In our current readings, it is Holy Week and Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has made His Triumphal Entry , cleansed the temple, and engaged in confrontation, questioning, and testing by the various parties of the leadership, with His own challenging responses. (See readings from June 28 through July 2.) Speaking in the temple, Jesus then made His final public sermon, an indictment of the hypocritical practices of the leadership, ending with a lament over Jerusalem (see readings of July 4 through July 6). Leaving the temple, He told His disciples of the coming destruction of the temple, and began to teach them about end times and the time of His return (see readings from Thursday, July 7 and Friday, July 8). On Saturday, we read that He taught them, "Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near -- at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods. But if that evil servant says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming,' and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."
- Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming." Jesus gives us another parable about "end times" in which His return is likened to a great marriage ceremony, in which He is the Bridegroom. Again, we're given the image of delay in returning, similar to the image in the parable from Saturday's reading, in which the master of the house was delayed in his return, indicating that the time of His return is something we don't know, and may take longer than we expect. My study bible notes that the Kingdom is often portrayed as a marriage between Christ and His Church (see Jesus' parable of the Wedding Banquet in chapter 22). This is the feast of the eternal wedding banquet at the end of the age, when the Bridegroom (Christ) return to escort His Church (the Bride) "home," the union of God and God's people. This parable focuses again (as in Saturday's reading) on what we're to be doing in preparation for this return of the Bridegroom. In Greek, the word for oil sounds identical to "mercy." This is about the virtue of the practice of mercy, such as charity and alms-giving, but mercy takes on a much wider image than that in our understanding. The wise virgins are those who practice charity and mercy in our worldly lives; the foolish are those who squander God's gifts. My study bible says the fact that all sleep means all die alike in this life. The cry at midnight is the Second Coming, when all arise alike for judgment. Why can the wise not share their oil with the foolish? Each must "provide" for him or herself by the kind of life one chooses to live. Again, Jesus' emphasis is on preparedness, and the fact that we do not know when He will return.
"Mercy" is eleos in the Greek. "Oil" is elaion, coming from the word for olive. The two words are pronounced alike (the endings in Greek change according to the way the word is used). Throughout the New Testament, the ties between the two words repeat, such as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan treated the wounds of the injured man with oil and wine. In the ancient world, olive oil was used for many things, from fuel for lamps to a base for fine perfumes to healing balms of all kinds. We can see the link in the parable of the Good Samaritan between oil and healing as an image of the practice of mercy. Christ or Messiah means "anointed one." That is, one upon whom an anointing oil has been poured, indicating an action of God, holiness. And the Scriptures teach us about the "anointing" of the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 10, Peter says that Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power (v. 38), and immediately afterward the text tells us that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been "poured out" on the Gentiles too (v. 45). The apostles make it clear that the true anointing is from God. What all of this says is that we are given of this oil, this anointing from God that endows us with the quality and potential of mercy. As we speak of the gift of the Holy Spirit, mercy is also identified with wisdom and discernment. That is, good judgment, righteous judgment (John 7:24). Will we squander this great gift of grace that has been given to us? What do we do with it? In this image, the parable is correct: it is up to each of us to provide for ourselves by the sharing of this gift, by its use in our lives, our practice and growth in the gift. We can't give our own "goodness" to someone else. We can share and let our light shine (to use another metaphor contained in the parable of the lamps), but no one can take or give away the choice that belongs to the soul. This practice and nurturing and growth in this gift is something we each must do for ourselves. The oil of Chrismation was given at baptism (and on other occasions) from the earliest establishment of the Church, making firm the tie between "oil" and "mercy" or grace, the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The practice of Holy Unction is that of anointing, calling for grace to heal all infirmities of body, soul, and spirit. In these sacraments, oil is used as a sign of God's presence, strength, and forgiveness. This parable asks us then what we will do with this great gift of grace. What will we do with this precious ointment that is the fuel for the light we shine, the lamp we light? It's all in how we value the gift in the first place. There are those of us who leave it dormant and never touch it, and those whose lives are tinged through and through with it, fuel for the lamp of light that grows brighter and so shines that it glorifies our Father in heaven. It's all up to us, everything depends on what we love and where our treasure is.