32nd Sunday of the Year Wisdom 6:12–16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13
How will it find us? The end will come suddenly, so be prepared. Nineteen hundred years ago, the volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted in Italy. When the eruption ended, the city of Pompeii lay buried under 18 feet of volcanic ash.
The city remained that way until modern times, when archaeologists excavated it. What they found amazed everyone.
There were carbonized loaves of bread, fruit still retaining its flavor, and olives still swimming in their oil.
But there were even more amazing discoveries. The volcanic ash had frozen people in the exact position they had occupied when the disaster struck.
The bodies of the people decayed. As they did, they left behind hollow cavities in the hardened ash.
By pouring liquid plaster into these cavities, archaeologists were able to make casts of the victims. Some of the casts evoke an emotional response.
For example, one is that of a young mother hugging her child tightly in her arms.
Another is that of a Roman sentry still at his post, standing erect, fully armed. He had remained calm and faithful to his duty to the end. A third is that of a man standing upright with a sword in his hand. His foot is resting on a pile of gold and silver. Scattered about him are five bodies, probably would-be looters he had killed. The plaster casts illustrate in a dramatic way the two themes of today’s readings.
The first theme is that of the suddenness with which the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus will take place.
These two events will come without warning, as a thief comes at night. 1 Thessalonians 5:2
They won’t play favorites, They won’t care if we are rich or poor. They won’t care if we are young or old. They won’t care if we are known or unknown. They won’t care if we are black, white, or brown.
They will come with the same suddenness for everyone.
And that brings us to the second theme of today’s readings: our preparedness for the end.
Will death find us prepared for the end, like the wise bridesmaids? Or will it find us unprepared, like the foolish bridesmaids? Will we hear the terrifying words they heard as they knocked at the door: I don’t know you?
Or will the end find us like the man at Pompeii who was clutching a sword, standing on top of a pile of useless gold and silver?
Or will it find us like the mother who was hugging her child in a final gesture of love?
Or will it find us like the Roman sentry who was frozen in a posture of fidelity to his duty?
The two themes of today’s readings the suddenness of the end and our own preparedness for that end are sobering themes. They are gutsy themes. They are the kind of themes that can change our lives.
They are not themes we can listen to in a detached way. They are not themes we can dismiss casually.
These themes are packed with the power of the double-edged sword that the Letter to the Hebrews talks about:
The word of God is. . . sharper than any doubled-edged sword. It cuts all the way through . . . to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of man’s heart.
There is nothing that can be hid from God; everything in all creation is exposed and lies open before his eyes. And it is to him that we must all give an account of ourselves. Hebrews 4:12–13
Today’s themes suddenness and preparedness are fitting themes for the Church to set before us at the end of the liturgical year. They are the same two themes Jesus set before his disciples at the end of his life.
Today’s themes suddenness and preparedness invite us to ask ourselves this question: Is our present situation in life more like the foolish bridesmaids or more like the wise bridesmaids?
If it is more like the foolish bridesmaids, let us not lose heart, for there is still time to correct the situation. If it is more like the wise bridesmaids, let us thank God for the grace and wisdom to follow his word.
Let us close with a story. It will illustrate what today’s readings are inviting us to do.
Years ago the actor William Gargan discovered he had cancer. Ironically, at the time, he was playing the role of a cancer victim in the play The Best Man.
Thirty-six hours after the cancer was discovered, Gargan was in surgery.
Looking back over those thirty-six hours, Gargan said he learned two important things about himself.
First, he learned that he was not afraid to die. He had prepared for this moment while living.
Second, he learned that Jesus was his friend. From his youth, Gargan had made it a habit to talk to Jesus daily. He used the same memorized prayer. Now, in his moment of need, that prayer made him aware of the deep relationship it had helped him cultivate with Jesus.
Some of you may recognize the prayer. It is called “A Prayer after Communion to Jesus Crucified.” It reads:
Here I am, good and gentle Jesus, kneeling before you. With great fervor I pray and ask you to instill in me genuine convictions of faith, hope and love, true sorrow for my sins and a firm resolve to amend them. While I contemplate your five wounds with great love and compassion, I remember the words which the prophet David long ago put on your lips: “They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Series II 32nd Sunday of the Year Wisdom 6:12–16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13
He’s coming! What are we putting off that we should be doing right now?
