Sunday, November 12, 2017

knowledge, wisdom, and eternal life

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

There’s a lot of talk about wisdom in our readings today. The first reading is from the book Wisdom; and our Gospel reading has the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. So, as we begin, it might be a good idea to think about what we understand by the word wisdom. Particularly what is the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

A simple definition might be the knowledge are facts and wisdom is knowing how to apply them. By way of illustration, we might think of a young man who has spent four years in college studying agricultural science, specialising in the husbandry of sheep, without ever having set foot on an actual farm. He graduates, and then goes to a sheep farm. He begins by thinking that he is the expert; after all he knows far more than the farmer who has never been to college. And we can all imagine he would soon learn differently. The farmer may have far less knowledge, but what little he knows he is able to apply well. He is wise in the way of sheep.

Now let us think about this distinction in relation to the parable we heard earlier. Why are some of the virgins wise and some foolish? Both groups have been invited to the wedding. Both have been given the task of bringing lamps to light the way of the bridegroom into the feast. Both have brought their lamps, filled with oil and wicks trimmed so they may burn brightly. So far so good. But only one group has brought extra oil. They are able to refill their lamps when the bridegroom is delayed, while the others have to rush off and buy more. Which means that they are not there when he actually arrives and so they miss the wedding feast as a result.

What is the difference between those who are wise and those who are foolish? Well, that the bridegroom might come late was foreseeable; and preparing for that by bringing more oil in case what was in the lamps ran out was a prudent action. Both had the same knowledge of the situation; but only the wise ones used that information well and gained access to the feast as a result.

Now, of course, our Lord did not tell this story for the sake of providing career tips to young women working in that part of the hospitality industry that specialises in wedding receptions. He told it for the sake of the salvation of all mankind. So what is the deeper meaning of this parable?

The virgins, wise and foolish, stand for all mankind. The wedding feast is eternal life in heaven. And the time they spend waiting represents our time in this life, which will end either with the end of the ages or by death. Entering into the feast is being welcomed into eternal life; while being refused means being cast into the outer darkness where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And what of the extra oil? After all, that is the primary distinction between the two groups. The oil, the Church Fathers tells us, stands for the good deeds of those who live their lives wisely, those who lead their lives according to God's laws and commandments. The oil represents the treasure they have laid up in heaven; the essential treasure that all too many neglect.

And I would like to draw your particular attention to a very important detail of the parable – a detail that is easy not to notice because it involves taking into account what it is that Christ does not say about those he describes as foolish. He does not mention them as being guilty of great wickedness of any kind. They are not murderers or robbers; they are not liars or blasphemers; they are not worshippers of idols or gluttons or
drunkards. Indeed, as he describes them as being virgins we may even consider that they are not sexually immoral. But Jesus did not need to mention such things. It is only in our own rather silly age that people almost universally agree that all that is needed to be a good person is not to do bad things. And, of course, what they really mean by that is that as long as they do not lead an evil life full of great wickedness then they are good. Essentially it is the standard of the extreme: Hitler bad; pretty much everyone else OK.

Such a way of looking things may be sufficient for the atheist who has no belief in an after-life, and thinks nothing of God and his holiness, and certainly thinks the idea of sin as offence against God's laws is either a joke or dangerous nonsense. But for the Christian, it is a very different matter altogether.

The Christian is called to lead his or her life in the light of eternity. We know that man was made by God, was tempted by Satan and fell into sin; and that God has rescued us from the consequences of that sin, both original and personal, by his Incarnation and Death on the Cross. Those are the facts of the situation; and the choice that falls to us is whether, knowing what we know, do we act foolishly or wisely. We can be foolish and act as if all this really means nothing at all, that we have no need to lead holy lives, and that sin is either not real or matters not at all; or we can be wise, and do our utmost to live as God wishes us to, accepting the graces that he offers us to help, especially those he offers us through the sacraments of his Church, asking his pardon when we fail.


The latter is the way of the wise; it is the way to lay up treasure in heaven, to fill up our flasks with the oil of salvation that will keep our lamps burning until the day of the great wedding feast so that we may walk joyfully with him to join with him in his banquet forever - a wisdom that I pray will be granted to all here - in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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