Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why the wise virgins could not share their oil - On this Sunday's Gospel

36th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 25:1-13
The foolish [virgins] said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones replied, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you.”
Have you ever wondered why it is that the wise virgins refuse to assist the foolish virgins by sharing a little of the oil from their own lamps? Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that they care more for themselves than for the others?
The great 17th century Jesuit, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide and the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas (citing the tradition from the Fathers of the Church) offer an answer.

What the oil and lamps symbolize
There are numerous ways of interpreting both the virgins and their oil lamps. On the one hand, the virgins can signify all of humanity. On the other, the virgins might represent the Christian faithful only (and not those who have no faith). Finally, the virgins could specify only those Christian faithful who are consecrated to virginity (i.e. the religious). All of these interpretations enjoy the favor of certain of the Church Fathers.
However, if we look more closely at the parable, it is clear that the best interpretation is that by which the virgins are not all of humanity generally, nor only those Christians who are consecrated to virginity, but all and only those who have faith. Hence, the one interpretation is too broad (including all, both believers and infidels) while the other is too narrow (excluding all non-virgins).
We can see that the virgins must signify all and only the believers; since they all have lamps, though they do not all have oil. For the lamp is the theological virtue of faith, while oil is charity which makes faith to be alive and saving. Thus, since all the virgins have lamps, it is clear that they signify all those who believe (and not the infidels). On the other hand, the foolish virgins were those who lacked sufficient oil, being the faithful who do not persevere to the end in charity and are thus condemned to hell – for faith without charity does not avail unto salvation.
Everyone needs his own oil and lamp
St. Thomas Aquinas makes an interesting point in his Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, stating that the infidels (those who have no faith) are not judged at all but are straight away condemned without any judgment. Thus it is that our Savior does not speak of the judgment of those who lack both oil and lamps but only of the virgins, i.e. only of the faithful.
The foolish virgins, then, are those who have faith but lack charity, and so are condemned to hell. Yet these virgins are doubly foolish insofar as they both lack the virtue of charity (being in mortal sin) and also seek to gain this virtue from other believers. Do they no know that only God can bestow the virtue of charity? This is why it is called a theological virtue!
Thus, St. Thomas quotes St. John Chrysostom in the Catena Aurea: “For, though nothing could be more merciful than those wise virgins, who for this very mercifulness were approved, yet would they not grant the prayer of the foolish virgins. Hence we learn that none of us shall be able in that day to stand forth as patron of those who are betrayed by their own works, not because he will not, but because he cannot.”
Again, St. Jerome: “For these wise virgins do not answer thus out of covetousness, but out of fear. Wherefore, each man shall receive the recompense of his own works, and the virtues of one cannot atone for the vices of another in the day of judgment.”
Further consideration
It is precisely this point – that your virtue cannot make up for my vice, on the last day – which proves that we cannot (in the most proper sense of the term) hope for the salvation of others. Precisely because I cannot save anyone, excepting (by the grace of God alone) myself, I cannot hope for the salvation of any other than myself.  Certainly, out of supernatural charity, I desire the salvation of all the living – but this desire is only “hope” in a secondary sense. Thus, we refer readers to our recent article on why it is wrong to say that we hope for the salvation of all.


Anonymous said...

I'm confused.
"your virtue cannot make up for my vice, on the last day"
Yet, we believe in indulgences, prayer for others to receive many varied graces including openness to grace and conversion of heart, redemptive suffering, and sacrificial actions/mortification on behalf others. St. Monica is a saint in part due to her persistent prayer for (now St.) Augustine. I understand that these are acts of charity and not really hope, but I don't understand how they are consistent with your quote above.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I love your comment/question, because it is exactly along the lines of what my homily will be about this Sunday!

First, I should say that the quote about my vice and your virtue is not original to me, but is only a slight re-working of St. Jerome's quote which I put in the article (directly before "Further consideration")

The point is that, your virtue (i.e. the theological virtue of charity) cannot make up for my vice (i.e. the lack of charity, which is mortal sin).
If I am in mortal sin, then I cannot benefit from your charity ... nor, of course, can I benefit (after death) from your prayers or indulgences.

However, your prayer can do much to bring about my conversion (while I live).
Additionally, after I die (if I die with the virtue of charity), your virtue and good works can gain many indulgences for me in purgatory ... but if I die without virtue (in mortal sin), then your good works and indulgences will not avail me anything, since I will be in hell.

I hope that it is a bit more clear now. I will be writing on indulgences early next week.
Peace to you, and let us pray for the poor souls! +

Jack said...

