As the liturgical year winds down, Jesus employs the imagery of a wedding feast to teach about the coming Kingdom of God. The Jewish marriage setting very closely mirrors the Wedding Feast of the Lamb that is to come at the end. I also find a similarity between the Jewish wedding celebration and that of my native Igboland. When my brother married in 1984, I was in my early teens, but remember that my father and a few elders from my kindred left very early on a rented bus to my sister-in-law’s town, about 90 miles from our town. They spent the entire day negotiating the bride price and a ton of other requirements that follow the marriage contract. When they got back, we’d all gone to bed. Imagine how long it would take if they had gone on foot or rode camels, as was the case during Jesus’ time—probably a few days. I remember, too, that upon their return, the girls waited to welcome the new bride with a dance from our entrance gate. It’s a brief ceremony because that night is the bride’s night when the marriage is consummated; the bride meets the groom in the marriage act for the first time. The gate is locked after the bride and groom enter to keep away troublemakers, especially the boys who hang around for free drinks and to flirt with the dance girls. The maidens’ dance with the bride is something spectacular: it’s her last dance as a maiden. By daybreak, she’s no longer a girl; having become deflowered, she’s ushered into motherhood. It would be the mothers’ turn to lead her with their own dance to Church the next day.
Today’s parable explains that as esteemed as virginity is, it, alone, is not a passport to heaven. Because among the ten virgins, five are described as foolish, and five wise, it means that you need more than a vow, a title, a vocation to be welcomed into God’s kingdom. In this parable, we see how Jesus weaves in the idea of being watchful, thinking ahead, having foresight; but above all, keeping within one’s reach the essential commodity for the kingdom, namely, ‘oil’ for our lamps. There’s no interpreting this oil literally because if it’s a material object that you can pull out of your pocket and share with someone else, then the wise virgins would be thought of as lacking in the virtue of generosity. The oil must be an intangible quality like a living faith, abiding hope, and loving deeds, which St. Paul tells us are the things that matter most (I Corinthians13:13).
No doubt, it’s these virtues that Jesus presents today using the symbolism of oil—an essential commodity widely sought after in that epoch for its lubricant effects and endurance. Before electricity, oil is the sole commodity for lighting lamps, torches, and the cooking stove. Oil also plays a pivotal role in our domestic life as cream, deodorants, and perfumes—not to mention its medicinal use. However one may want to tout the green revolution, we’ll still need oil to fly planes and drive the automobile (even the hybrids and the Teslas), for without the lubricating engine oil, a worst case scenario will result—the engine knocks. Spiritually, oil confers holiness as seen in Exodus chapter 30, where God commands Moses to use the chrism oil to consecrate Aaron, so that he and his sons will excel in holiness and whatever touches them will be holy. In Psalm 133, oil symbolizes harmony, unity, or oneness. The Psalmist says: “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live in unity; it is like precious oil poured on the head.” And in Matthew 5:16, Jesus enjoins us to let our light shine before others that they may see our good deeds and glorify God—implying that we must always have in us the oil without which the light will not shine.
If faith is the lamp that the ten virgins carried, and hope is the endurance that kept them as they waited for the return of the bridegroom, love is the oil that the wise virgins possessed and the foolish ones lacked. As important as the lamp of faith is, it’s not needed for life in heaven, neither is hope (for in heaven, having seen God, hope has no further use); only love leads us at last to the kingdom, and in love we shall live eternally with Love Himself.
Fr. Jo Chukwudi Okonkwo