“Five of them were foolish and five were wise.”
Over the course of the last three Sundays of this liturgical year—that is, today and the next two Sundays—we hear the entirety of Matthew 25. This is the final chapter before St. Matthew the Evangelist begins his account of the Passion and Death of Jesus. Matthew 25 prepares us for Jesus’ Passion and Death by relating two of Jesus’ parables, and His description of the Son of Man’s final coming and judgment of the nations.
As background, we need to keep in mind that St. Matthew through his account of the Gospel paints a portrait of Jesus as Teacher. This does not diminish the core of all four Gospel accounts, which reveal Jesus as Savior and Redeemer. But as a complement to this central role of Jesus, each Gospel account shows a secondary role of Jesus, which leads us into His saving mission.
St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel is the longest of the four, running to 28 chapters. Yet only the latter three chapters recount Jesus’ saving Passion, Death, Resurrection and Ascension. This might seem odd: that Jesus’ key mission as Savior is summed up in just three chapters, while His secondary role as Teacher is explored in 25 chapters. Shouldn’t the key role of Savior be treated in more chapters than a secondary role?
Without answering that question, we can briefly consider St. Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as Teacher. This portrait begins in earnest with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: Jesus’ first sermon takes up three chapters [Mt 5-7]. From there onwards through Chapter 25, the evangelist alternates between portraying Jesus as preaching inspiring words, and performing mighty deeds.
Chapter 25 is the culmination of St. Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as Teacher. As any teacher will tell you, it’s effective to save the best lesson for last. Or put another way, a teacher may structure her course so that the earlier lessons build upon each other, and lead up to the final lesson. St. Matthew records Jesus’ final spoken lesson in Matthew 25:31-46, concerning the future event of Jesus’ Final Coming and Final Judgment. This final spoken lesson not only helps us understand Jesus’ prior lessons, but also prepares us to understand the final three chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel account.
Given all this, what are we to make of today’s Gospel passage, which is the first third of Matthew 25? We might note several similarities between Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins and His account of the Final Judgment. In the latter, the Son of Man calls the sheep into eternal life, while in today’s parable, the bridegroom calls “those who were ready” “into the wedding feast with Him”. Likewise, as in the latter we hear of the separation of the sheep from the goats, so in today’s parable we hear of the separation of the five foolish virgins from the five wise virgins.
In that second similarity, however, there is an important distinction that we might take for our chief point of reflection today. In the account of the Final Judgment, it is the Son of Man who does the separating. But in today’s parable, the five foolish virgins on their own initiative leave the wise. They must leave, because owing to previous foolishness, they’ve failed to maintain preparedness for the bridegroom’s arrival.
Sin is always based upon human initiative. Sin, which if clung to leads to eternal separation from the Son of Man in His glory, is based upon failure to focus upon God: failure to be ready for God, and failure to do what His arrival demands from us. Sin is preoccupation with our own interests and desires, and a failure to recognize that the Son of Man wants to lead us into something far more interesting and desirable than anything we can achieve on our own. Wisdom, on the other hand, means being ready for the lesson and the course of the Cross.