“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. – Matthew 25:1-13
Reading this parable about the Kingdom of God, it is easy to see why Jesus was difficult for his ancient contemporaries. What, exactly, is he trying to say here? It would seem that the story of the ten virgins presents a problem for us—for whereas in much of the Gospel Jesus speaks of the virtues of kindness, and hospitality, extravagant welcome and sharing out of our abundance as that which bring God’s Kingdom, here in our parable Jesus seems to imply that keeping our oil to ourselves rather than sharing it is what will bring us dancing into God’s presence.
Rev. Anna Carter Florence, in reflecting on this text, poses the following thought experiment: what if we were to interpret Jesus’ other sayings in light of this parable? How might it change the way we read previous teachings from our Lord and Savior? And she came up with a few that I would like to share:
(Matthew 6:19ff) Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, although to get there, you will need large oil reserves, so forget the first part of what I said; store up for yourselves oil on earth, so that you will have treasure in heaven. Or (Matthew 6:25ff) Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body what you will wear. Worry about your oil; that’s the main thing. Worry about whether you have enough for you, and forget about everyone else; they are not your problem. Or (Matthew 7:7ff) Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you, unless of course you’re late and the bridegroom answers, in which case, you might as well forget it. Or (Matthew 7:12ff) In everything do unto others as you would have them do to you. In everything, that is, except oil, which changes all the rules.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like this message. It makes me uncomfortable. It appears to fly in the face of what I believe about God. It seems to contradict the core of so much of what Jesus taught about God’s generosity and abundance, and our call to extend hospitality to one another. It seems to imply that what matters isn’t mercy or hospitality or sacrifice for those who have less than us. Instead, it seems to imply that taking care of oneself, even hoarding resources in the name of Jesus is what matters most. And if that is true, then instead of “Feeding the Five Thousand” we may end up with “How A Few Prepared Followers Made it into Heaven.”
And if that is what the Gospel is about, then we honestly don’t need it, because that is a message we have already received loud and clear. We are literally surrounded by it. We live in a world where success is equated with being more prepared, where having more oil equals more power, more security, and, we hope, more happiness. Turn on the television and you are bombarded with the message that more oil will get you everything you ever desired. American culture teaches our children when we are young that having enough stuff is the most important thing. That being self-sufficient is what matters most. That a big paycheck makes you a better person. That having less or that unfortunate circumstances are somehow deserved.
That’s one reason why so many smart young people flocked to the financial sector in the early 2000s—rather than pursuing careers in medicine, or social work, or early education, our youth had gotten the message loud in clear that what mattered more was having more “oil” than everyone else—so they took jobs with big paychecks and little impact on the well-being of others. Jobs that encouraged them to take the kinds of risks that played a role in the economic crisis that we find ourselves in today.
But, we believe in the Gospel because we know there has to be more to it than that. We follow Jesus because he calls us to something better than looking out for number one. We already know how to care only about ourselves. But we want to follow the God who challenges us—to love our neighbor, and share our resources. We want to believe in something bigger than me.
So I have to believe that this isn’t what Jesus is trying to tell us—this can’t merely be a parable about looking out for number one and hoarding your oil. And if that isn’t what this parable is about, then we have to ask ourselves—what is Jesus trying to say?
The key, I think, is right there in the text itself, although we may not notice it at first. The text, you see, is silent about so much—we don’t know, for example, how much oil each woman had to begin with. The text is silent. But we do know this: when these young women went out to meet the bridegroom, the wise ones took a flask of oil with them, and the foolish ones didn’t. And so, when the bridegroom was delayed, the wise women had enough oil to keep their lamps lit, and the foolish women found that they didn’t have enough with them to keep their light shining.
I wonder if this isn’t so much a parable about who has the most oil, as it is about those who remember bring their oil with them when they go out into the world. Perhaps this is a text about what we carry with us as we live our lives for Christ. Maybe, to be wise rather than foolish is to carry with you that which keeps your light shining for Jesus. For indeed each of us, if we follow Jesus, seeks to shine Christ’s light all around us. We say as much when we baptize new Christians, asking them to be a light that shines for Christ in the world.
But Lord knows our lights don’t shine on their own—even the brightest flame dies down to nothing if it has nothing to sustain it. And our faith is much the same. Each and every one of us must find ways to nourish and sustain the spark of divine light that flickers within us. And whatever those reserves are, we must use them. We must carry them with us, for if we do not, we risk letting our light die.
And we cannot let the light of Christ that is within us burn out, for it is that light that sustains us as we walk the road of discipleship. To carry your lamp is to live the life Christ has called us to. It is that light which encourages us as we do the work of God. It is that light, for example, that sustained Amos as he raged against the injustice around him, calling his brothers and sisters to care not just for themselves but for the poor, and the helpless, and the outcast. It was the light within him that gave him courage to speak when he knew that speech could mean the end of him. It was the light that he tended which pierced the darkness of his age and brought the people back to God.
We too can burn our lamps for the sake of Jesus, who promises that we pierce the darkness when we feed the hungry and the thirsty, tend to the sick, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, pray for the hopeless, welcome the stranger, speak for those who have no voice, and walk in the way of the cross. And if we keep oil in the lamp, if we take care of our spiritual lives and tend to them carefully, then we too will be able to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord.