in Ordinary Time
A Homily - Cycle A - 2004-2005
First Reading - Wisdom 6:12-16
Responsorial Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Second Reading - 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Gospel - Matthew 25:1-13
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise ones replied, 'No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.' While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!'; But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.' Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
We are in the month of all souls and it was good to see so many of you here on All Saints Day, November First, and on the vigil, All Hallows Eve. Every year that All Souls Day rolls around which is November 2nd, I'm always reminded of a woman in my first parish, who after I preached a homily about Purgatory in the month of all souls, asked me, "Father, is Purgatory still in?" And I said, "I'm sorry, but even a council of the Church cannot do away with a two thousand year tradition as if it didn't exist. Of course it's still "in," it's very real. And that's what this month of All Souls is all about. It's praying for all of the souls in Purgatory, perhaps the souls of some of our friends and our relatives who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. Although they died as friends of God, already having been forgiven of their sins, they still owe restitution for the sins that they have committed in this life and so they are spending time now in a place called Purgatory making restitution for those sins already forgiven. Purgatory is one of the great manifestations of God's mercy in the world because if we lived in a system of strict justice there would only be Heaven and Hell. Unless you died in a state of perfection, there would be no hope for you. So Purgatory buys you, in a sense, some extra time to make up for those indiscretions, those sins of this life so that you can make restitution for them and thus enter into heavenly glory.
I want to move to another theme which is really the theme of today's Gospel, and that is the whole notion of supernatural wisdom. This supernatural wisdom is not the same as natural wisdom, that I'm sure many of us here in this church this morning have plenty of, certainly if not by age then by experience. I know there are people here today who are probably pretty savvy investors. They've developed a nice nest egg for themselves having worked in the world. There are probably some who think of themselves as good sports prognosticators - they know all about the latest trends in the NFL or the NBA. However, our thoughts today should not be about worldly wisdom but about supernatural wisdom. Supernatural wisdom was given to each of us at our baptism. Many of you who were baptized as infants were probably too young to remember this but what happened on that you were baptized is that you received, among many things, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The first one of those gifts is the gift of wisdom. This is the same kind of wisdom that King Solomon, the son of King David, prayed for when he was asked by God for anything he could have. King Solomon could have asked for riches - he could have asked for fame and fortune. Instead he asked for supernatural wisdom to be able to govern over the people of Israel as God would have him govern. So in short, wisdom (supernatural wisdom which is what we are discussing this morning) is the capacity or the ability to see everything earthly through the lens of our supernatural vocation to be holy. Supernatural wisdom is the capacity or the ability to see everything earthly through the lens of our supernatural vocation to be saints in the world.
This gift of wisdom is strongly tied to the virtue of prudence. Prudence helps us to make concrete decisions in given situations about whether this course of action is helpful or hurtful toward my desire to be a saint. If we see something that we see as helpful we embrace it, and if we see something that is going to hurt us or is going to be a near occasion of sin or temptation, then we reject it or at least avoid it. This is not just a matter of chance for us but really it is a gift given by God for us to exercise our moral conscience in given situations.
So, before we get into the distinction between the wise and these foolish virgins in today's parable, we ought to examine another facet of the dynamic at work in our Gospel today. The five foolish virgins and the five wise virgins are waiting for the bridegroom to return, and when the lamps of the five foolish virgins begin to dim, they ask the five wise virgins for help. They say, "Can you give us some of your oil because our lamps are going to run out? We won't be able to see and when the time comes for the bridegroom to arrive we are going to be a little out of luck." And what do the five wise virgins say? "Nope! Sorry, can't help you!" Some people will say, "Father, isn't that a violation of charity? After all, when people ask for help aren't you supposed to help them? Isn't that what Catholics do or are supposed to do? When you're down and out and need a little bit of assistance what do you do? You ask somebody and hopefully because of their religious upbringing they would help you. Now, why is it then, that Jesus does not admonish the five wise virgins for telling the five fools, "Sorry, I can't help you."?
