32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reflection: Knowledge vs. wisdom


Recently, the NPR program “Science Friday” featured a young biologist named Danielle Lee. In the course of talking about the excitement of her career, she commented that individual curiosity is the springboard of all the cumulative knowledge we have.

Today’s liturgy invites us to consider the difference between the search for knowledge and the acquisition of wisdom.  

In her commentary on the Sunday scriptures, Sr. Dianne Bergant of the Congregation of St. Agnes says that while human beings search for wisdom, “human wisdom cannot plumb the depths of reality. The deepest questions of life do not seem to be satisfied with answers derived from experience.”  

The Book of Wisdom, like Proverbs, presents Wisdom as a personification of God, the God beyond human fathoming and whom we still seek. Where can we find wisdom or knowledge of God? Today’s first reading makes an exceptional promise: She is “found by those who seek her,” and, “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire.”

There’s a conundrum in this: We seek her, and she anticipates our desire. It’s a bit like the poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” The poet, Francis Thompson, speaks of God’s pursuit of him: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / … I hid from Him, and under running laughter.” Thompson ends the poem with the insight that by fleeing God, he was fleeing his own life. 

With today’s psalm we pray, “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.” What better response could we make to the response to the promise of Wisdom and Thompson’s discovery of God’s love? 

Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish virgins is confusing at best. Perceptive children hear it and ask, “Why does Jesus praise the selfish ones?” and, “Why didn’t they just share what they had?” These same children might make a connection between the parable and competition they learn through their school’s grading system. In this practice, everybody gets ranked on a scale from knowledgeable to … some euphemism for foolish. Additionally, the children are taught not to cheat by sharing their answers. Is this the Gospel? The reign of God as the survival of the fittest?  

Our first reading and psalm subtly offer an interpretation of the strange parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Using the wisdom reading as a guide, we can come to a different interpretation of Jesus’ riddle-story (parable). Wisdom says, “She is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.” Wisdom 6:11, the verse preceding our selection, says, “Desire therefore my words; long for them and you will be instructed.” This suggests that seeking wisdom, that keeping plenty of oil for our lamps, is not a question of being more or less knowledgeable, nor of being stingy. The search for wisdom is a question of love and deep desire.

The Jesuit spiritual director Mark Thibodeaux said, “Much of Christian spirituality presumes that our desires are bad. … Ignatius believed that our problem was not desiring too much but rather desiring too little.” Because we are made for God, the only thing that can satisfy us is relationship with God and growing in love with all that God loves. All the rest — knowledge, fame, wealth, beauty, accomplishment, popularity — are nothing more than two-bit substitutes for the love that fills the human heart.

The wise women were the ones whose desire led them to be prepared for the long haul. Nothing they owned or hoped for mattered more than being ready when the bridegroom came. The “foolish” ones (wiser in the estimation of some), were more circumspect with their priorities, not putting all their eggs in one basket. They were ready to pay a price, but they weren’t handing over a blank check.  

Like the curiosity that leads to a passionate search for new knowledge, getting in touch with our deepest desire and giving it our all is what, in Wisdom’s own words, makes us worthy of her, worthy of the God who planted those desires in us and who meets us “in anticipation of [our] desire.”

Wisdom turns out to be qualitatively different from knowledge. We can acquire knowledge through study, practice and even the internet. According to these Scriptures, wisdom is not so much an acquisition as it is a relationship of love. More than possessing it, it captures us. Understanding wisdom as a name for God, we realize that we may seek her, but she who embedded the desire in us longs even more to find and live in us.

Oil for the lamp – a wake up call 

This Gospel contrasts five ill-prepared virgins with five wise virgins. The wise virgins planned ahead and brought the flasks of oil necessary to fuel their lamps. The preparation of the wise virgins made it possible for them to do what they set out to accomplish – to light the way for the bridegroom. They are able to fulfill their duties and enter the wedding feast with him.

St. Paul’s words comfort the grieving Thessalonians; he consoles them in their time of loss- encouraging those mourning the death of a loved one with hope in the resurrection. These Scriptures direct our attention to moments that we know are coming- our own death and Christ’s triumphant return at the end of time.

Key to this parable is the metaphor of the oil for the lamp. The oil represents the good that we do- with every kind word, compassionate gesture, and selfless act offered in Christ’s name, we light the way for Jesus, the bridegroom. Remember Jesus’ words: “You are the light of the world … your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father”.

The wise virgins represent those who see every moment as an opportunity to be light. The wise virgins could not share their oil with the foolish ones because each person has unique opportunities to express God’s love in the world. Each person must chose individually to respond to the call to serve others.

The image of being left in the dark- outside of the wedding feast- is a stark reminder that we may need to choose to be prepared now- to fill our flask with oil in advance of the bridegroom’s arrival. We must be open to responding to those blessed experiences of loving service that help us to be well-prepared for Christ’s triumphant return.

First Reading

(Wisdom 6: 12-16)

Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire;
Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,
for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,
and whoever for her sake keeps vigil
shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 63: 2-8)

R. 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.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
For your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

I will remember you upon my couch,
and through the night-watches I will meditate on you:
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.

Second Reading

(I Thessalonians 4: 13-18)

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
about those who have fallen asleep,
so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God, through Jesus,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 
Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord,
will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first. 
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air. 
Thus we shall always be with the Lord. 
Therefore, console one another with these words.


(Matthew 25: 1-13)

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 
Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. 
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones 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.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. 
Then the door was locked.
Afterwards the other virgins came and said,
‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’
But he said in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”