Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: Wisdom

FR MICHAEL BIBLICAL IMAGERY

(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)

WISDOM

            The Hebrew word chokma, as used in the Old Testament, stands for wisdom, both divine and human. Among the Hebrews the wise man (chakam) was the learned man in general, whether in the character of judge, or ruler, or artificer or cunning and subtle man. In the more special signification of the word, it denotes wisdom with a strong ethical quality, as rooting itself in the fear of the Lord.

            Within the context of today’s readings, wisdom consists precisely in constant watchfulness. In the first reading we see that man need not search far for this wisdom, or prudence, for Wisdom sits at his door and he merely needs to let her enter. But for her sake he needs to “keep vigil”, remain sleepless (Wisdom 6:15). By being vigilant he remains “free of care”, free of anxiety about his fate after death. Throughout the Book of Wisdom, God’s gift of Wisdom, or prudence, is always a consoling, encouraging vehicle of God’s goodness. She promises that “the just will live forever” (Wisdom 5:15) and will attain “incorruptibility” and an “eternal reign” with God (Wisdom 6:18, 21). The “hope” of the just “is full immortality” (Wisdom 3:4).

            Before I journey with you to analyze this beautiful parable in today’s Gospel, let us have a look at the historical relevance of the parable. If one looks at this parable with western eyes, it may seem an unnatural and a “make-up” story. But, in point of fact, it tells a story which could have happened at any time in a Palestinian village and which could still happen today.

            A wedding was a great occasion. The whole village turned out to accompany the couple to their new home, and they went by the longest possible road, in order that they might receive the glad good wishes of as many as possible. Everyone, runs the Jewish saying, ‘from six to sixty will follow the marriage drum.’ The Rabbis agreed that a man might even abandon the study of the law to share in the joy of a wedding feast.

            The point of this story lies in a Jewish custom which is very different from anything we know. When a couple married, they did not go away for a honeymoon. They stayed at home; for a week they kept open house; they were treated and even addressed, as prince and princess; it was the happiest week in all their lives. To the festivities of that week their chosen friends were admitted; and it was not only the marriage ceremony, it was also that joyous week that the foolish virgins missed, because they were unprepared.

            Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one has an immediate and local meaning, and also a wider and universal meaning. In its immediate significance, it was directed against the Jews. They were the chosen people; their whole history should have been a preparation for the coming of the Son of God; they ought to have been prepared for him when he came. Instead, they were quite unprepared and therefore were shut out. Here in dramatic form is the tragedy of the unpreparedness of the Jews.

            But the parable has at least two universal warnings. Firstly, it warns us that there are certain things which cannot be obtained at the last minute. It is far too late for a student to be preparing when the day of the examination has come. It is too late to acquire a skill, or a character, if we do not already possess it, when some task offers itself to us. Similarly, it is easy to leave things so late that we can no longer prepare ourselves to meet with God.

            Secondly, it warns us that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed. The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil when they discovered they needed it. We cannot borrow a relationship with God; we must possess it for ourselves. We cannot borrow character; we must be clothed with it. We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital which others have amassed. There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.

            To conclude, the image of those who arrive too late and pound away at the door only to be turned away as strangers does not point to God’s hardheartedness and unwillingness to forgive sinners. All it says is that our tepidity and indifference can run up against a genuine “too late”. The Gospel holds out this possibility so that we can grasp the seriousness of the concluding warning: “Therefore, keep your eyes open, for you know not the day nor the hour.” Be wise and be vigilant.

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