If you have ever read a bible passage and had as many questions after
reading as you did when you started, you aren’t alone. Today’s parable from
Jesus can leave us with lots of questions. The thing with parables is that they
are teaching tools, to start discussions – they are not meant to be exact
replicas of reality. So there are always ways that the parable is going to be
like the kingdom of God and ways that it isn’t.
For example, in the parable of the bridesmaids and the oil, the wise
bridesmaids refuse to share, and because of that the foolish bridesmaids are
locked out. Does that mean in the kingdom of God sharing is bad? No, of course
not, in kindergarten we are taught to share with others. It is one of the most
important things that we can do. And other places in scripture affirm that, even
the parables that Jesus tells right near this one in the bible, but in this
story something else is happening. The point isn’t about not sharing. So what
is going on here?
One thing that might help is to know that the word bridesmaid is really
deceptive, the actual word means a young unmarried woman. So what we have here
are 10 young unmarried women waiting for the groom.
So this could be a story about competition between the women to see who
would get to marry the groom. Which explains their unwillingness to share – The
stingy one won’t share with one who didn’t plan well, because then she might
not end up getting married. They are rivals for the affections of the groom.
But again that is not what the kingdom of God is like. We are not in a
competition with each other for God’s attention. God isn’t going to pick just
one of us, but invites a whole multitude. So why would Jesus compare people
seeking God with a group of rival women competing for a husband? It sounds like
a bad comparison.
One possible explanation is offered by the Jewish Annotated New Testament.
It reminds us that in Jewish tradition, oil is often a metaphor for
righteousness or good deeds.
So it may very well be that Jesus is telling us to make sure that we have
filled the lamps of our lives with the oil of good deeds, so that when the
groom comes we can show just how brightly our lives burned. But that still
makes it sound like there is a competition in life and that some of us have
done enough good deeds and others haven’t. I think it lends itself too easily
into the mistaken idea that we must do a certain amount of good deeds in order
to get into heaven. Plus, how many of Jesus listeners would have been able to
catch that symbolism?
While I was thinking about all of this I ran into that interesting
retelling of the parable, that was read for you; where the planners and the
last minuters are attending a protest.
This retelling reminds us that it isn’t the idea of sharing or not, and it
isn’t that there is a competition to see who can meet with the mayor – the
issue is whether or not the people were prepared for the long haul. Were they
ready for whatever the situation called for? Pure and simple. I think what
Jesus was trying to get his listeners to be ready, they don’t know the day or
hour when the bridegroom will come. That’s the point. Ignore the other stuff,
it just gets in the way.
So I think Jesus is trying to get us to think of ourselves as young women,
who very much want to impress a young man, and you don’t know when he is going to
arrive. Clearly, the bridegroom is the Christ, the messiah, and Jesus is
telling them, they never know when the Christ may come, and they should be
ready. (The irony is that he was sitting there with them at that moment as he
taught this – and some of them were clearly didn’t realize it). Consider what
he must have been thinking and feeling as he said to them, “Keep alert, because
you don’t know the day or the hour.” Perhaps he smiled, perhaps he shook his
head sadly as he thought, “Some of you don’t even realize the bridegroom is
here. You aren’t ready, and soon it may be too late.”
In the little book, Laughter in Appalachia, Fred Park of Berea, Kentucky
tells a story about a man named Quill. Quill lived way back in the woods where
he hunted and fished all the time. Quill didn't pay any attention to the
hunting seasons or laws or anything, and he knew the woods better than the game
The game warden had been trying to catch Quill for a long time. Today was
the day. He knew Quill would be up early to go fishing. So the game warden
sneaked down there in the middle of the night and hid on top of Quill's house.
This way he knew he had the jump on Quill. He'd let him head out and then he'd
follow him. His plan was to hide in the woods until Quill had caught a large,
illegal bunch of fish, and he'd catch him.
As it started to get a little bit of daylight, the game warden could hear
Quill get up, start a fire, and put the coffee on. His stomach started growling
at the smell of that coffee and those fresh smelling biscuits as they baked in
the oven. He could hardly contain himself. Suddenly out walked Quill on the
porch and hollered, "Come on down here and git some of this coffee and
biscuits while they're hot! I know you're out there!" He went back in and
shut the door.
The game warden could not believe it. He climbed down and walked up on the
porch and into the house and exclaimed, "Well, how did you know I was out
Quill said, "I didn't. I walk out there and say that ever morning,
just in case ye are!" Quill may not have been a genius, but he knew enough
to take precautions. He was ready!
That is what Jesus is telling the people there sitting with him. “Come on down
here. You should be looking every day for the Messiah, expecting him to be with
you. Because you never know he might be out there in the woods, and if you
aren’t ready you might be in a heap of trouble.”
But what does the story mean for us, who live in the days after Christ has
come? Many think it is referring to Christ’s second coming, and being ready for
that. But I wonder about that, because that certainly isn’t what he was
thinking of when he shared it with the people sitting around him. He was there,
Rather, I think the message for us today has more to do with how we live
our lives. Like young women wanting to impress the groom, our love for God
should have a sense of eagerness of being in God’s presence, we should have a
sense of striving our very best to please God.
After all, if you want to impress the handsomest hunk, you do everything
possible to get ready. You don’t do it half-heartedly, and you certainly don’t
wait until the last minute.
You still should be living every day with the expectation that you will
meet the messiah, you might see him in the face of a person who is suffering,
you might find yourself on your deathbed, perhaps he will come again in the
clouds tomorrow, whatever the method of meeting him, you should be living with
the expectation of it happening at any time. So you should be trying to impress
Here Jesus is not telling us to compete with our neighbors and try to keep
them from getting into heaven, nor is he telling us that God is measuring the
oil of our lives and will judge us based upon our works. No, it is more likely
Jesus is telling us, be a like a young girl waiting for her boyfriend, be so in
love with God that you are doing everything you can to show it, so that when
the day comes that God calls you into heaven, your light is bright for all to see.
Of course, there is one other possibility. And I save this for last because
it is so counter to our normal reading of the passage. What I am saying here
will make more sense over the next couple of weeks as we look at the next two
parables of Jesus.
But it is possible that Jesus is actually critiquing the women who won’t
share their oil. The bridegroom has been sighted, he is right there before
them. How much oil do their lamps need? Honestly, not much, just enough to burn
for a short time. If they had shared their oil, everyone would have gotten in. Jesus
may be critiquing those who are afraid to be generous, whose selfishness
prevents others from getting to see the Christ. This is an interesting twist
that Jesus may have hoped would come out in discussion as they talked about the
kingdom of God. So I would add it as a second thing to consider, after first
reading it as a reminder to prepare ourselves, read it also as a reminder to
help others prepare themselves for God as well. They also need oil for their
lamps, and quite honestly you have it. The message of God’s love is that oil,
give it to them, so that they can enter in as well.