SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 TH 4:1-8; MT 25:1-13 ]
As we reach the last chapters of St Matthew’s gospel, the theme is naturally focused on the Coming of the Kingdom of God and, by extension, the Return of Christ. Exegetically, when we interpret today’s parable in the context of the ministry of Christ, He was referring to the coming of God’s kingdom that would be brought upon by His death. By the time of the evangelist, when the return of Christ was postponed indefinitely, this parable took on the theme of the final judgment, as expressed in the words, “So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Regardless whether we are preparing for His proximate coming or His final coming, we must be vigilant, which is what St Matthew is exhorting us.
How, then, do we keep vigilant? We must keep ourselves holy. This is what St Paul advises us. Christian calling is ultimately a call to the vocation of holiness. The will of God is our sanctification. He wrote, “What God wants is for you all to be holy.” By virtue of our baptism, we are just like the bridesmaids; we are called to keep ourselves holy as we prepare to welcome the bridegroom who wants to wed humanity to Himself. Christ, our bridegroom, wants His Church to be in union with Him as His Bride, now on earth and in heaven forever.
In this context, St Paul urges holiness in terms of sanctification of the body, that is, avoiding sexual immorality, because He desires it to be that way, “He wants you to keep away from fornication, and each one of you to know how to use the body that belongs to him in a way that is holy and honourable, not giving way to selfish lust like the pagans who do not know God. He wants nobody at all ever to sin by taking advantage of a brother in these matters.” Furthermore, unchastity is an outrage against God, since He dwells in us in the Holy Spirit. Thus, he said, “We have been called by God to be holy, not to be immoral; in other words, anyone who objects is not objecting to a human authority, but to God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
Nevertheless, we must see unchastity not merely in terms of an act but rather what the act expresses, namely, the lack of purity of love between two persons and for God. When a person is used to satisfy our lust, we have made use of him as a thing for our pleasure, as opposed to respecting the person who is to be loved. Chastity simply means loving the person rightly in such a way that our love is pure, holy and unselfish. In contrast, sexual immorality would be seen as idolatry because it is a worship of self.
Nevertheless, growth in holiness is not something that we acquire once and for all. The process of sanctification begins with our baptism, but it is an ongoing reality. Unfortunately, many Christians think that once they are baptized, they are guaranteed of a place in the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, there is this constant need to purify ourselves in love, grow in virtues, overcoming our sinful and bad habits.
In this respect, growth in our spiritual life is something which, although can be assisted by the community, is essentially personal. No one can take our place or work at it on our behalf when it comes to our relationship with God. This is what the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids teaches us. Initially, we might be struck by the apparent selfishness of the five supposedly wise bridesmaids. For when asked by the five foolish bridesmaids to share their oil with them, they replied, “There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.” How could they be called wise when they are so selfish? Aren’t they called to share their oil with those who need them?
In order to understand why the wise bridesmaids could not share their oil with the foolish bridesmaids, we must realize that the oil refers to something that is very personal. It refers to what would fan the flame of love in us and give power, that is, the capacity to love. Things like virtues and knowledge, interior life especially, cannot be shared. It is a matter of personal discovery, cultivation and interiorization. For this reason, the wise bridesmaids pointed out to the foolish ones to look for the oil themselves.
Spiritual condition is our personal responsibility which cannot be delegated. This is true in all relationships and life. We cannot neglect those whom we love. When we lose our emotional bond with our loved ones, alienation of heart will eventually lead to alienation of mind and will. That is why relationship takes time and is demanding. We cannot afford to leave our relationships to grow naturally without taking time to water with love and compassion, prune with care and understanding; and nurture with intimacy. Without patience, time and perseverance, the relationship, regardless how beautiful when it started, will deteriorate to one of distance, from being cool to cold and then indifferent.
Similarly, our relationship with God cannot be taken for granted. Growing in holiness is more than just getting baptized or going for conversion retreats or seeking spiritual highs. Rather, it is what follows that determines whether we grow in personal relationship with the Lord. The trouble is that today many of us are not ready for a long haul in relationships. This is so true in marriage. We give up on love so easily. People nowadays change their feelings so easily. The regret of many married couples is always this, “He or she is no longer the same as before. He or she has changed. There is no more love left except obligation to live together. Our marriage is stale and the joy of romance, the enthusiasm of being together and doing things together is no longer there. Although married, we live separate lives in reality. We do our own thing and have our own friends and social activities, even in faith as well.”
Realizing this danger of backsliding, St Paul urges us therefore to make a conscious effort to cooperate with the grace of God. He appealed to the Thessalonians and to us “to make more and more progress in the kind of life that you are meant to live: the life that God wants, as you learnt from us, and as you are already living it.” He reminded them, “What God wants is for you all to be holy.” We must remember that holiness is not something that one can acquire overnight. Holiness is a lifelong struggle and a journey. Our whole purpose in life is to be purified in holiness. What is true for holiness is true for knowledge and self-identity.
Consequently, it behooves us to be ready at all times. To be ready means we must start preparing now for the future. We do not know what is in store for us in the future. Whether it is growing in holiness, strengthening of ministry, marriage or relationships, we must recognize the long haul. We will be faced with tremendous difficulties ahead of us. Yes, in the routine of the ministry or in our marriage, like the bridesmaids, we too will grow drowsy and fall asleep. Unaware of what is happening, we fall into temptations; pursuit of power, inappropriate relationships and attachment to the things of this world. Hence, if we do not begin to strengthen our spiritual life now, or to acquire the necessary knowledge already, when the time arrives, we would be left unprepared to face the trials of purification in holiness and love.
Indeed, holiness and readiness for the coming of the Kingdom of God is an ongoing process. That is why the Church speaks of the necessity of ongoing formation in our spiritual life. There is no end to growth in spiritual and intellectual life. To neglect our spiritual life and our affective life in terms of our personal relationships with our loved ones and even those whom we work with, is putting ourselves in jeopardy. Just focusing on work and material things and success alone will lead to many other problems. So whatever time and opportunity we have, we must employ ourselves usefully, storing the oil in us so that when the time comes, we would have all that we need to respond to the situation. If not, then we would be swept away in the face of difficulties and temptations, whether in the ministry, in our marital relationships or at work. One of the worst lines we can utter is “I regret.” To regret might be too late. Then, like the foolish bridesmaids, we will be locked out from the happiness of the kingdom.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone.