In recent years, an increasing number of automobile dealerships have adopted a “no haggle” approach to selling new and used cars. This is a response to the antipathy that many consumers have to bargaining over a price and a product.
In American culture, haggling or bargaining is often associated with deception or fraud. Bargaining, however, had the opposite meaning in Jesus’ culture. In the ancient middle east, and in many Asian cultures today, bargaining is considered to be a safe setting in which to forge or strengthen social bonds.
The parable in today’s Gospel reading is founded on this ancient middle eastern practice of solidifying relationships through bargaining. The parable says, “the bridegroom was long delayed.” (Matthew 25:5) In other words, he was engaged in a lengthy bargaining process with his father-in-law over the customary price paid to the family of a bride. As the groom’s family was gaining a daughter at the bride’s family’s expense, the bride’s family was owed recompense.
It would have been a fairly common experience for the bargaining to go on for a long time. The bride’s father would have used the time to make certain that his daughter would be treated well, and the groom would have used the time to ensure that he remained on good terms with his new in-laws.
The meaning of this parable hinges, not on the long delay before the wedding feast, but on the failure of five of the revelers to be prepared for the long delay. The ten virgins mentioned in the story would have been relatives of the groom. It was their responsibility to lead a formal procession from the bride’s family’s home to the groom’s father’s house after the bargaining was completed.
As lengthy bargaining for the bride’s price would have been a common occurrence, the ten young women would have been expected to remain at the ready regardless of how long the process required. Five of them, however, failed to remain ready for the procession to the brides’ new home.
The five irresponsible young women failed on two important counts. First, they did not fulfill the responsibilities expected of them; as a consequence, the festive nature of the wedding banquet was somewhat diminished. Second, their failure reflected badly on the head of the household (the father of the groom); they embarrassed him by detracting from the celebratory nature of the banquet.
As a metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s People, the parable says that those who claim God as their Father have an obligation to contribute to the fulfillment of God’s will for the world. That obligation, however, is not what we might think.
We are not responsible to make God’s will effective: God’s power accomplishes that work. Nor are we responsible to bring others to salvation: Jesus did that by his sacrificial death. Our responsibility mirrors that of the young women who were supposed to escort the bride and groom to their new home. We are responsible to make God’s will look attractive, inviting, and enjoyable to those who witness our lives.
The wedding took place despite the absence of the five thoughtless revelers. In a like manner, God’s will is accomplished independently of our actions and choices. In the second reading Paul describes the fulfillment of God’s will for the world: the righteous will be raised with Jesus. This will be accomplished by God’s power rather than by the merits of God’s People.
Our role in the completion of God’s will is to make God’s will look inviting to non-believers. Take a moment to reflect on how you view God’s will. Do you feel burdened by the commandment to love God above all else, and to love your neighbor as yourself? Do you view Catholic moral teaching as something that limits your freedom and enjoyment? Is daily prayer a responsibility you fulfill unevenly? Is Sunday Mass attendance an obligation best put behind you as quickly as possible?
If you were tempted to answer “yes” to any of the questions above, the oil in your lamp might be running low.
Knowing that God accomplishes God’s saving will by God’s power, rather than by our effort, should be a great relief to us all. We do have, however, an important role to play in the salvation of the world; we are responsible to make the life of faith look like something others would want for themselves.
If we fail in our mission, God’s desire to save the world will come to fruition in our absence. If we succeed in representing God’s will as attractive, inviting, and beneficial, we have accomplished the greatest work that any human person can do: bringing glory to God’s Name and joy to God’s People.
Let’s keep our lamps burning brightly. Let’s make every effort to live joyfully according to God’s will.