical oriental taste for impressive images. Attention must not be focused on them but on the central teaching.
There is another important factor to keep in mind in order to understand the parable: Jesus’ original story was edited by Matthew. He has adapted it to the catechetical needs of his communities. We’ll see how.
The wedding party in Israel was very solemn and lasted about a week. On the first day, the groom went to the house of his in-laws to take the bride with him. The bridesmaids were there to welcome him. They are the unmarried girls of the village who were singing, dancing, and if it was night, holding torches, to accompany the friend who was getting married to her new home where the wedding party was taking place.
Jesus takes his cue from this ceremony—which he certainly has attended and participated often—to compose a parable with which to mediate his message.
Ifone keeps in mindthat both thenumber fiveandthevirginsare symbolsof the people ofIsraelandthatthe number tenindicates thetotality, it is easy to grasp themeaningthat the parablehadon the lips ofJesus.The ten virginsrepresent the peopleofIsrael awaitingthe Messiah(the groom): apartof this people(the fivewise virgins) is preparedto acceptand enterinto the Christian community, while another part (the fivefoolish virgins) is not attentive toGod’s plans, are unfaithfuland are kept out of thebanquet hall.
Fifty years later, when Matthew writes his Gospel, the historical, cultural and religious contexts have changed. Christian communities have arisen in the pagan world. The problems faced by the disciples are different. In the new situation, one feels more than ever the need of the illuminating word of the Master. Matthew, a true pastor of souls and attentive to the spiritual needs of his church, retakes the parable of Jesus and once again, offered it, while adapting it to the new reality.
What were the problems of the Christian communities at the end of the first century A.D.?
We have seen in the Second Reading that in the early decades of the Church’s life, there was a widespread conviction that the Lord would return soon “on the clouds of heaven” to take his disciples with him and introduce them in glory. But nothing had happened. The feverish expectation had been disappointing. The first doubts had arisen, and fatigue and discouragement subtly entered in the communities. As a result, many defections among Christians were recorded. Some apostate directed ironic arguments to his former brothers in faith: “What has become of his promised coming? Since our father in faith died, everything still goes on as it was from the beginning of the world” (2 P 3:4).
Disappointedbythe failure of the Lord’s return, many resumedthe dissolute lifethey had ledbefore baptism. They returned to take an interestin thetrade and business. They resumedtheirarrogant attitudestowards theiremployeesandexploitedslaves, just as if they had neverheard the Gospelof Christ.They wereplunged intoa dangerousspiritual slumber; they were at the mercyof themost completebluntingof consciousness.
Matthew rewrites the parable to remind those people who let their torch go unlit. It is to shake those who let their own faith be reduced to a smoldering wick. The scene is that of God’s judgment, the colors are dark, the language is hard, but it’s the situation that calls for it. There is also an added exhortation of Jesus which he has certainly delivered on another occasion: “So stay awake, for you do not know the day nor the hour” (v. 13), butthe evangelistconsiders it appropriate toplace it inthis context.
In the first part of the parable (vv. 1-5), the characters are introduced and the preparations for the feast are described.
In the new version—the one adapted by Matthew for his community—the ten virgins do not indicate Israel any longer, but the Church that awaits the return of her Lord, her Bridegroom.
Thus, there is also alogical explanation forthe factthat the bride does not appear: the brideis the Christian community, represented by the tenvirgins.
“Five of them were foolish and five were wise” (v. 2).
A theme dear toMatthew is resumed here.In the Christian community, thegood and the evil live together; the wheat and theweeds growin the same field; the good onesandthe bad onesare on the samenetwork; clean anddirty peoplesitat the same table; the wiseand the foolishareside by side.
Note also that the foolish virgins are mentioned first because they are causing concern. They represent the Christians at risk, those disciples who were asleep and behave like frivolous, vain, airhead girls who lose their heads over clothes, jewelry, perfume, looks and who neglect the essentials. They focus their lives on what is transient; they neglect the true values; they forget the one thing necessary, that which Mary had chosen being at the Lord’s feet and becoming his disciple (Lk 10:38-42).
