This reading is about wakefulness, watchfulness: a central factor in any spirituality. When I'm asleep I don’t know what is happening. If I walk in my sleep I don’t know where I'm going, or why; I'm capable of stepping through a window to my death. What then if my waking life is also a kind of sleeping? What if my fits of anger and fear, and the non-stop craving in my life, are just like wheels turning by themselves, with no one in charge? People only have to press the right button and there’s my anger; press another and I cringe with fear; show me an advertisement and I buy a product I don’t need. I'm a machine, reacting to stimuli, not a conscious being responding to life. Or, to say it another way, I'm sound asleep.
No one could like those wise bridesmaids in today's parable, I think. They remain awake all right, but they are not the kind of people you would go to if you had a problem. Some ‘good’ people are like that. But this is to misread the parable, which is a parable and not an allegory. An allegory has points of application all along the line, but a parable has only one point. The point of this one is the need to stay awake. (It would be wrong to apply it in other ways: for example, to deduce from it that we shouldn’t help people who are in need, if it is their own fault.) The meaning of the parable is in the last line, “Stay awake!”
St Augustine did his best to make those bridesmaids attractive. “What does the oil signify?” he asked. “Do you think it might be love…? I will tell you why. [St Paul] says, ‘I will show you a more excellent way (1 Cor 12:31)… It is [the way of love], ‘that way above the rest.…’ Now, oil swims above all liquids.” Nice try.