‘I Do Not Know You’ — On the Fate of the Foolish Virgins
At any moment the clouds could open wide, unleashing the judgment of the Lord upon us. Be vigilant.
Whenever I hear the gospel about the 10 virgins awaiting the bridegroom, only five of whom had sense enough to fill their lamps with oil, my heart went out to the remaining five, who were too foolish to bother. Why couldn’t the sensible ones have simply shared what they had? Why should they refuse to be generous? And shouldn’t Jesus have rebuked them for this?
What hadn’t quite crossed my mind at the time, of course, was the fact that perhaps the oil signified something that could not be shared — a depth of interiority, for instance, impossible to impart from one person to another. And that the little pity party I was throwing on behalf of the foolish five was entirely beside the point. After all, who’s telling the tale here? Is it likely that Jesus would spin a story about the Kingdom of Heaven, comparing it to so many virgins carrying their lamps to meet him along the way, unless he were making a much deeper point? His was not a lesson in moralism, but mystery.
Putting the matter another way, the reason the virgins will not share their oil is because it is not detachable from those who possess it, like a stray item in a purse, which one may remove and return at will. Or a vestigial organ (say, the appendix) for which we’ve no real use — or even those we most certainly have a use, like kidneys, one of which we may agree to have removed for the sake of another.
Rather, the oil represents an inner reality, which cannot be handed over to anyone, that reaches deep down into the soul of the person. The oil is the very seal upon the self that defines our identity before God. It is determinative of who we are and, please God, destined to become in his sight.
Isn’t this why Jesus, at the end of the parable, pronounces doom upon the ones who tried to breach the door leading into the wedding feast? “Lord, Lord,” they cried out, “open the door for us!” And he says to them: “I do not know you.” The finality of the words are like a hammer blow to the heart, of which there can be no softening of the sentence once spoken. And why is that? Because, having definitively lost their identity, they no longer possess proof of actually belonging to Christ.
They have become unrecognizable to him. Forever.
“I see,” declares the poet Hopkins, his pen dipped in the desolation of the Terrible Sonnets, “The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.” It is that phrase, but worse, that will separate, for all eternity, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the weeds.
This is why Jesus ends his parable with a solemn exhortation, delivered most pointedly to his disciples — but to us also, for whom the message is more relevant than ever: “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” At any moment the clouds could open wide, unleashing the judgment of the Lord upon us. Be vigilant, therefore, not knowing that today may bring his sudden, unexpected return. Above all, do not let the supply of oil run dry, lest there be no light in the lamp to allow the bridegroom to find you for the feast. And remember: it is only your lamp that may shine in the allotted space where the bridegroom awaits. No other may substitute for you. It is only you who can make a gift of yourself, offering to God a heart made worthy by the flame consuming it. The oil, therefore, serves as an apt symbol for that incommunicable essence which is you. Only the purest possible oil, too, may set the flame ablaze, producing a light so bright and clear that he will not mistake you for the gate-crashers who came ill-prepared, careless of their identities left behind.
Let the point be made once more, which is that at any moment the bridegroom may appear before us, throwing open the door into the Kingdom. Always be ready, then, as St. Paul reminds us, “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).
How beautifully the poet John Donne makes the point when, in his Holy Sonnets, he frames the question thus: “What if this present were the world’s last night?” What if the actual inbreaking of God were to happen this very day? How should we stand before the face of God, the fiery Pantokrator, who has not come to negotiate or curry favor with the creatures whom he has just placed in the dock, subject to a tribunal of divine and perfect justice? Like Donne, knowing there is no escape, no room to maneuver or cut deals, we should then turn to this God, who is as much love and mercy as he is justice, and beseech him in the name of Jesus his Son. Turning inward at the same time, we speak to our very own soul, reminding it of certain necessary and saving truths:
Marke in my heart, O soule, where thou dost dwell, The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright. Teares in his eyes quench the amazing light,
Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell. Which prayed forgiveness for his foes fierce spight?
We mustn’t fall into the presumption of those who smugly suppose that since God is all-good, and saving sinners like ourselves amounts to just another day at the office, that there’s really nothing we need fear or repent of or even regret. Everything is just fine. So, what me worry if there’s no oil left in the lamp and the crankcase is bone dry? Shouldn’t that be God’s lookout, leaving the part I play purely passive? Let me just go with the flow, coasting merrily along.
Wholly forgetful of the price Christ paid to purchase that oil, which I’ve so heedlessly emptied out, leaving me alone and unrecognizable at the last.