The point that our Lord is trying to make here is that when we're working out our personal salvation, there has to be a basic prioritization of the different types of obligations that we bind ourselves to in this life so that we can be prepared for the life to come. I'll give you a good example. One of the basic commandments, the third commandment is to keep holy the Sabbath day, but there are many, many persons who would substitute coming to Mass on Sundays for charitable works. Now, doing charitable works is a fine thing - it's commendable and laudable. I recommend it to anyone. However, God himself has given us a prescript - the first obligation is to Him above all things. Remember, God only asks for one hour out of the hundred and sixty eight hours of the week. And yet, time and time again, for many people, Mass seems to get in the way of their schedule so that the celebration and attendance of Sunday Mass is not a reference point for all the other activity of the weekend. Rather, it becomes one of those things that we gotta get knocked out of the way so that we can actually enjoy the rest of the weekend. We have to meet the obligation then, everything else will be fine. Or when people travel. . . I'm leaving on a trip this afternoon for two weeks and I've spent easily fifteen hours online looking up different places that I'm going to visit and stay when I'm away. Now, granted I have the ability that whenever I go, Mass come with me because I don't have to worry about where Mass is because I can say Mass myself. For most people, this isn't the case. They have to go looking for Mass. i remember when I was traveling as a youngster with my parents, the first thing we did when we got to our vacation spot was to find where the church was. It was the first thing we did when we got there. In fact there were times when we wouldn't take vacations during certain parts of the year because we couldn't get to Mass on a holy day of obligation. My mom had her priorities right. The first task was to get to church and everything would follow after that. In times we do see in our community, people who intentionally schedule themselves for work on Sunday so that they don't have to attend Mass. That is not the right prioritization.
So, what is the moral of this section of the parable? The wise virgins act prudently in not assisting the foolish virgins because their first obligation is to themselves to work out their personal salvation for if you cannot work out your own personal salvation, you will be of little use to other people. The old Latin saying is right. "Nemo quod dat non habet." In English, "You cannot give what you yourself do not have." And so if you are not meeting your own obligations to get to church on Sunday so as to fulfill other obligations of charity, you will not be of use to other people. You cannot be truly charitable toward them if your first charity toward God is missing.
And then we come to this preparedness of the five wise virgins, the second and final theme I will touch today. These five wise virgins keep their lamps trimmed. They are ready for when the bridegroom comes. They are prepared; in fact, they have been anticipating this for some time. And what does this mean for persons who have embraced the faith, which is what these wise virgins represent? These are persons who have lived the faith in such a way that they don't ask, "What is the bare minimum I can do to get into heaven? What's good enough? What's sufficient?" Rather, persons who keep their lamps trimmed with the proper amount of oil live in super abundance of virtue. They are always asking, "What more can I do to please God?" Think of married persons. If married persons are really living out their vocations well, and they really love each other, they are not asking, or shouldn't be asking, "What's the bare minimum I can do to keep my spouse happy?" Now I know there are some spouses who do that. They say, "If I mow the lawn, take out the trash, and do my chores, she'll stay off my case. She can't complain because I've done enough." But if you're really in love, you're not asking, "What is the minimum I can do to keep my spouse happy?" Rather, your asking, "What more can I do to make the road for my spouse a little easier? What more can I do to help them grow in virtue?" That's a real love dynamic there.
And so, persons who have embraced the faith don't ask themselves "What's the least I can do?" In fact, they live in a certain type of urgency because they want to go to bed every night and say with great confidence, "God, I have done today, by your grace, the best I could do. I have tried to respond to the graces you have given me today to be holy in the world. I've met the different obligations of my vocation, I've hopefully been forming my children in the faith in the capacity that today presented itself, and I took some time to pray, to spend time with you and to listen to your word to really make an intention to be holy." But when we don't live in this kind of urgency, this is often a sign that people have become indifferent to the faith. It may be a sign that they don't see the need for repentance or reform because they have made peace with their sins."
So we become very satisfied with the way that we live. We have no real desire to examine it critically and say, "Lord, should I be doing more here, or is this the right path to lead the family down?" They'll say, "You know what? I'm an older person, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, I'll never change so God, you're just going to have to deal with me when we meet face to face because I just can't change." How different is that when compared with a disposition that comes before God every night and says, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner. I know that I have tried my best but still have come up short. show me Lord where I need to improve. Show me my soul as you see it. Help me to be brutally honest and frank with myself as you are with me."