St. Seraphim of Sarov says that the oil represents the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Read what he said about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Father, my question is similar to Samantha's and I'm just trying to clarify your answer. I think I understand that my charity cannot be given to another person, or maybe more specifically that my merit cannot be given to another person. I can, in charity, pray for another sinner, those alive and those in purgatory. But at the end of my life, I cannot say, "Here, I have done these things for other people and you have not. Take some of my merit and use it as if it is your own - as if you are the one who did these things." When I pray for someone, I am asking God to help that person. Giving them my merits is like saying I am the one who is helping them. I think I can see why these things can't be shared. If I am thinking correctly, it helps explain why St. Louis de Montfort says that our merits can't be shared with other people. We can't ask the Blessed Mother to give our merits to someone else, but we can ask her to hang on to them for us so we don't lose their benefit. I hope on the right track in understanding what you're saying, Father!

This gospel always bothered me a bit not because I thought the wise virgins were selfish, but because I was afraid I was living the life of a foolish person who would procrastinate in preparing for Jesus' return. The gospel would leave me with the uneasy acknowledgement that on that day, I would be on my own and I couldn't ask anyone else to make up for my procrastination. Thanks for your message. It helps me understand why no one will be able to help me, and that I don't dare put off getting ready. It also helps me to try harder to earn merit, to do the little things the Holy Spirit inspires me to do, so I don't end up with barely enough oil when Jesus comes for me.


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

There is (technically) a type of "merit" by which we can gain graces for another ... it is called "condign" merit, but it is too theoretical to get into here.

Still, your main point stands. And I am especially grateful for your mentioned of DeMontfort!
I think that you have expressed the point very well. +

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear father. Poor sermonising, based on the triumph of protestant exegesis over Traditional Catholic exegesis abound in the n.O.

Yesterday, at a NO Mass, I heard the oil described as Good Works and, of course, there was no mention of the foolish virgins going to Hell.

Twice I have recently heard sermons describing the Pearl of Great Price as us - me and thee- not Jesus.

God Bless you for your work. I know you are too kind to write about just how bad the situation is inside the Catholic Church.

The paltry bit of teaching we are presented is dervied from protestant exegesis - eisegesis, really

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I am not Spartacus,
Thank you for the kind words of encouragement.

I should add that the oil can be understood to mean good works, and the flame could be charity.
However, you are certainly correct that the foolish virgins go to hell and it would be a poor sermon to not mention that fact!

Peace. +

Eubie said...

Would the author of the article be so kind possibly to paste entirely all 13 verses, in here, belatedly? It seems, there's much important symbolism going on particularly, within this parable, for more open discussion. And please, don't tell me: just go and look up (MATT 25) yourself. I've already done that! I wish to know, just exactly, how the entire tract does read maybe, within the same focus as author of this article, okay?

Andrew said...

Could the flask itself refer to the virtue of hope? Both the foolish and the wise had oil in their lamps, but because of their flask, the wise had atleast an adequate amount of oil (if not an abundance.) Hope in the arrival of the delayed Bridgegroom - Hope in the return of Christ at the Last Day! They were prudent in preparation and preserved in hope!


Alex said...

I have also heard the oil compared to intimacy with Christ. The rational behind this is based on the fact that when the "maidens" without oil went to visit the "Bridegroom" a the "wedding feast" he answered,
"Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.'"
The language of the parable swirls around the theme of marital union with Christ and the virgins without oil where excluded not because they where not virtuous, but because Jesus did not know them (I think of know in the context of Adam knowing I wrong?). This seems like a reasonable comparison (oil with intimacy) because intimacy, like virtue, is non-transferable. Even if the wise virgins wanted to give their intimate relationship with Christ to the foolish ones, they couldn't have. The privilege of intimacy with Christ is made possible by His sacraments and achieved by a living transaction between the sacrament recipient and the Blessed Redeemer. Is this off base?

RJS said...


I wanted to add to what Father said. The word charity, when used in theological language, refers to the state or grace - an indwelling of the life of God within the souls. Charity is what we receive at baptism that causes us to be "born again", and it is also what is lost by mortal sin. The reason mortal sin is called "mortal" is because it destroys charity (the life of God) within our soul. If a person falls into mortal sin, you and I cannot restore them to the life of grace. We can pray for them, but our prayers will not restore them to grace.

Since the wise virgins were not capable of restoring them to the life of grace (giving them oil), their actions, as related in the story, would not have been selfish. Telling them to go and get oil was actually the right response; it just so happens that the Lord returned before they were able to obtain the "oil".

The reason the foolish virgins were foolish, is because they knew what was necessary to be saved (since they had the faith), but they failed to do it. The wise virgins were wise because they lived their lives in accord with their belief. They kept the commandments, performed their daily duties, said their prayers, and remained in the state of grace. As such, they were ready when the time came.

I think what we should take from the story is that we must strive to be like the wise virgins, by bringing our lives in conformity with what the Church teaches, and always staying in the life of grace.


Petrus Augustinus said...

Dear Father,

What's with the look-change? It's radical and less useful. The links have disappeared so did the most popular posts and the archive with the picture of the Holy Father. Also, it is impossible to comment to 'Ask Father Ryan'. What has happened? The old look was much richer.

