“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.
It is inevitable that in our days of mined fossil fuels, we should read this parable and reference it to lamp oil. Some kind of parafin or kerosene. That would not be correct. It is most likely that the oil that fueled the lamps of people in Jesus’ day would have been olive oil. The same marvelous stuff that was used in cooking but even more specially in the anointing of the sick and the blessing of visitors and other dignatories. It was also, as we know, a symbol of the Spirit of God.
The idea that this life giving substance so critical for light, cooking and blessing should become scarce was unthinkable. It would mean that the olive crop had failed. It was the worst of conditions that Habakkuk lists as the worst of times when he would still trust in God
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
Jesus is describing a coming age when he as the bridegroom, is delayed from the consumating feast and the welcoming party has to dig deep into its reserves of inspiration, or is that spiritual lubrication? The point being that the wise followers of Jesus are those who are able to be logistically strategic.
What does that mean?
At the most basic level it means staying awake and being prudent.
This is most graphically evident in monastic orders where from earliest times, it has meant the keeping of vigils and staying awake in the night watches, not merely as ritual but as a discipline of watchfulness.
For we third millennium Westerners who have daylight at night, and burn tons of fuel to have it so, this might not be a parable that communicates as effectively it did, to the first Christian communities.
Or could it be a parable about being resourced at all levels. Literal, Ethical, and Spiritual?
As a Baby Boomer I have lived long enough to see the red fuel light flashing on our global dashboard at all three levels.
We all know that there are no longer enough resources to feed the mouths we are bringing to birth. The lamps of livelihood and food security are literally flickering.
We are also seeing, most recently in the Jasmine revolution and on Wall Street, that executive power can no longer burn at full bore from the power-full without any concern for the long term consequences of their abuse of power and resources. The ethical flames are flickering.
Finally, it would seem that the ancient world’s religions of which ours is but one, are flickering too. All the major world’s religions (at least those who are not pursuing some hidden political passionate agenda) are showing declining numbers and interest.
The Wikis are Leaking indeed!
Even the flames of the faithful are flickering.
The challenge for us as preachers, working with this text is to be able to proclaim with some credible, passionate expectancy to a world so jaded that it scarce believes that there is a Bridegroom, let alone that he is coming back!
This parable challenges us to revisit our Eschatology (The part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.) To think that the Bridegroom has gone somewhere far away is to misunderstand the context of the parable. In the time of Jesus the bridegroom would have been away, fetching his bride, more than likely from a home in the same or a nearby, village. Jesus has not gone off far away. We are not abandoned at all.
I have a friend who is a keen scholar of Paul Tillich and who often says, “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent”
In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focussed so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God.
Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the other parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” (Don’t assume to much about the translation of tote as “Then” it can just as easily be translated “Consequently”)
The worst mistake I could possibly make is to forget that the Kingdom of the Heavens, the Divine Domain, is right here right now. It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.
There is no way that one can run out of Holy Spirit, the worst one could do is neglect the container. The error of the foolish virgins was not that they fell asleep, but that they were careless with their most critical resource, Spirit. Seems to me when I listen to the church at Mission meetings, Synods and Conferences, that we are in danger of making the same mistake. We have become negligent of Spirit. We have plans and programmes, strategies and skills sets; but to we have the simple resource of Spirit?
The light from a flickering lamp of faith is all that is required to watch and wait that despite all the gloomy shadows crawling on the walls, there is one who is coming to us in every moment. The Immanent Bridegroom beckons us to wake up to the fact that our faith is not a programme or a project it is a betrothal and celebration to the mystery and miracle of life in every moment day or night.
Don’t fall asleep.