In the early days of America’s history, a black slave wrote a poem that was later set to music. The poem concerns the Second Coming of Jesus. It reads:
There’s a king and a captain high, And he’s coming by and by, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes. You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
There’s a man they thrust aside, Who was tortured till he died, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes. He was hated and rejected, He was scorned and crucified, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
When he comes! When he comes! He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes. They’ll be shouting out Hosanna! to the man that men denied, And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes. Author unknown
That simple but beautiful poem captures the spirit of Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel.
The poet says that when Jesus returns, Jesus will find him working faithfully and waiting patiently.
And that’s exactly the point Jesus makes in his parable. He tells us to be faithful to his teaching and to wait patiently for his final coming.
To our 20th-century minds, today’s parable of the bridesmaids sounds like a farfetched, made-up story. Actually, it describes a situation that was commonplace in Jesus’ time. It describes an ancient wedding celebration.
These celebrations went on for days and involved the whole village. A high point came when the groom arrived at the house of the bride to claim her as his wife. He was greeted by a group of bridesmaids.
Ancient literature says that sometimes the groom delayed his coming to the bride’s house even waiting to the middle of the night. His prankish purpose was to catch the lovely bridesmaids off guard.
Jesus used this familiar image to teach the people about his final coming. It will catch some people off guard, just as the bridegroom caught some of the bridesmaids off guard. And so we may interpret Jesus’ parable this way:
The bridegroom stands for Jesus. The wedding feast stands for the eternal wedding feast of heaven when Jesus will return in glory to claim his Church as his eternal bride.
The sensible bridesmaids stand for those people who, like the poet in the poem, are prepared for Jesus’ coming. The foolish bridesmaids stand for those people who are not prepared for it. This raises an important question. What constitutes being prepared? In other words, what does the oil in the bridesmaids’ lamps stand for?
We find the answer in the Sermon on the Mount. There Jesus compares the good deeds people do to oil burning brightly in a lamp. Jesus says:
“[Y]our light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16 And so the oil stands for good deeds. This brings us to the practical application that today’s parable has for our daily lives. How does today’s parable apply to our lives right now in a practical way?
In one of his writings, author Richard Evans answers that question in a striking way.
He says there are mothers who plan to enjoy their daughters more. But they keep putting it off. There are fathers who plan to get to know their sons better. But they keep putting it off. There are husbands and wives who plan to spend more time together to strengthen their marriage bond. But they keep putting it off. Then, in a burst of emotion, Evans shouts:
When in the world are we going to live as if we understood that this is life? This is our time, our day . . . and it’s passing. When are we going to stop putting things off? This is what Jesus had in mind in today’s gospel when he talked about the foolish bridesmaids being unprepared. Jesus is warning us that there are certain things in life that we must do now. There are certain things in life that we can’t put off to the last minute, as the bridesmaids put off buying oil to the last minute.
For example, we can’t put off studying for a driver’s exam until five minutes before we take it. We can’t put off getting a flu shot until five minutes after we’ve caught the flu.
In a similar way, we can’t put off helping the needy until the doctor says to us:
You’d better make your peace with God; you have only a few weeks to live.
The message in today’s gospel is an important one. It’s one that Jesus repeats again and again in the Gospel. It’s one that we need to hear again and again during our lives. It’s one that all of us are failing to live out in our lives, at least to some degree.
It’s the message that some things can’t be put off to the last minute.
It’s the message that if we don’t stop putting things off, we could get caught off guard, as the foolish bridesmaids were.
It’s the message that if we don’t stop putting things off, Jesus could one day say to us what the bridegroom said to the foolish bridesmaids: “I don’t know you.”
This is the message of today’s gospel. Happy is the person who takes it to heart. Let’s close with a prayer:
Lord, help us stop putting things off. Help us realize that certain things in life can’t be borrowed or bought at the last minute.
Help us realize that this is our time.
This is our day, and it is passing faster than we can imagine. Help us take to heart the words of the poet: “There’s a king and a captain high, And he’s coming by and by, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes. You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.” M.L.
