Father Donald Senior, CP

Nov. 12: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The unexamined life

Wis 6:12-16; Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; 1 Thes 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13

The fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato attributes to his teacher Socrates the famous phrase about the tragedy of an “unexamined life.” Socrates, both a philosopher and a deeply religious man, was driven by the desire to seek the truth and to understand his life in the light of ultimate truth.  

I thought of this phrase — the unexamined life — when reviewing the readings assigned for this Sunday. The Scriptures, too, warn us about the emptiness of an “unexamined life.”

This is one of the meanings of Jesus’ famous parable of the wise and foolish virgins in our Gospel selection today. The setting reflects the Jewish marriage customs of Jesus’ day. Most marriages were arranged by parents, sometimes the betrothal taking place years in advance when the future bride and groom were still very young.  

Only when they were mature enough and had proper living arrangements and a sure livelihood would the groom come to claim his bride and the marriage was consummated. This is what is celebrated in the story. The ten virgins are to be part of the joyous celebration, receiving the bridegroom with lighted lamps or torches, but, as in most parables of Jesus, some things get out of kilter.  

The arrival of the bridegroom is long delayed and when at last he comes at midnight, some of the virgins are ready to receive him with lighted lamps but others were not prepared — despite having a long time to get ready. By the time they get the oil needed for their lamps it is too late and they are excluded from the wedding feast.  

What is the point of this story? Some interpreters claim that the lamp oil represents good deeds and the foolish virgins had not done what they should to deserve entry into the wedding feast. This might be the case since Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes the need for “good deeds.”  

But the conclusion drawn by Jesus at the end of his parable emphasizes another Gospel theme — that of “staying awake” or “being alert.” This, too, is a recurring theme of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and it brings us back to the notion of an “unexamined life.” We are to be alert to the deeper meaning of our lives. We are to be attentive to the stirrings of God’s grace in our ordinary life experiences. 

This is also the explicit message of the first reading for this Sunday, taken from the book of Wisdom. “Wisdom” in the Bible is often used as a euphemism for speaking of God’s presence in our lives. 

The one who seeks “wisdom” is the one who is alert to the spiritual dimensions encountered in the beauty of creation and in the goodness of human life. Thus the book of Wisdom counsels us: “Whoever watches for her [Wisdom] at dawn shall not be disappointed,” and “whoever for [Wisdom’s] sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.”  

This notion of seeking God is beautifully echoed in the Psalm response for today taken from Psalm 63: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God. O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.”

All of us know that we can become so busy and distracted with our everyday lives that we can easily fall into the “unexamined life” and forget who we truly are. Concerns about our finances, our health, our children are all normal and necessary and can command our attention. So, too, are other things that soak up our attention such as unending fascination with our cell phones and the numbing of our minds with television and sports.   

The Scripture readings for today call us to a deeper level of spiritual awareness. We are children of God. We are ultimately dependent entirely on God’s loving providence. To be fully human, we must be alert to and offer praise to the God who sustains our very being and who gives meaning to our lives.