This is another one of those tricky parables. We have 5 well-prepared bridesmaids refusing to share with the 5 who are not prepared. And we have Jesus refusing to open the door for the unprepared when they return. Not only that, but their job is to provide light. For whom? For the bridegroom. Who is the bridegroom? Obviously Christ, Christ who is the light of the world. So, their job seems far from necessary. Are they therefore being punished unfairly? What are we to make of this? I would like to make a few suggestions.
My first suggestion links to our first reading. In that reading, we have one of the fundamental lessons of the Bible. Salvation history is not first about our search for God. First, it is about God’s search for us. So, our first reading has people seeking wisdom, but the reason why they find wisdom is because wisdom makes herself know. She is either waiting for them to arrive or has gone looking for them herself.
If we take this image of God constantly looking for us, perhaps we can see the oil in the parable as an openness to the Holy Spirit. We use oil in a number of sacraments to indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. Might we then see the oil in the parable as the awareness of God’s action in our lives? Might the stock of oil that the wise women have, might that be their prayer life? The growing sense of God’s presence at every moment, the sense that God wants to anoint every second of our lives, that sense that God is constantly seeking us?
You are probably aware of the phenomenon of being shown something new. Once you see it, you begin to see it everywhere. It becomes almost like a muscle memory. Perhaps the oil is like this. It is the action of God, the Holy Spirit, preparing us and us allowing God to prepare us for the coming of his Son. If it is this, to what extent can this be shared, especially with people who don’t pray, who don’t care?
The other comment I would like to make is about the response of the wise women when the foolish women ask to share the oil. The wise women say, we need to the oil to do our job. Their focus in on the bridegroom. The foolish women just don’t want to look stupid. If they cared about doing the job, they would have been prepared. So, while the wise ones are thinking about the bridegroom, the foolish ones are thinking about themselves.
These two points – oil as an awareness of the moment and a focus on the job – perhaps link this parable to the story that follows soon after it in Matthew’s gospel, the story of the last judgment with the sheep and the goats. You will remember in that story Jesus associates himself with the little ones with various needs. He tells the sheep that what they did to the little ones they did to him, and the opposite to the goats. But in both cases, neither the sheep nor the goats recognise him. They did not see Jesus.
Perhaps this is another case of muscle memory. The openness to God’s word, the awareness of the grace and God’s initiative, all of this forms people who habitually act towards the bridegroom, even if they are asleep, even if they do not recognise him. The wise ones therefore have the oil of prayer and the oil of charity because they always have that oil. Their very lives have become lamps in the world. Lights that draw their light from him who is the light of the world.