“To Comfort, or Disturb?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, November 12, 2023

Last Wednesday, I presided over the funeral of Raymond King, who used to be a parishioner here. During the funeral Mass, I did what I always do on such occasions. I pointed to the casket stood before the altar, and as I pointed, I said to the congregation: “I know that this is going to be me one day” and then I pointed to each mourner and said “and it is going to be each one of you as well. And do you know what happens to you then? Have you resolved the great issues of life and death, heaven and hell? If not, I beg you for your sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of the person you have come to mourn, get these issues resolved in your mind and heart. Before it is too late”.

I know that I am often making people uncomfortable at that moment, especially those who have abandoned, or shall we say “mislaid” their faith? But I know also that I have them at that moment, they cannot ignore my words, the evidence of their mortality is right before their eyes, in the shape of the coffin before the altar. And I will probably have very few opportunities to reach the minds and hearts of these congregants, especially those who no longer come to Mass, if they ever came at all.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a moment to shake them out of any complacency they may have, but I am also speaking to myself, in case I have fallen into such complacency myself, and think I am automatically headed for heaven because I am a Catholic, and, for good measure, also a priest. And that is the point of our parable today. The bridegroom represents Christ, coming to collect his bride, the Church, and bring her with him into the kingdom of heaven, at the end of time. Early Christians thought that time would be very soon, and got ready for it. But as time went on, and Christ had still not returned, they had all kinds of doubts and questions, such as the one in our second reading today, that St Paul has to answer, namely, what happens to those brothers and sisters in Christ, who have died before Christ’s return? Will they miss out on heaven? Paul assures them that their loved ones who have died, will not miss out, indeed they will be gathered to the Lord before those who are alive at his return. But the delay in Christ’s return also had other consequences. Christians became lazy in their faith, started getting too comfortable in their earthly lives and tended to forget that this life on earth is merely temporary and destined to pass, but an eternity stretches before them at death, and it will be an eternity spent either in heaven or in hell. 

So back to our gospel parable. The bridesmaids with their lamps of oil represent all of us, who are called to the life of heaven, so often described in the Bible as a wedding feast. (Remember the words the priest speaks just before communion, when he holds up the sacred host and says “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed is those who are called to the supper of the Lamb”. In fact, those last words are taken from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and literally they read: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9)). Revelation declares the joy of that moment, and anyone who has ever been to a wedding, or been married themselves, knows that joy: “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride (Christ) has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19: 6-8). It is expected that, when Christ comes for his bride, the Church, he will find that each member of the Church, including you and I, brothers and sisters, have righteous deeds to show him, in other words, good deeds that we have performed. Elsewhere in the book of Revelation, we are told: “Blessed are they who have died in Christ, for their good deeds go with them.” 

So, what is this oil that the wise bridesmaids have plenty of in their lamps, and the foolish ones don’t have enough of? It could be one of many things. Biblical scholars have supposed it refers to our good deeds, others say it means faith, or repentance; still others say the oil refers to the Holy Spirit, often mentioned as the “oil of gladness”. Still others say it represents divine wisdom, which our first reading today speaks about.  It could, of course, be a combination of all of these, and more. These are all ingredients of a full living out of our Christian faith. The wise bridesmaids represent those who have been living out their faith fully, the foolish bridesmaids are those who haven’t been living out their faith fully, who have been lethargic towards the things of God, and have complacently been living out their lives, imagining they can just stroll into heaven without having sufficient “oil”. 

So the parable is intended to be a “shaking” up of, firstly, the Jews who smugly think being one of the “chosen race” and a descendant of Abraham is enough to grant them automatic entrance into heaven. (Remember John the Baptist had a strong rebuke for those who had that complacency, especially the religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees and the Sadducees: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”, for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3: 7-10).)

But secondly, the parable is also a “shaking up” of us as Christians, a warning not to get similarly smug about our entrance into the life of heaven, simply because of our  baptism. Yes, baptism is described as the “gateway to heaven” in the Catholic Catechism, because it makes us children of God, heirs of a heavenly inheritance, and qualifies us for eternal life. (Why we sprinkle holy water, grateful for)  But it is not an “automatic” ticket into heaven, into salvation, if it is not backed up by a truly lived out life of an authentic Christian disciple, complete with all the elements that make up the “oil” for our lamps.

 What about those who are not Christian, people of other faiths? What happens to them? What about members of my family who no longer go to church – what is their fate to be? Jesus is not addressing these questions in this parable. For answers to those questions, we have to look elsewhere in the gospels, such as Jesus’ words about the separation of the sheep and the goats at the end of time in Matthew 25:31-46. But that is a topic for another sermon. The Catholic Church also addresses these questions in its document on the Church at the Second Vatican Council and in the Catholic Catechism. 

These are challenging words of Jesus to us, brothers and sisters, in our gospel today, but they are not meant to condemn us, or judge us, but to warn us, ahead of the time of judgement at Christ’s return, not to get complacent or lethargic or apathetic towards the things of God. There are other words of Jesus that we are given in the gospels and other words of St Paul, which we can read, for example, in our second reading today, that are meant to be words of encouragement and comfort. I am grateful for my Catholic Christian faith at funerals, because it enables me to give a message of hope at funerals, a hope based on the gospel truth mentioned in that second reading, that “we believe that Jesus died and rose again; even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died”. What do you need right now, brothers and sisters, what do I need – a word of encouragement or a word of “shaking up”? As someone wisely said: “Jesus came to comfort the disturbed, and to disturb the comfortable “Which one are you, brothers and sisters, which one am I?