The gospel parable of the ten virgins in Matthew’s gospel is about prudence, vigilance and preparedness. The final message of Jesus for his disciples is to “stay awake!” As Christians we are called to be watchers. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus invited his disciples to, “Watch and pray.” They were asked to keep vigil with him on the night of his Passion. Unfortunately, the disciples were not up to the task and they kept falling asleep. While they were sleeping the world swept in and took Jesus, the Lord, away from them and left them alone and fleeing from the violent crowd that had appeared in the night. The disciples could not keep their eyes open and because of that they were unprepared for the events of the night. When the night descends upon us in our life we also must watch and pray so that we are not caught sleeping and lose the chance for our encounter with the Lord, finding ourselves alone and empty when we wake, deprived of the Lord’s presence in our lives.
In the parable of the ten virgins that Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel we are told about ten virgins, five that are wise and five that are foolish. They also find themselves in the night, watching and waiting. The difference between these two classes of virgins is that some have brought oil for their lamps and when it is time for them to encounter the Bridegroom some are enlightened and some are left in the dark. As life stretches on we will need the lamps of wisdom to light our way through the night so that we might go with the Bridegroom into the wedding celebration. If we have no oil for our lamps we will find ourselves lost in the night and unable to follow the Bridegroom into the beautiful wedding celebration. In the late hour of the night there is no more opportunity to light our lamps and find our way to the bridegroom if we have not taken the time to prepare ahead.
The writings of the Book of Wisdom gives us an insight into this parable of Jesus. One way to understand the oil of our lamps is to see it as the virtue of prudence. Wisdom tells us, “For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care;” (Wisdom 6,15) It is prudent to think ahead, to be prepared for the long night, and to be able to demonstrate wisdom when the Lord comes. In this way we will be free from care as we don’t need to fear the long night because we know that we are well prepared and that we have plenty of oil to keep our lamps lit. Romano Cessario remarks, “The wise maidens represent all those who possess the ensemble of virtues which characterize a complete Christian life. The burning oil lamps which they carry…symbolically portray Christian wisdom…This Christian wisdom empowers all those who embrace prudence and the other moral virtues to fulfill the requirements of an integral and holy life.” For him,the oil is our personal virtue. If we do not have it we cannot carry the lamp of wisdom and virtue is not something that can be borrowed from another person at the last minute to get our lamps going.
The foolish virgins thought that a little bit of virtue would go a long way. However, life can present us with the long night of trial and testing and we are likely to find that our little virtue is not sufficient to keep our lamps lit. We need to be vigilant and persevere in our pursuit of virtue throughout our lives. Sometimes it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t need to obtain too much virtue, too much holiness, in our lives and that our little bit will be sufficient. We can deceive ourselves into believing that we are “good enough” but, when the night is long, we find that we are ill-prepared for the long haul of life.
All of us as Christians should carry the lamp of wisdom with us to light our way through the night. Not only should we experience the enlightenment of the wisdom of Christ but we should also strive to be well stocked with the oil of virtue to keep our relationship with Christ and our love for him burning brightly through the night so that we will be ready to go with him into the banquet when our time to be with him comes.
A word to the wise: perhaps it would be a good idea to take stock of your own personal oil supply. You are not going to get in on someone else’s supply and perhaps that little bit that you are carrying is not going to be enough to make it through the long night. So wake up before it is too late and stay awake!