In my hometown there are two beach clubs: the Monmouth Beach Bathing Pavilion, the public club to which almost everyone who lives in Monmouth Beach goes to, and the Monmouth Beach Bath and Tennis Club, a private club which is populated mostly by out-of-towners, and costs approximately 300 times more per year than the public club. Built in 1924, it’s big and open, with extensive latticework, and it’s been painted over a hundred times. It’s essentially a tinder box. And so, when I was in college and a young firefighter, there were a few of us who would get paid to be there from 7pm to 5am to watch for fire. I’d do firewatch a couple nights a week, have fun with my buddies, and almost nothing ever really happened. Consequently, it was tough to remain vigilant, to keep your eyes open, to watch for problems instead of jumping off the roof into the pool.
“Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour”, was good advice then and still is. The Bible tells us to be vigilant a lot: vigilance is all over the Psalms and the parables of Jesus. Paul seemed to think Jesus was going to sneak up on him, which we can forgive because of that one time Jesus did sneak up on him on the road to Damascus. Peter famously tells us to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”
And so we come to our ten maidens and their oil lamps, a parable I never really understood, because I didn’t understand ancient Mediterranean wedding customs. “In this period of Israel’s history, families practiced what is known as patrilocal marriage. The bride moved to the groom’s home which would have been located in or close to the home of his father.
“Anyone who has visited Peter’s house in Capernaum or seen reconstructions of the house plan recalls that a cluster of homes formed a complex in which Jonah and his wife and children, single and married, all lived. This included Peter, his wife and children (and mother-in-law), and his brother Andrew.
The ideal marriage partner in this culture is a first cousin, specifically, a father’s brother’s daughter. If Peter married his first cousin, then his mother-in-law was also his aunt. Middle Eastern families of antiquity and the present are close-knit units, and these wedding practices explain why.
“The marriage was arranged by the fathers under the powerful influence of the mothers; it was ratified with a contract negotiated between the mothers but signed ultimately by the patriarch. The purpose of such a marriage was to join two families. When the partners were old enough, the long marriage ceremony was celebrated. The highpoint of the ceremony occurred when the groom, accompanied by his relatives, went to the family house of the bride to transfer her to his home. It is here that the rest of the wedding ceremony and celebration took place,”1 and it is here that Jesus’ parable begins.
“It portrays ten bridesmaids, five of them foolish, five wise. The foolish ones have brought no oil reserve for their lamps, in case the first allotment runs out. The groom is late. Finally, he appears at midnight. The unprepared call out to the others, “Give us some oil.” But the provident tell the foolish to get their own. And so the chance is missed, the door barred, even as those left behind cry for opening. It is too late. The moral of the story: “Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or the hour.”
“There’s the wisdom. We never know the hour or the day. All ten bridesmaids, recall, were asleep. The difference was that five of them were prepared. The point is not that we should calculate when destiny might arrive. It is that we should be ready for it every moment of our lives.”2
If that sounds a little motivational-poster-ish, don’t worry, it’s not. Tony Robbins will not be writing a book on the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Being prepared for the Lord is not about being your best self all the time or living your best life now, and it’s certainly not about worrying all the time if you’ve done something wrong and Jesus is going to catch you. Being prepared for the Lord is a lot more fun than any of that: it’s being about the work of the Lord. It about being in relationship with Him and with your neighbors. Watching for the Lord means looking for Him in every place and in every face, looking for ways to serve Him in every situation. Do that, and when the Lord comes, you won’t have to worry about getting locked out the party.
1John J. Pilch: http://liturgy.slu.edu/32OrdA111217/theword_cultural.html
2John Kavanaugh, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/32OrdA111217/theword_embodied.html