In assembling Scripture readings for the Pastoral Care of the Sick, consultants in Rome chose one of the parables from Jesus’ fifth and final discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. Overall, the teaching in chapters 24 and 25 address final things, especially the end times. On a personal level, the end of time has many similarities to the end of a person’s life. Especially notable is that a phase of reckoning may confront the seriously ill or dying person. What are they to do?
Let’s note that this parable is intended less for the multitudes as the Sermon on the Mount was preached, but to the Lord’s own disciples, those who were with him as he approached and entered Jerusalem. Perhaps more than the Twelve, and so we can place ourselves in his hearing:
[Jesus said to his disciples]
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
Despite many Biblical warnings to stay awake and alert, here, even the wise women succumb to basic human need. Even saints must take a rest, and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
At the call, everybody wakes and gets to work to prepare for the procession. Again, all women share the characteristic of a good believer: even when slumbering they snap to the task when the warning comes. Alas, some are less prepared than others:
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied,
‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
A curious lack of sympathy and generosity, some have noticed. But keep in mind that Jesus has a point with this parable. He isn’t trying to teach two lessons at once. The point to his closest followers is that some will be prepared to light their way, and others, for whatever reason, thought the means would be provided to them.
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came and those who were ready
went into the wedding feast with him.
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
No last chance for the foolish: what a message for a person facing their mortality. The sense of closure is final and absolute. Is it a cause for making whatever amends a sick person can accomplish, perhaps with limited mobility and very little life left?
On second thought, perhaps this isn’t a reading meant for a hospice home. I wouldn’t think it particularly effective for a non-believer or casual Christian. Jesus wanted those closest to him to hear these parables. Who among us would consider ourselves near to Christ? And if confronted with a life-changing illness, would it be fruitful for us to consider areas of unpreparedness in out spiritual life?
The Lord counsels strongly, “Stay awake.” But literally? We are only mortals and God made us to need rest and sleep. Perhaps the message is how our lamps at bedside or on vacation are filled and ready. Are we taking time off from being a Christian? Do we find Sunday Mass or charitable giving too tiresome when we are at the beach, or in the mountains, or doing our summer tourist thing? After a six-day workweek, are we taking extra time to chill in our own personal way, or do we devote ourselves to the Sabbath?
A sick person has time to reflect on all these things. Maybe the message is a good one for the well and able as well.
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.