Series III 32nd Sunday of the Year Wisdom 6:12–16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Matthew 25:1–13
Return of Jesus Be prepared for it!
J esus said, “Watch out . . . because you do not know the day or the hour.” Matthew 25:13
Paul Auster tells this story in the New Yorker magazine. It took place when Paul was eight-years old.
At that time in his life, Paul’s one passion in life was baseball. His team was the New York Giants as they were known then. The star of the team and Paul’s hero was Willie Mays.
That spring Paul saw his first major-league game. The Giants were playing Milwaukee.
Paul doesn’t remember who won the game. But he does remember that after the game he, his parents, and some friends sat in the stands a long time, just talking.
They talked so long that they had to walk across the diamond and leave by the centerfield exit, which was the only one still open.
As they reached the exit, someone came out of the players’ locker room, which was near the exit.
It was Willie Mays. There stood Paul’s hero, not more than ten feet away from him. He was so excited, he could hardly talk. But he did manage to utter, “Mr.Mays, could I please have your autograph?” “Sure, kid,” said Willie. “Got a pencil?”
Paul didn’t have one. So he asked his dad for one. But his father didn’t have one, either. Nor did his mother or friends have one.
At that point,Willie turned to Paul and said sympathetically, “Sorry, kid!” And with that, Paul watched his hero walk out of the ballpark and disappear into the night.
Paul says, “I didn’t want to cry, but tears started falling down my cheeks and there was nothing I could do to stop them.”
Paul ends his story, saying, “After that experience, I started carrying a pencil with me everywhere I went.” Alittle reflection shows that the point of Paul’s story is the same point that Jesus makes in today’s Gospel. It’s the point of being prepared.
When Paul went to the game that night, he never dreamed he’d have a chance to get the autograph of his baseball hero. But he wasn’t prepared. And all the tears that rolled down his cheeks that night couldn’t make up for his unpreparedness. Jesus uses the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids to make the point that we should always be prepared for his coming. This much is certain: Jesus is going to come, just as the bridegroom came in his story.
When that awesome moment arrives, will it catch us by surprise and unprepared, as Paul Auster was caught by surprise and unprepared the night he met Willie Mays?
I pray to God that it won’t. For our eternal happiness will hinge on how prepared we will be for that moment.
If the coming of Jesus either at the end of our lives or at the end of the world does catch us unprepared, all the tears in the world will not make up for our lack of preparedness.
Today’s Gospel reading contains one of the most practical and most important messages of the entire Gospel.
That’s why Jesus repeats the same message of preparedness over and over in various forms throughout the Gospel. J esus’ reason for repeating that message so often in the Gospel is to impress upon us that there are some things in life that can’t be put off until the last minute.
It is the message that if we do elect to put them off, we run the awesome risk of being surprised and unprepared by the coming of Jesus, as the foolish bridesmaids were in Jesus’ parable.
It is the message that if we don’t stop putting things off, Jesus may have to say to us, one day, what the bridegroom had to say to the foolish bridesmaids: “I do not know you.” This leads us to the all-important question that Jesus wants us to ask ourselves as a result of his warning in today’s reading.
It is this. How prepared are we, at this very moment, for his coming?
Or to put it in another way: If we knew for sure that Jesus was coming this very night, what would we want to do between now and then to prepare for it?
In other words, is there something in our lives that needs to be taken care of before his coming?
If there is, what is keeping us from taking care of it right now?
This is the point of Paul Auster’s story. From that night he missed the autograph of his hero because he didn’t have a pencil, he never again was without a pencil. It is also the point of Jesus’ story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
Happy is the person who takes to heart the point of those two stories. Let’s close with an old Spiritual hymn. It deals with being prepared when Jesus comes for us. It reads:
There’s a king and captain high, And he’s coming by and by, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes.
You can hear his legions charging in the regions of the sky, And he’ll find me hoeing cotton when he comes. . . .
He’ll be crowned by saints and angels when he comes, They’ll be shouting out Hosanna! to the man that men denied, And I’ll kneel among my cotton when he comes.
And this leaves us with the all-important question: Where will I be and how prepared will I be, when Jesus comes for me?