Wednesday, 5 November 2014

It's not about the oil!

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

This wonderful hymn of Charles Wesley captures the central message of Christian hope – Jesus comes with all his grace.  It is God who acts and it is God alone who draws into deeper that relationship of divine eternity.  I often remind myself that the answer is Jesus, the answer is always Jesus.

But then Jesus tells his disciples a story, a parable, which leaves me bamboozled: the story told to us from Matthew’s gospel is one of those stories.  How do we hear this story as a story that is filled with God’s grace?

Let’s listen to the story a little more closely and consider what might be going here.

Now Jesus was teaching the disciples, he was critiquing the Pharisees and he was speaking about the return of the Son of Man.  The ideas seem to overlay one another as they coalesce in this parable of the 10 bridesmaids.

The story tell us about 10 bridesmaids who are waiting to meet the bridegroom.  It is my understanding that part of the Jewish tradition of the time that bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family where the party would continue and the marriage would be consummated.

The task of the bridesmaids was to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived.

So all 10 turn up, they have lamps which we can safely assuming are filled with oil and burning and they begin
their vigil waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Now Middle Eastern schedules of the ancient world were not unlike the schedules of some cultures that we can still encounter.  Unga and I sometimes speak about Tongan or Pacific time.  Basically it means you turn up when you turn up, which, of course, for some of us who are punctuality perfectionists can be more than a little aggravating.

So the bridesmaids wait... and they wait... and they wait... and they collectively doze off.  All 10 of to sleep!

Suddenly there is a fuss and a flutter as the figure of the bridegroom approaches.  Now is their moment, now is their time!

But the oil has run low and an issue arises and becomes somewhat ironically enflamed.

Five of the bridesmaids had brought extra oil whilst five had not – they were out and they needed more.  So the five who had run out turn to their sisters, their friends, their family and they say please share, give us oil for our lamps, keep them burning.

But the wise ones say no, there is not enough to go around.  No, we have ours and we are going to the party.

Now I have to say at this point on so many occasions I have heard this parable spoken about I have been told that I should be like one of these wise ones and have extra oil for my lamps, extra faith maybe, extra preparedness – whatever it means.

But I have to admit on reading the parable again I do not want to be associated with the wise ones in any way shape or form.

In Matthew 5:40-41 Jesus teaches, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

At the heart of Jesus messages lies a generous God who invites us to generosity even at great cost to ourselves.   I can’t but help think of Paul’s second letter to the Philippians in which we find the great kenosis hymn.  Kenosis is about self-emptying; Jesus empties himself of all to share in our existence.

The example and behaviour of the so-called wise ones to me is abhorrent.  There is almost an air of smug self-satisfaction as they go off to the party.  We got in because we are wise.  Do they not care about those left behind? Those outside? Those who are excluded? Their sisters? Their friends?

How often has your heart broken with the notion that someone that you love might be excluded from the loving kingdom of God because they did not have enough faith, knowledge, commitment?  Is this the God we encounter in the scriptures? In Jesus?

At this moment the wise ones appear to me more like the Pharisees that Jesus is often criticising.

What happens to those women left waiting outside?  They act.  They did not sit idly by and give up, they race off to the market in the middle night and somehow find someone to provide them with more oil.  In the middle of the night! Their lamps were already out so they find their way through dark streets to get what they need and they return.  What an effort!

They return to the house of the bride and they knock on the door equipped and ready to help the party arriving in their own time but the way is shut.  The interaction sounds so final, so condemning.

The other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’

How does this fit in any way, shape or form with what Jesus teaches in Matthew 7?

‘Ask, and it will be given to you;
search, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.
For everyone who asks receives,
and everyone who searches finds,
and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

The way remains shut! 

Inside are a group who refused to do what Jesus taught – share generously, even if it means your own suffering.  Outside is a group who are experiencing rejection despite their last ditched efforts to knock on the door, which Jesus said would be opened.  How do we make sense of this situation?

Jesus sums up the parable with these perplexing words:

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Were you listening carefully?  This hit me like brick this week.  Jesus does not mention oil nor the wisdom or folly of those who bring extra or those who fail to.

Jesus critique is for those who fall asleep. Remember verse 5, As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  I can just hear Paul saying to the Romans in his letter, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God!”

Jesus dire warning to the disciples is to stay awake – to be ready for what is hand, to be engaged with his presence, as the presence of the kingdom of heaven.

I wonder does anyone remember what happens in Matthew 26.  In the next Chapter of Matthew, Jesus shares the last supper with his disciples and then heads out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  He takes Peter and James and John and asks them to wait for him and stay awake with him as he prays.  The disciples, who had not long before heard the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and the injunction to stay awake, go to sleep.

They go to sleep as their master struggle with his fate and prepares for the ending of his life.  Three times Jesus has to awaken the disciples, they were not ready, and the third time it is tell them that his betrayer is at hand.

What a perplexing scene we are left with.  Bridesmaids inside that seem selfish, bridesmaids outside excluded, disciples who fall asleep.

Where is hope?

In Matthew 27 we are told about another door that is shut, a stone rolled by Joseph of Arimathea across the tomb of Jesus.  A door closed; a barrier between life and death, between the incarnate God and the creation. This door is the most impenetrable of doors.  How can we rise above these perplexing questions?

Matthew reports that three days later Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb and as they approach there was an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven who opens the tomb.  Inviting the women inside he tells them, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.’

We have been wise and we have been foolish, we have been asked to stay awake and we have slept yet the promise of God’s love remains:

Jesus comes with all his grace
Comes to save a fallen race
Object of our glorious hope
Jesus comes to lift us

It is not the extra oil, it is not running off into the night to get the oil, it is not knocking on the door and it is not even staying awake that makes the difference.  It Jesus himself who burst forth into new life, risen from the dead, the opens the doors and reawakens us – God is with us, God desires the best for us, God invites us to celebrate with the bridegroom as he shares his life with us.

Stay awake and be alert for the presence of the risen Lord is with us. Thanks be to God.


  1. Thank you for your post on this lesson! I found it particularly refreshing and helpful. I am faced with preaching on this lesson in the morning, so it is on my mind.

    The Rev. Dr. Jeff Sells
    St. Paul's Anglican Church
    San Miguel de Allende, Gto, Mx

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. All I have read and reflected upon, until now, has remained focused upon preparedness, in some way, and it has not fit well with my understanding of the radical grace we know in Jesus.