Lady Wisdom and Wise Young Ladies
The readings of the Eucharistic liturgy for November 8th present two major understandings of the notion of wisdom in Scripture, one in reference to God and the other to human beings. The first reading (Wisdom 6:12-16), picking up on Lady Wisdom of Proverbs 8, presents wisdom as an attribute of God; while wisdom belongs to God, it can be pursued and in fact pursues individuals. The chosen reading is the conclusion of an exhortation to princes and rulers that they should seek wisdom by keeping the Law, ending with: “If, then, you find pleasure in throne and scepter, you princes of peoples, honor Wisdom, that you may reign as kings forever.”
The gospel reading, the Parable of the Ten Young Maidens, (Matt. 25;1-13), uses wisdom in regard to humans, here Christian disciples. The story relates that ten young maidens, outfitted with torches/lamps and oil. were awaiting the arrival of a bridegroom Five of the maidens, the wise ones. had extra oil with them, the others, foolish ones, did not. When the bridegroom finally draws near the foolish ones needed more oil and asked the wise for oil; the wise refused and sent the foolish ones to buy their own. Meanwhile, the wise ones went in with the bridegroom to the wedding feast and the door was locked. The the foolish ones returned and were turned away. Thus, we are admonished to stay awake, to be prepared.
Often a question comes to mind, “Why would the five maidens not share their oil?” This appears selfish, so why are they called “wise.” First, while it is not clear whether they were carrying lamps or torches (the Greek word can mean either), they would need oil, either to fill the lamp or to apply to the rags used for torches. On the human level, these five maidens were worldly-wise; they knew they might not have enough. Still, this is not a totally satisfying answer to the question. If the bridegroom is Christ, however, and the wedding feast is the end-time banquet, could this help answer the question?
One reply can be found by looking at previous material in Matthew’s gospel. In the Sermon on Mount, Jesus tells his audience that they are “the light of the world.” He encourages them: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in Heaven (5:14-16) – a connection between light and good works.
At the end of the Sermon Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (7:21) – deeds necessary to enter the kingdom. At the end of our parable, the foolish ones ask “Lord, Lord, open to us.” Refusing, Jesus says he does not know them (25: 12). The repeated petition, “Lord, Lord” allows us to connect this to the necessity of deeds in verse 7:21. Finally, a later Rabbinic text, Midrash Rabbah, uses “mixed with oil” to refer to study of the Law combined with good deeds.
All this enables one to comment that the oil for the lamps/torches was meant to signify good deeds. Then it is clear why the five wise women could not share their oil with the foolish ones; these latter would needs their own good deeds.
These wisdom readings speak both to those who govern and to Christian disciples that doing the will of God is what shines for others to see – a message amidst our political situation and the COVID pandemic – good works shine for others.