And so what I recommend to people on a very practical level is every night, take some time to be quiet. It may require you to have a particular room in the house that is off limits to anyone except those who want to pray, it's a quiet place. If that's not logistically possible maybe you need to go for a walk, even if it's only five minutes. Some people even do this while they're taking their dog for a walk, which is perfectly fine and they pray. It's a very fine exercise. Some people like to take ten minutes and say two decades of the Rosary while they walk around the block. They can do this any time of the year. And at the nightly examination of conscience just ask God, as I have just mentioned, to show you where your day has been: Where have I responded Lord to you in grace and rejected you, things that I could have done but dropped the ball, sins of commission or sins of omission, and at the end of that examination, make one or two resolutions for the following day. So you say, "Today, Lord, I didn't have total self control when I was in traffic. I gave in to temptation to tell the guy who cut me off that he's number one, for example. Or I wasn't self-possessed at work today. I did not allow that coworker who drives me nuts every day because of their nasty habits and lack of hygiene, to sanctify me. Or, Lord, that person in the shopping mall today at the grocery store was speaking ill of the church and I was in earshot and I didn't say anything, I just let the opinion rest out there when in fact I am actually obligated to admonish the sinner or to instruct the ignorant as the spiritual counsels show me."
Don't only take one spiritual resolution for the following day, but also take one mortification. Just one simple mortification you want to perform the following day. I won't put ketchup on my fries tomorrow, or I won't have ice in my water-very simple things that won't draw a lot of attention to themselves. Why do we mortify ourselves? Not because the body is bad. We all know, as St. Paul says, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. When we decide to mortify ourselves daily with just even the small little practices that don't draw attention to themselves, we can make a particular intention to say, "Lord, today I'm going to give this up because today I'm going to offer this discomfort or any of this pleasure I could have had; such as ketchup on my fries, for my aunt Barbara who died two years ago and I haven't been doing very good of praying for her because the whole time I've been assuming she's in Heaven when after all she could be in Purgatory and I could help her with my prayers." That is a good intention of making during All Souls day. In fact, I'm always telling people that everyday you should begin the day by praying for one soul who has passed on that you know. And if you've done that from November one to the last day of November you would have about thirty souls that you prayed for. You could even double up on some days. Or, thanksgiving is coming up and maybe you could make a resolution now, "I'm not going to give in to the sin of gluttony." It just seems like the thing we have to do every year is to stuff ourselves beyond belief! We don't have to do that! We can be very thankful without gorging ourselves with food. It's quite possible. And these are just very little, practical things we can do.
Now, one warning, one caveat as I close, that that is if you make a nightly examination of conscience and you choose to make a mortification every day, I will guarantee you something will happen. You will begin to see many faults and defects in your soul that you never used to see and it can lead you towards discouragement and that leads you back to square one were you say, "I'll never change." Nonsense! That's exactly what the devil wants you to say. What we have to say is, "OK, Lord, I see all of the sins and all of the faults and all these things I thought I had conquered once upon a time but they are nagging and they have come back time and time again to haunt me. But Lord, by your grace I can change and I will change." And if you believe you can do this, God will give you the grace to do this. It will take time and you may have to go through many mortifications and battles to get to that final point and for some things, it may take an entire lifetime but that's part of the genius of being a saint because it doesn't necessarily mean that we've accomplished it in this life, but we've cooperated with God's grace to the best of our ability so that when we come before him for our particular judgment, on that day we meet him, once and for all we can say, "Lord, I have tried by your grace all that I can. Have mercy on me for my ineptitude, for my lack so that I may be restored and healed."
My friends, as we continue in this month of all souls, may we never give in to the spirit of discouragement which the devil seeks so much to sew in our hearts. He wants us to believe that our sins have more control over us than God's mercy can penetrate the hardness of our hearts. Let us ask for a brutal honesty so that we may see our souls as God sees them and finally live with the great hope of the resurrection that all our sins can be forgiven, can be overcome, for nothing is impossible with God.