Reflections on the Wise Virgins

The wise virgins may indeed be wise, but at first sight they do not seem very attractive. In listening to the parable, we may wonder why they didn’t share their oil with the virgins whose oil was running out. Wouldn’t this have been the generous thing to do? Instead, the wise virgins seem coldly intent on ensuring their own entry to the wedding feast: Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves. Apparently unwilling to risk their own security, it is as if they turn their backs on their companions and focus only on themselves, shutting out the others in a way which unnervingly seems to anticipate their final and definitive exclusion, when the bridegroom turns to them and tells them Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.

On the one hand, then, the parable initially stirs this uncomfortable impression of a certain hardness of heart shown to those in need. On the other hand, however, it is clear that if the wise virgins seem neglectful of the call to be generous, this is only in response to a neglectfulness shown first by the foolish. We are to understand, I think, that it was entirely possible for them to obtain oil for themselves, rather than having to rely on others at the last minute, and that this was something which they failed to attend to, a responsibility towards which they were negligent, so that when their oil runs out they have only themselves to blame. From this point of view, then, the attitude of the wise to the foolish can seem unyielding, but also, in a strict sense, entirely justified. Considering the foolish and their irresponsibility, the parable seems to show us the wise as doing no more than holding them accountable.

But if anything this only adds to the impression of bleakness which the whole story seems to convey. We are confronted by irresponsibility, and by an intransigent holding to account. In the world which the parable unfolds for us, there seems to be no room for higher inspirations, whether of repentance, from the foolish, or of mercy, from the wise. It is as if these transforming possibilities are altogether excluded, and we are confronted instead with a rigorous, almost mechanical logic of punishment and reward. And this may cause our hearts to sink, especially when we recall that the parable is explicitly offered us as exemplifying the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now of course we might respond to this by renewing our determination to be among the wise, to do all that we can to ensure that we ourselves end up on the winning side. And this seems to mean that we have to strive to despise and exclude the fool who lurks within, I mean our own capacities for negligence and irresponsibility. But in repudiating the folly of which we ourselves are capable, we may also end up despising and excluding the foolish themselves. For the foolish will remind us of everything within us that could tempt us away, and for that reason they have to become in a certain way invisible to us, cut off from our understanding and concern. And surely this will seem only prudent, once we are determined to preserve in ourselves the single-mindedness required by an overriding concern with our own safety and security.

And in this way a refusal of compassion towards the weakness of others, a turning away from sympathy and engagement with their struggles, a willingness to see them simply as sinners on the path to destruction – all this can come to appear as nothing less than a duty that we must embrace if we are to take our own salvation with the seriousness that it demands of us.

Now in this understanding of the Christian life, there seems to be only one thing missing. What seems to be missing is Christ Himself. And once we restore Christ to the centre of our understanding of what it means to be Christians, then the whole idea of a single-minded pursuit of our own salvation at the expense of compassion for the weakness of others becomes quite untenable.

For the Word of God comes among us in what St Paul calls the likeness of sinful flesh. This means that in a mysterious way He sinlessly identifies Himself with sin and thereby bears its burden. And His sinless appropriation of sin reaches its climax in His death and descent among the dead, in which He experiences the extremity of abandonment to the destiny of sinners. But in this abandonment He also overcomes that destiny, undoing it precisely by undergoing it on our behalf. He does this by encompassing it within the greater truth of His charity towards us.

In Christ, then, we see that the destiny of sin is not shunned but carried. But it is carried not by sin, but by Love, and this destroys it from within. For then the sinner finds Himself not excluded and despised, but encountered and loved. He finds himself encountered in the likeness of his own sinful flesh, yet not in a sinful solidarity but in a solidarity sustained by Love. And seeing this Love, finding himself already encountered and embraced by it, the sinner is shown a way out, which is his only way.

In Christ, then, we are shown the mystery of a Love which, rather than shunning our weakness, embraces it so as to transform it. But we are not merely shown it, but called to enter into it; and we are called to enter into it, not merely as its passive beneficiaries, but as participators, as imitators, so that we ourselves live and act in an ever-deepening conformity to the life and action of the Word made flesh. In other words, Christ saves us only by communicating to us His likeness. This is what salvation means: that we ourselves become other Christs.

And so, in Christ, the closer to God we become, the more deeply our compassion with human weakness will manifest itself. It is not just that there is no opposition between these two movements. In truth the two movements are the same, because in Christ Himself they are the same. The time of His greatest compassion towards us, in the transforming solidarity of His Passion and Death on our behalf, was simultaneously the time of His most profound fulfilment of the mission He had received from His Father.

With all this in mind, however, what becomes of the wise and foolish virgins?

We must interpret the parable in the fulness of the light shed by the Paschal Mystery. And in that light we cannot see the wisdom of the wise as consisting in a selfish pursuit of their own salvation at the expense of extinguishing compassion for the foolish.

Instead, we should first of all interpret the oil which the wise hold on to as nourishing the flame of charity, revealing the determination of the wise not to depart from the way of love. And if we read things in this way, then the attitude of the wise towards the foolish can also receive a deeper and more fully Christian interpretation. For then we no longer see it as a mere holding the negligence of the foolish to account. Instead, we can see it as reflecting the truth that although we can show love, we cannot ensure that the love we show will inspire love in those to whom we show it. In the end, it is only freely that love can be received and returned, and refusal always remains a possibility.

And this is the possibility dramatized in the encounter of the wise and foolish virgins. When the wise say to the foolish Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves, we should not interpret them as withholding anything that they were able but unwilling to give. Instead, we should see in their words the wisdom of insisting on the fact that although love can show love to another, it cannot love on behalf of another, when the other himself remains unwilling to love.

So if the oil of the wise is what keeps alight the flame of charity, then the wise are right to say that the foolish cannot take it from them and thereby make it their own. For in the end, although we are always loved, nonetheless if we ourselves are to love, we must love for ourselves, from out of our own grace-inspired freedom; being loved fashions in us the possibility of loving, but no one else, not even God, can do it for us.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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