Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

I recently heard the current Eurozone crisis
compared to Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper,
with the Germans compared to the ant,
who worked hard all summer to provide for the winter,
and the Greeks compared to the grasshopper,
who frittered away the warm days playing music
and when winter arrived came begging to the ant,
only to be turned away,
with the concluding moral:
“Beware of winter before it comes.”

Maybe because the Greek debt crisis has been so much in the news
this fable immediately came to mind
when I read the parable in today’s Gospel
of the wise and foolish virgins.
The foolish virgins, who forget to bring extra oil,
are the grasshoppers who take no thought for the future,
while the wise virgins are the ants who plan ahead
and make sure they have enough oil
to keep their lamps burning
until the bridegroom arrives.

But in fact the message of Jesus’ parable
of the wise and foolish virgins
is not the same as that of Aesop’s fable
of the ant and the grasshopper.
For in Aesop’s fable the wisdom of the ant
is about calculating the times and seasons –
of knowing how to put the right amount of effort in
at the right time –
and the foolishness of the grasshopper
is a matter of not grasping the obvious fact that winter arrives
more or less reliably at more or less the same time every year.
For Aesop, wisdom and foolishness
is a matter of understanding or failing to understand
a calculable reality
so as to be ready at some fixed point in the future
for the arrival of winter.

In Jesus’ parable, however,
neither the wise virgins nor the foolish virgins
are able to calculate in advance the time of the bridegroom’s arrival.
The wise virgins, though they have brought extra oil with them,
had no way of knowing if it would be enough to last
until the bridegroom showed up.
If he were delayed another few hours,
perhaps they too would run out of oil.
In other words, the wise virgins simply were lucky
that the oil they had brought was enough.
So they are not really like the ant,
who knows more or less when winter is arriving
and who knows more or less how much food she needs
to make it through the winter until the return of summer.

I think a key to understanding the parable
is that the difference between the wise and foolish virgins
does not manifest itself
until the immanent arrival of the bridegroom is announced.
It is only at that point,
when the bridegroom’s arrival has been announced,
that the foolish virgins run off looking for more oil,
rather than staying to greet the bridegroom.
It is as if they can think only of how unwise they will look
if their lamps are not burning brightly,
if they are dark and empty of oil,
and so they leave to buy more oil
and miss the arrival of the bridegroom.
In other words, their foolishness lies in thinking
that it is more important to appear as if they had properly calculated
the arrival of the bridegroom
and had secured beforehand a sufficient amount of oil
than it is actually to be present at the joyful arrival of the bridegroom.
They preferred the appearance of wisdom to wisdom herself,
and in doing so show themselves to be most unwise,
missing the moment for which they should have been longing,
all for the sake of securing a little bit of oil.

How often do we ourselves prefer
the appearance of wisdom to wisdom herself?
How often do we get so wrapped up
in wanting to seem prepared, competent, or clever
that we focus on trivialities and miss the main event?
How often do we forget to ask ourselves
about what it is that really matters
and give ourselves whole-heartedly to that,
the way that the wise virgins gave themselves whole-heartedly
to welcoming the bridegroom?

Next week we will be asking you to consider
your level of financial support to our parish.
I’d like to say that this isn’t really about money,
but actually it is about money.
At least, it is about money to the degree that we need money
to keep the lights on and the heat going,
to pay the salaries of staff members
and to provide programs for the parish.
But your support of the parish is not just about money.
It is about time and talent and, more than anything else,
it is about discerning what it is that really matters to you
and about how to give yourself whole-heartedly to that.

When we gather on Sunday, we are doing nothing less
than joining together to receive Christ joyfully
and to celebrate his arrival in our lives.
This is either the main event, as it was for the wise virgins,
or we are just fooling ourselves that it has any importance at all.
Financial times are hard,
and maybe you don’t have any more money to give.
Life is busy,
and maybe you don’t have an extra hour to give.
Maybe you feel as if you are like the foolish virgins
who lamps were empty and dark
or maybe like the grasshopper
who had not planned ahead.

But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the bridegroom is arriving.
What matters is the wisdom of knowing that,
however much or little we have to give,
we give it joyfully in thanksgiving
for the great gift of God in Christ.

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