Whether we know it or not, wisdom is our shared quest. It's more valuable than life itself. Without wisdom our lives are parched, meaningless and deprived. Wisdom's nourishment brings us gladness and everlasting joy.
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
But what about those who die before achieving the full enlightenment offered by wisdom's goddess? Have their lives been wasted? "No," says St. Paul. Mysteriously, even they will be enlightened by the same cosmologically irresistible powers that were manifested in the person, life and teachings of the master of wisdom, Jesus the Christ. This is no idle fantasy, though the hopeless claim it is.
Matthew 25: 1-13
Even the evangelist called Matthew found Jesus' unconventional wisdom about sharing to be a bit much. So, in his version of Jesus' parable about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids," he turned Jesus into a teacher of a conventional wisdom that the world could more easily endorse. "Take care of yourself first," he has Jesus teach in his story. "Your selfishness will be rewarded," Jesus seems to say. 'Foolish people - especially thoughtless women - will be shut out of God's kingdom, just as they deserve."
Let me say a bit more about the parable that tries to domesticate Jesus. It's about those who embody the characteristics of wisdom described in the first reading - the wise virgins. It is also about those who lack such qualities - the foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones brought enough oil to keep their lamps alight while they waited to escort an unexpectedly delayed bridegroom to his ritual rendezvous with his intended. The foolish ones made no such provision.
Obviously, this is a women-oriented story. And that's quite fitting for exploring the topic of wisdom traditionally identified as feminine - almost as a goddess. The story is full of wisdom symbols: not only wise and foolish virgins, but wedding feasts and bridegrooms, sleeping and waking, lamps, oil and light, closed and locked doors. All of these are archetypes. Their richness suggests an enlightened storyteller; it suggests someone like Jesus.
And yet there are also elements in today's gospel that suggest a voice that does not belong to the prophet from Nazareth. For one thing, this is perhaps the only instance in the gospels where women are presented in a negative light. Here I'm thinking of the foolish bridesmaids. Throughout the Gospels, women appear consistently in a positive light. It seems Jesus took care not to reinforce the prejudice against them that so endemic to his deeply patriarchal culture - and to our own.
For another, this parable doesn't contain any of the reversals or "unconventional wisdom" that we've come to associate with Jesus' teachings and method of story-telling. Parables, you'll recall, are stories that present a problem meant to engage their audiences. They do so by addressing a real-life concern (often expressed in a question presented by one of Jesus' opponents). Typically, Jesus' answer turns the tables on the questioner surprising him with some version of Jesus' great dictum: "The first will be last and the last first." Think of the "Good Samaritan" or the "Prodigal Son." We don't find any of those kind of surprises in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
On the contrary, instead of unconventional wisdom and surprising reversals, we find that this story concludes with a highly conventional moral. It's embodied in the strange refusal of the wise virgins to share their oil with the foolish ones. Again, the lesson seems to be "Be prepared and take care of #1. Let the improvident take care of themselves and reap the consequences of their 'foolishness'."
Of course, that runs counter to a theme that earliest Gospel traditions firmly centralize, namely that of sharing even in the face of scarcity. As you recall, that motif appeared in the feeding of the 5000 in Mk. 6:30-44 and in the feeding of the 4000 in 8:1-10. Both instances embodied a "miracle enough" made possible because Jesus inspired people to overcome selfishness and share the little they had. The surprise was that in sharing scarce resources (five loaves and two fishes) there was more than enough for all.
The bottom line here is that Matthew seems to have domesticated Jesus - as I said, making him very Republican-like.
Last week in OpEdNews, RJ Piers wrote an extremely insightful article called "Letting Go of Christianity During the Trump Era." There the author recalled years of commitment to a Christian faith that required faithful observance of conventional morality centered around avoidance of drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
In the light of his abstinence, the author found it more than disappointing to see Christians rallying around a character like Donald Trump with his three marriages, assaults on unsuspecting women, and separations of children and babies from their mothers and fathers. For Piers (as for so many of us), Christian faith was all about conventional morality. And to see Christians deserting that morality to endorse someone like Trump was enough to suggest his own abandonment of Christian faith itself.
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