How Much is Enough?
A Reflection on The Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13
Jan Adam Kruseman, “The Wise and Foolish Virgins,” 1848 (Photo: Jan Adam Kruseman)
Every time I reflect on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for the foolish virgins. Unlike the wise virgins who brought additional oil with them, in case the bridegroom was late in coming, the foolish had just enough to last the time they thought would be needed. Perhaps you could call them the “efficient” virgins. They thought that they brought “just enough”. You can imagine the panic as the group is awakened from sleep in the middle of the night to be told that the bridegroom is late, and the foolish virgins find that the oil for their lamps has run out. They ask the wise virgins to share their oil. The answer is no. There will not be enough for them all to greet the bridegroom.
I always thought it was uncharitable for the wise virgins to refuse to share their oil. It seems to violate the most basic childhood rule; to share with others who are in need. You can bet that if my mother would have been in charge, the wise virgins would have spent some time in “Time Out” for not sharing. Yes, I bear those scars.
Tragically, the foolish virgins go out to buy more oil, but they are too late. The bridegroom comes and opens the doors to only the wise virgins with their lamps burning brightly. He closes the doors before the return of the foolish virgins. Locked out of the wedding feast, and despite desperate pleading, the bridegroom tells them to go away saying, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” (Matthew 25: 12 NABRE)
Those words are hard to hear, and my heart goes out to those locked out from the joy of the wedding. From this parable, the Lord’s admonition is for us to stay awake for we do not know when the Son of Man will return. But how much oil is enough to not be stranded on the wrong side of the doors to heaven? Efficiency, or “just enough,” is clearly not the answer.
Many of the Church Fathers in commenting on this parable begin by telling us that the ten virgins represent all of mankind. God wants to gather all into the heavenly wedding feast so that we, the Church, might become His bride. St Cyril of Alexandria writes,
In the parable all the virgins go out with their lamps. Jesus indicates by this that all souls have been illuminated by God through innate and natural laws but also indeed by the laws written by Moses. (St Cyril Fragment 280 ACCS)
All begin life’s journey with lamps full of oil and lights burning brightly. St Augustine compares the oil in the lamps to love and the light that shines forth from that oil as the light of the Gospel fueled by acts of love. We need to keep these lamps brightly burning. The Lord tells us,
Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. (Matthew 5:16 NABRE)
Yet, the world, darkness, often slowly douses the light and sleep overtakes us all. Sleep in Sacred Scripture is often an indicator of a yielding to temptation, a closing of one’s eyes to the work to which God is calling us. All the virgins fall asleep in the parable. We all must contend with the weariness that comes in waiting for the bridegroom. Yet, for the wise, those who keep their eyes on the kingdom, no amount of darkness, no amount of fatigue, can cool their love for the Lord. So, the wise virgins have oil, love, to spare so their lights are always kept shining. St Augustine writes,
The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity. … In them love did not grow cold. Love preserves its glow even to the very end. (Augustine Serm. 93.8.10, 93.5)
A picture of St Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind. She is said to have slept less than four to five hours a day. She had to have been tired but, with a lamp overflowing with love for the kingdom of God, she would not, perhaps, could not, rest. The Kingdom of God does not operate in the world of “just enough” but in excess, “a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing.” (Luke 6:38 NABRE)
There are some lessons we can learn from the wise and foolish virgins:
Today and every day, remember that every human being is called to the wedding. No one is unworthy of the call. No one is “written off” by God; so, neither should they be “written off”, as a lost cause, by us. Think of those in your life that you have “written off,” for whatever reason. In a way, you have poured out your oil and snuffed out the light for them. Your lamp has run short of oil before the bridegroom’s return. Fill your lamp with love and let God’s light shine through you for them.
Sorry, no sleeping in. In preparing for the Lord’s return, we cannot sit and wait, trusting that we have enough oil to last the night, that we have done enough. The kingdom of God is not about efficiency but abundance. Instead, our reservoir of love must overflow, and our lamp burn brightly. He who is the Light wants to be served with light; but light cannot be nourished without oil.
Rejoice for the Bridegroom is coming. That’s why there’s a permanent Advent quality to Christian life. We wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior. And since it’s hard to wait, we need the virtue of patience. Do not grow weary and fall asleep. The Lord’s delay is an act of love. St Peter writes,
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8–9 NABRE)
How much is enough? The Lord is telling us that there can never be enough love. Love overflowing is the key which opens the doors of heaven. The Lord is calling us, his espoused, to the wedding. We cannot be ready without a lamp filled with oil and burning brightly. Be eager to be found without spot or blemish. Let your oil, your love, overflow so that you or anyone else may not be found short. May no one hear the words, “I do not know you.” Instead, as we see the doors of heaven swing open, may the Lord exclaim,
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace. How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride… (Song of Solomon 4:9–10a NABRE)
Augustine of Hippo. Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Oxford; London: John Henry Parker; J. G. F. and J. Rivington; J. and F. Rivington, 1844–1845. Print. A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Anterior to the Division of the East and West.
New American Bible Revised Edition NABRE). Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
Simonetti, Manlio, ed. Matthew 14-28. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Print. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS). Print.