A while back there was a show on TV called Princess. Each half-hour episode featured a “twenty-something” young woman who was living a high-end life style by mooching off her family and friends. Each woman was challenged by a personal finance expert to “get real,” grow up and starting paying her own way. This usually meant getting a job, paring back spending, and living a more honest lifestyle. Sometimes this prompted profound changes within the young woman whose foolish lifestyle choices were masking the real person she was.
“What’s all this got to do with a gospel passage about wise and foolish bridesmaids?” you may well ask. Well, I see a resemblance between five characters in this week’s gospel story and the young women featured on that TV show. They wanted all the perks life offered — a special role in the wedding and a seat at the wedding banquet — but were unprepared for the work involved. They were trying to live someone else’s lifestyle at the expense of others.
At this point, I want to call your attention to the bridegroom’s words at the end of this gospel tale: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” What a strange thing to say in the context of this story! “You’re too late,” he might have said. “You let your oil run out. You’re fired!” he might have said. But no. He said, “I do not know you.”
In ruminating over what the bridegroom could have been thinking, I was reminded of my incarcerated pen pal in California serving a life sentence, many years of which were spent in solitary confinement. I asked him once, several months into our correspondence, how he managed to survive the mental torture of years alone in a cell the size of a parking space. His answer, perplexing to me at the time, was: “I know who I am.” His honest sense of self sustains him and keeps him grounded. How many of us can say that?
It seems to me that the five foolish women in this story could not make that statement. They were not the persons the bridegroom thought he knew. And perhaps they were so busy maintaining a false image that they no longer knew themselves.
All 10 women in this gospel story enjoyed a privileged existence. The five who are labelled “foolish” assumed their privileged social status meant someone would always be willing to bail them out if they encountered any problem. They did not recognize or acknowledge that the privileged status they enjoyed came with responsibilities.
Indeed, life makes demands on us no matter what our status. They did not see that their privileges were not rights. None of them had actually “earned” these privileges. The foolish ones had an inflated sense of self. Because of this, they did not know their true selves. People like this are often described as having been born on third base and thinking they hit a triple, or believing the world owes them a living. If they did not know themselves, how could the bridegroom be expected to know who they really were?
Wisdom requires work, the first reading tells us. The first step in the quest for wisdom is acknowledging that we need it. An inflated self-image is a barrier to wisdom and ultimately is a barrier to living a truly Christian life. It’s easy for North American Christians to develop an over-inflated sense of self on the spiritual dimension. We churchgoers are tempted to pat ourselves on the back, confident that we would never be as unprepared as these five foolish bridesmaids. But Jesus and the spirit of our times call us to go deeper.
Attending Sunday worship, wearing crosses or religious garb such as religious habits or clerical garb, usually commands respect rather than derision here in Canada. Certainly in Canada we Catholics can practice our faith as we see fit without reprisals. This is not true for people of some other faiths. And it is not true for Christians in other parts of the world. We are foolish to take these privileges for granted.
Do we know who we really are before God and before the world? Do we stand before God in a spirit of deep humility? We have earned nothing in God’s eyes. If we enjoy glimpses of the abundant love God showers on us throughout our lives, it is not because we have done something to deserve it. All we can do is respond to that love by passing it on to those we meet in our daily lives without reserve.
In John’s Gospel Jesus tells his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is how we are to be known in the world. Not by our church attendance, not by what we wear. But by how and who we love.
Bick is a happily retired elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto. She is a liturgist with a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame and is a human rights advocate working for prisoners who have experienced prolonged solitary confinement.