The vigilant virgins are instead Christians who do not let themselves be seduced by vanity and remain focused on what is important in life.
The parable is re-proposed to Christians today, to help them discover and recognize the “foolish virgin” that is in each of them. Often it is she who—without their noticing her—takes them by the hand, advises them, guides them, gives suggestions and orients them toward foolish choices.
In the second part of the parable (vv. 6-9), there is, first of all, the cry of someone who, more vigilant than others, is the first to guess that the bridegroom is coming. Then the groups are compared to the way they live the time of waiting.
The puzzling behavior of the wise virgins, who refuse to share their oil with their companions, contains a valuable message. In the past, you could hear the spiritual masters repeat the phrase: “The important thing is to die in the grace of God,” almost enough to have a good feeling, a good thought at the end of life, to put in order a poorly managed life; but a ruined life is not rebuilt at the last minute and no one can lend part of one’s own life. The important thing, therefore, is not to die but to live well. It is true that God always finds a way to save the person, but in the end everyone will end up with what one did: with a solid and magnificent palace or with a papier-mache castle, which will not stand the fire of God’s judgment, when he “will test the work of everyone” (1 Cor 3:13-17).
The third part(vv.10-12)containsthe sceneof judgment: the bridegroom comes, some are admitted to thefeast, others are rejected.
In Matthew,the parablesoften endindramatic fashion, withthreats andpunishments.These are notintroducedto terrify, butto warn of errant behaviorsthat leadto failure.They area reminder ofthe importanceof the present moment, the only one thatis given to usandthat not evenGod can make us relive. Ifyou invest it in evil, it islost forever.
The closing of the door indicates the end of every opportunity. Hence, the urgent need to establish how to use life well and the image of the lighted lamp suggests the way.
Whoever has made evangelical choices will be approved by God. He will have been persevering and will have kept in mind and heart the light of faith, even in those moments when trials and difficulties will go beyond the expected. However, the choice of one who, for a while, will have followed the proposals of Christ, but then, being tired, will have bent oneself toward other values and interests, will be condemned and judged insane.
Themessage of the parable is only this, the rest is dramato make it incisive. It is not a descriptionof what Jesuswill doat the endof the worldwith one who will beledbya fool.
The epilogue(v. 13)is a lastcall to vigilance: the Groomcan comeat any momentand it is necessary toalways be readyto receive him.
It would be a mistake to imagine this world as a waiting room where patients are seated and maybe dozing off, like Christians waiting for the Lord to come to take and introduce them in the future world.
This concept(which wasthat of someChristians in Thessalonica) gave rise to idleness,immobility, disaffection, indifference tothe problemsof the world andof earthly realities.These attitudesare the mostanti-Gospelone could imagine.
Jesus is not coming only at the end of our life. He comes in every moment and wants to find his disciples engaged in service, in the gift of themselves to their brothers and sisters. In their room, the lamp should always be on, as a point of reference and reminder of hope for the poor seeking help, for the outcast and the stranger who invoke love and justice, for the woman who demands respect, for those who are victims of violence and are longing for peace, for those who did wrong and need understanding and forgiveness.
READ: Those who ardently desire wisdom will not be disappointed. Similarly, those who trust in the promise of the Resurrection will not be disappointed either. Jesus gives the parable of the ten bridesmaids who waited for the arrival of the groom.
REFLECT: God’s promises will have their fulfillment in his time. It is important to trust in his words and wait in hope with the right preparation. Many people start enthusiastically along the Lord’s path; but the seeming delay in the fulfillment of God’s promise disappoints them. Their oil of faith runs out and they haven’t carried with them extra reserves, and they drop out, only to realize to their regret that God does fulfill the Covenant. Who are we like: the five wise bridesmaids with reserves of faith or the other five not-so-wise ones?
PRAY: Pray for perseverance in faith and mission.
ACT: Reach out and comfort someone who feels discouraged by the seeming delay in God’s healing intervention in his/her life.