Sorry if I was rude I just wanted to ask you that.. :) Peace!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

We were trying something new ... eventually we might switch to that style ... but we would definitely keep the sidebars.

Thanks for the comment! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I like the way of incorporating the theological virtue of hope into the parable ... I had been thinking of this myself, but hadn't seen anything from the Church Fathers on the matter.

Peace. +

Alex said...

Funny, I was just telling a friend that I was happy to see you using blogger's new layout features. Intuitive and fun. Thanks!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Alexander Weber,
Yes, I think the connection with intimacy is valid ... but I would also add that the two (virtue and intimacy) are not really two but only one.

The theological virtue of charity is that which unites us to Christ ... it is the foundation of all intimacy.

Thank you for the comment, I think that you are right on and that you bring out a further aspect of the oil.
Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Here is the full parable, from Matthew 25:

"[1] Then shall the kingdom of heaven be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. [2] And five of them were foolish, and five wise. [3] But the five foolish, having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them: [4] But the wise took oil in their vessels with the lamps. [5] And the bridegroom tarrying, they all slumbered and slept.
"[6] And at midnight there was a cry made: Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him. [7] Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. [8] And the foolish said to the wise: Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out. [9] The wise answered, saying: Lest perhaps there be not enough for us and for you, go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. [10] Now whilst they went to buy, the bridegroom came: and they that were ready, went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut.
"[11] But at last come also the other virgins, saying: Lord, Lord, open to us. [12] But he answering said: Amen I say to you, I know you not. [13] Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour."

Alex said...

After I posted I was kind of kicking my self for setting up the false dichotomy between intimacy and virtue. There is no intimacy without virtue and no virtue without intimacy. Sorry 'bout that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Father, for this lesson. I did wonder just that, about the possible sharing of the oil, at mass on Sunday. Never heard this parable taught in this way, but it makes perfect sense. God bless! -Sarah

Kuba said...

i always wonder who are "those that sell" oil in v9? Are there any comment/clues on this?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Many of the Church Fathers say "those that sell" are the poor ... by giving alms to the poor, we are able to grow in charity and gain more oil.

Great question! +

Pancho said...

Yes, great question, Kuba! Indeed, who could be the sellers perhaps, trafficking in this, most holy and sacred of all, possible, commodity items? Don't they have lamps, and why aren't they also trying entry; Since, apparently if all it really takes is, some certain unspecified amounts of, yet oil? At least, one could imagine greedy sellers would be readily present, at the gate; even, then if only to service new customers, somehow? Obviously, for to enter, one, must lamp possess, trimmed with plenty enough oil authentically, and, remain virgin!

Virgina said...

Please; Can anyone explain, exactly, just how many people, Jesus says, supposedly that my friends and I, so carefully, are yet somehow, watching for? Thanks!


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I'm not sure what the confusion is ... we are awaiting the return of one person, Christ Jesus.

Peace to you. +

Virginia said...

Well, you confused me when, upon the copy just posted, now, you include a 'bridegroom and...bride' sorry, but where did THAT come from, please? It, clearly, implies two, people, no? Is that the way originally, St Matthew, wrote it? Is that, what it says, maybe, within the pope's own, bible? Is this, possibly, what you call: NEW THEOLOGY?


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I am hoping that there is just some language problem here ... your comment seems extremely aggressive, and like an attack on the Holy Father.

Please, ask nicely!

The bridegroom is one: Christ Jesus.
The bride is one: The Church, his kingdom.

The virgins are all those who will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem (the Church triumphant) at the end of time.

Hope it is clear now! +

Alex said...

As a protestant convert I'm actually surprised at the hostility shown on this topic. Long before I was Catholic I enjoyed the revelation of Christ being the Bridegroom and the Church being His Bride (and as member of the Divine body, I enjoyed knowing that He loved me passionately). It has to be, if not the most, one of the most prevalent revelations of God in the Bible. The story begins with a wedding (Gen 3), ends with a wedding (Rev 19), Jesus' first miracle was at a wedding (Jn 2), one of His last parables was about a wedding, and the list goes on. For fear of coming off as preachy on such a magnificent reality I will stop here.

Pancho said...

The wise are, just being polite. As always, within answering any, dangerous fools, at all! Obviously, within the circumstance entirely, the best answer, remains "Assuredly, I do not know you!" answering to, any and all, foolish!
If Jesus, intends knowing not, any fools, entirely; by then, just how can it be considered, especially wise, ever giving away such value? Never; unto, suspected fools? It seems, Jesus doesn't want any fool sneaking, into Heaven! How, could it yet be still considered, likely Heaven? Truly somehow, if fools, admitted? Therefore, yet every fool should just become now accustomed, getting the run around, yet maybe, all 'tween, now and then.


Post a Comment

When commenting, please leave a name or pseudonym at the end of your comment so as to facilitate communication and responses.

Comments must be approved by the moderator before being published.