This story/parable has always bothered me. Just like the ethical hypothetical situation of the overcrowded boat (question: who would you throw overboard?), I want there to be other options. Why can’t the oil be shared? Why do the bridesmaids have to have lamps anyway? What is this about really?
I’m sure our picture of this story has been influenced by its popularity in the Middle Ages. It featured the dichotomy of choices (good vs. bad) and the reward/punishment for each. I certainly think that it is no mistake that these are women (remember the descendants of Eve who got the whole human race in trouble), and not just any women, but young, unworldly-wise ones at that (some of the biblical titles call this the parable of the virgins). It has everything you need—scantily clad young ladies, angels and demons, all with a veneer of religiosity. What more could you want?
It seems a bit unfair that those who are not really “in the know” get punished for their naivete—and so maybe that is why some stress the wise and foolish aspect of these virgins. I’ve relabeled the whole story as 5 people who were “ready and willing” and 5 others who were “just there.”
One other comment—the last verse, “keep awake” is often used as the summary of this story, which makes NO sense, since we are specifically told that when the bridegroom is delayed, ALL of them slept.
So what is this about? And what could it possibly mean for us?
I started with the image of oil and quickly found that oil is part of the life blood of this culture. It is considered one of the three staples of life (bread, wine, oil). It is used in all kinds of “every day” functions. It was mixed in food; it was rubbed into your skin and your leather weapons to make them supple; it was used for anointing (especially for investiture of the king); it was the principal trade export; it was used as a sunscreen; it was used to anoint the dead; it was mixed with grain in the morning and evening sacrifices lifted up to God; and, of course, it was used as fuel for lamps. You can’t get away from oil.
The other thing that we need to remember, is how this oil is produced. Olives that grow abundantly in Israel are harvested, and then they need to be squeezed and pressed and strained. That extra virgin olive oil that is all the rage is taken from the first press, the highest quality oil skimmed off the top. Olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, doesn’t grow on trees, it takes hard work and time to make it.
Ding, ding, ding. Maybe the oil is a hidden clue to something else. What else takes hard work and time? What else can’t be shared when the bridegroom comes (when the final days roll around)? What makes us ready and willing instead of just here?
In Jewish (and Christian) culture we are expected to live life according to the Scriptures (remember Jesus’ insistence that we listen to those sitting on Moses’ seat?). We are to act in love for both God and our fellow human beings. Let’s just call that “good deeds.” What makes us ready and willing?—how we live our everyday lives, how we spread the justice and joy of God over everything that we touch, how we shine, how we keep our “lamps trimmed and burning.”
So, if this oil in our story is not just physical oil, but the good deeds that we do, the sum total of our witness during our lives, it becomes more apparent why this cannot be shared. You can’t just give away your good deeds to those who have none. Listen to these words from Rabbi Laibl Wolf, a spiritual teacher of Kabbalah, “In Jewish mysticism, oil is the symbol of esoteric depth and insight. It is procured after much hard work (like the squeezing and compressing of the olive, and then straining out the impurities). Oil represents the wisdom of life’s experience coupled with mind growth” (Chabad.org, “The Oil of Wisdom” Laibl Wolf).
So, now I want to go back to our story and see it with fresh eyes.
We are all bridesmaids—we have gotten our invitation to the party, we are even special guests. We have a role to play.
We are all “new to this”/virgins—there isn’t a hierarchy of how many times you’ve been a bridesmaid, or how many weddings you’ve seen, or whether you’ve been holding your lamp for five minutes or 70 years. We all come to God’s party wide-eyed, and unsure of what will happen next.
We all end up getting tired and falling asleep while we wait. This one is especially important for our culture of immediate gratification. We want to know WHEN the Kingdom of God is coming?—how come we can’t see it popping up all over? Why is it taking so long?
Sometimes, we get tired. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed with what needs to be done in our world, what fights are still to be won (or re-won), how little seems to have changed over the years. Sometimes, we take a breather—a nap even. And there is no fault, no blame, no condemnation. But this is where the ready and willing part comes in.
Not all are ready and willing.
Seasons of the Spirit had a cute little rhyme meant for the kids, but I think it speaks to us older people as well. It goes like this:
10 young bridesmaids with lamps burning fine.
One ran out of oil, and then there were 9.
9 young bridesmaids said, “The bridegroom is late.”
One ran out of oil, and then there were 8.
8 young bridesmaids said, “Now it’s past eleven!”
One ran out of oil, and then there were 7.
7 young bridesmaids, with brightly burning wicks.
One ran out of oil, and then there were 6.
6 young women asked, “When will he arrive?”
One ran out of oil, and then there were 5.
5 young bridesmaids standing in the room
“Finally, he’s coming! Here comes the groom.”
5 young bridesmaids with lamps burning bright
Went to the wedding and shared their light.
Just like the bridesmaids, we make choices, too,
We can let our light shine, depending on what we do.
Jesus sees the world as split down the middle. 5 bridesmaids are ready and willing. 5 are just there. So we can’t expect “the world” or even those we meet to be on one side or the other—it’s a 50/50 proposition. And I find that interesting. You can’t make too many blanket statements—because you have a good chance of being wrong about whether a certain person is ready and willing or not. Unlike the Middle Ages where they were sure they knew who was getting into the wedding and who wasn’t, Jesus makes it an even distribution. At least he does in his story.
For the whole point is to change those numbers. The whole point of the story is to ask—are you like the wise bridesmaids? Do you have extra oil in case the bridegroom is delayed? Are you ready and willing? Are your lamps trimmed and burning, and will they continue to burn?
Do you notice that both those who are wise and those who are foolish are all together? There is no segregation, no gated communities, no up the hill and down the hill, no D’s or R’s, no sides. And I like the fact that there are others in your same position. This is not meant to be a solitary vigil. It is meant to be something endured in community, even in community with those who either don’t want to be ready and willing, or don’t realize they are just hanging out. I notice that the ready and willing ones are hopeful that the others can make up for their deficit—they don’t taunt or belittle. They send them to the dealers—I want to believe hoping that they can get back in time for the wedding.
But I do notice that there will come a time when the wedding party goes in, and the door is shut. A warning to us that we can’t wait forever to gather our oil.
There’s one more allusion to oil that I want to interject. And that is the story of Hanukkah. The story of Maccabean fighters trying to stay true to their faith against their Greek-Syrian oppressors. The story of the precious oil of the temple, which should only have lasted one day, but burned for eight.
It is like the story in I Kings of the last grain and oil that the widow of Zarephath shares with the prophet Elijah and then finds that she never runs out. Somehow God get mixed up in all this oil business. Because it sure doesn’t feel like we have enough oil, enough energy, enough spark, to do what needs to be done in our world. And even if we combine our oils, even if we create a bonfire, it seems so puny, and we are aware of how often we run out of fuel.
But we aren’t in this business alone. It’s not just us creating this oil that will light the way for the bridegroom, for Jesus, for the coming of the kingdom, for God’s reign. Our little lights, our meager oil, our small kindnesses, are magnified by the grace and goodness of God. They burn brighter and longer and hotter than we could ever imagine.
Jesus wants us tobe like those bridesmaids.
Expecting the bridegroom at any minute.
Hanging on, even if we sometimes need a nap.
Enjoying the company of all those around us.
Ready and willing, saving up our extra oil for when it is needed.
Trusting that God will multiply whatever we bring.
And so we wait, together, praying:
May God’s kingdom come, soon. Alleluia, Amen.