November 6, 2011
“Is It All About the Oil?”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Something happened to me in my sermon preparation this week that has never happened before. Ever. My study bible is the Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version published by Oxford University Press. I’ve worn out two copies and am now on my third copy of the Oxford Annotated. It’s my bible of choice. The primary tool of my trade. This week I found a mistake in it, a typo, a printing error. Here in Matthew 25, in the parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens. The bible on my desk has an error in it when it comes to the response of the bridegroom to the foolish bridesmaids, the “I don’t’ know you part” is messed up. After the banquet door was shut at v. 10, my study bible reads like this: “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you. Lord, Lord, open to us.’ But he you. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Of course the error makes no sense but it tickles me that the word of judgment (I don’t know you) is switched to the bridesmaids. You might be interested to know that I didn’t discover the mistake until Thursday morning. I read the sermon text each morning at my desk. Monday through Wednesday, I didn’t even see the mistake. So much for a careful reading. The printing typo, it must be a kind of projected Freudian slip; my reading, my bible. Messing with the judgment part; because when it comes to this parable I don’t find the “I don’t know you part” all that compelling anyway. When Jesus, here in Matthew’s gospel begins with “the kingdom of heaven will be like this….”, it’s not judgment, or fear, or urgency that draws me in. You would have no trouble finding preachers who rush to the closed door and the bridegroom’s denial of familiarity and God’s judgment, but not me.
The kingdom of heaven will be like this, Jesus said. And he told the parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. I have to tell you, I hope the kingdom of heaven isn’t going to be one big wedding reception. That feeling of mine might be something of an occupational hazard. But with all due respect to the weddings I’ve done, the weddings I will do, the weddings in preparation now, the kingdom of heaven yet to come, and the glimpses of the kingdom of heaven now better be more than beautiful attire, an open bar, and forever dancing to the song “Shout!” If you treat this parable as an allegory, you can drain all the meaning you can out of it. You can squeeze it so tight that every detail means something; squeeze it until there’s not much life left to it. That Jesus is the bridegroom, that the maidens represent the church, that the banquet is the kingdom, that the closed door is final judgment, that the delay of the bridegroom is the Second Coming. Well, if the kingdom is all really about a wedding, if the kingdom will be exactly like a wedding, then the delay of the bridegroom isn’t about the Second Coming of Jesus, it’s just all about the photographer. Who are we kidding? When Jesus, here in Matthew’s gospel begins with “the kingdom of heaven will be like this….”, it’s not the wedding that draws me in.
The core of the parable, the focus of the story, the creative center, the plot turn, it all has to do with the oil. It really is all about the oil. All ten maidens were ready for the ball. All ten had to wait. All of them became drowsy. All of them slept. All of them heard the shout. All of them got up and lit their lamps. These ancient lamps didn’t hold a lot of oil to begin with. The burning life of a lamp, the length of the burn would not have been a secret to anyone. The wise ones took a flask of oil along in order to keep the fire burning. It wasn’t gallons, but it was enough; enough for the wait, enough for the party, enough for the day, enough for the night. As my colleague Anna Carter Florence writes, “it’s not about how much oil you have, it’s about how much you carry with you.” But it is all about the oil.
When it comes to the history of interpretation of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish maidens, in the history of an allegorical approach, the oil has been understood as good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeds of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. Hearers of the Word shouldn’t be asked to pick one. You drill down to far on the oil, you get too specific about what it means, and the parable loses some its luster. What sets the wise apart from the foolish is not simply that they act on the teaching of Jesus. The parable goes deeper than the Epistle of James. It’s not all about the works. Its about the oil. The wise draw upon the resource necessary to live the faith filled life today, and tonight, and tomorrow. The oil? Is it faith? Is it spiritual practices? Is it deeds of discipleship? Is it acts of love and mercy? The answer is yes. All mixed with a bit of grace, and the Holy Spirit, a bit of fellowship and praise and a lot of prayer. A kingdom life. Yes, they all had to wait for the bridegroom to come, but when the lamps were trimmed, their light had to shine right then and there, right now.
I stood in line at the grocery store the other day behind a woman who was reading a magazine she picked up there at the check out. The older man working the register greeted her, and she said nothing, just kept reading. She held out her McCaffery’s card to be scanned without looking up. After all her purchases had gone through, the clerk reached for the magazine to ring it up. “Oh no, I’m not buying this, I’m just reading it” she said; without looking up. He bagged all her groceries while she read. She waited for her receipt with her hand in the air, still reading. He said thank you, she said nothing. Never even looked at him. Just walked away, back around the register, still reading, to put the magazine back. Someone should have tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Have you not had your grace today?” A little dose of kindness. An act of generosity. A warm greeting. It all starts with being claimed by grace; God’s grace for each and every day. As the preacher Fred Craddock once said, “It’s hard to go out and bless the world when your own life is in chaos.” Good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeds of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. A life of faith-filled generosity…it can only start with you being claimed by God’s grace. The oil you carry. A spark of grace. A light that shines. Just a dose of grace, every day.
In the novel Gilead, the father and preacher and narrator of the text that is in the form of a letter to his son is Rev. Ames. At one point Rev Ames tells of standing in the sanctuary one Sunday morning after everyone had left the building. “The elements were still on the table and the candles were still burning,” he writes, “your mother brought you up to me [in her arms] and said, ‘you ought to give him some of that.’ (referring to the bread and grape juice there on the table). You’re too young, of course, but she was completely right. Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you. Your solemn and beautiful child face lifted up to receive these mysteries at my hand. They are the most wonderful mystery…” Just a dose of grace.
When the lamps were trimmed, their light had to shine right then and there, right now. The lamps weren’t all that big and could not have burned all that long. This tiny lamp I bought in an antiquities shop in Jerusalem. I know you can’t really see it, but that’s partly the point. I checked how much oil would fill this lamp. It is about this much (a communion cup). A cup and a half.
Your faith filled life today, tonight, and tomorrow. Good works, faith, spiritual practices, deeps of discipleship, acts of love and mercy. Now. Right now. Not their light, or his light, or her light, not your grandmother’s light, or your child’s light, or your neighbor’s light. Your light today, tonight, and tomorrow. A spark of grace and your kingdom life that shines.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” Matthew’s Jesus said after the parable was finished. That’s kind of odd since the wise, along with the foolish fell asleep. If it’s all about the oil, make sure you carry enough with you for today, and tonight, and tomorrow. Live the life that Jesus teaches right now.
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