“Oil and Door”
November 12th, 2023
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Today we are starting our discussion of the parables of Matthew 25. There are three parables—the ten bridesmaids, the giving of the talents, and the sheep and the goats. They are all considered to be judgement parables—with a stern warning from Matthew that if we don’t get it right, we will find ourselves in the place where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth!
We begin with the parable of the Ten bridesmaids or the Ten virgins or the wise and foolish virgins. This is one of the parables that is only found in Matthew. Let’s review what happens.
There is a wedding party, and we remember that wedding parties in this part of the world are quite long, usually, several day affairs. It appears that the bridegroom has been delayed, and so the bridesmaids (notice that we never find out where our bride is!), are left standing in the road, outside the door of the place where the party is to be. And, since it seems that this affair is happening after nightfall, these bridesmaids have lamps and the lamps require oil to keep them lit. I’m imagining that the bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom so they can escort him with their lamps (although he will have come down the road before he meets them and must have his own lamps). Leave that be.
So, some of the bridesmaids think ahead, and bring with them extra oil (do they know that this bridegroom is notoriously late? The wonderful song from “My Fair Lady” “Get Me to the Church On Time?” comes into my mind). Some of the bridesmaids do not bring extra oil. The bridegroom is so late that they all fall asleep. And are only awakened by a shout, “The bridegroom is coming! Let the procession begin!”
And so all ten bridesmaids get up and get themselves ready. But their lamps have burned down and need more oil. So the ones who had not brought extra oil with them asked the ones who had, “Can we have some of your oil?” And the “wise” bridesmaids say “No. There won’t be enough for us all. Go to the dealers and buy your own.” So ½ the group goes to find oil, and while they are gone—the bridegroom appears. The procession goes on with those who are ready, they go into the house and shut the door.
Then the other bridesmaids, who had to go get more oil appear and ask for entrance to the party. And the bridegroom says, “Go away. I do not know you.” Cue stern warning: “Stay awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I have to confess that I’ve never really liked this parable. I mean…
--it shuts the door on people
--in one version, it identifies women by their sexual status (virgins) as if we were talking about horses or cattle
--And there are so many things that just don’t add up like:
--Why are they having their wedding party so late?
--What kind of stores that sell oil are open at midnight?
--And how can the point of the parable (the moral at the end—Stay Awake) be something that is at odds with the actual parable itself?
My musings today were fired by a wonderful article by Dr. Victoria Balabanski (a lecturer at a university in South Australia) called “Where is the good news?” highlighted in Seasons of the Spirit. (Just an aside here, Seasons of the Spirit has decided to cease publication as of the end of this month! I will miss their wonderful help in ideas for liturgy and their global writers. They will be hard to replace.)
So let’s start with my bristling with this parable shutting the door on people. I’m not sure why this irks me so, when the parable of the sheep and the goats throws some into the outer darkness.
But maybe it is because I have this history of trying to get around stupid rules and impossible situations (like not having enough oil). How do the supposedly “wise” ones know that there is not enough oil for them to share? If the bridegroom is announced, how much time would the lamps have to be lighted for? In other words, why can’t everyone be included?
Now, of course, the scholars among us will argue that oil isn’t really oil in this parable. Oil (as I have presented in other sermons on this text) is really a symbol of our relationship with God, our readiness to do God’s work. Oil is used to anoint the kings (think of Saul and think of David!). Oil was a visible sign of God’s presence with a person. “Oil” as such is not really a shareable commodity. You can’t give a piece of your deep prayer life to another. It doesn’t work that when we come to the judgment time, that those who have done more than their share of good works can just pull some of them out of their pockets and give them to those who might be a little deficient. You get the idea. Oil isn’t really oil.
Maybe Jesus is talking in these very stern terms to jumpstart people into being ready for the coming of the Kin-dom. Maybe Jesus wants us to be wise and not foolishly think that we can live our lives as we please and not “repent,” turning towards God. Maybe Jesus wants to make the point that “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself” needs to have actual action of loving involved. This seems more the moral of the story, rather than stay awake (which no one in the story does!).
And, furthermore, in this holiday time, the mention of oil reminds me of the Hannukah story—where a small amount of oil lighting the menorah burning in the temple during the time of the Maccabean revolt, oil that was only enough for one day, by a miracle, burned for eight!
And that reminded me of the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son, when she only had enough oil and flour to make one last meal, and Elijah says if she makes it for him, she will not run out of oil (a story found in 1 Kings 17:8-16). She makes Elijah, a foreigner, her last cake, and as he said, the oil and the flour did not give out for the whole length of the famine. (There’s a lot more to the story and I commend it to your reading pleasure).
The point is that are stories about oil that suggest when we think something is not enough, by faith it becomes enough. And that makes me wonder: Could that mean that the “wise” ones just didn’t have enough faith that the oil that they had could have been enough for them all? How do we square the “love your neighbor as yourself” with saying, “no, I can’t share because then there won’t be enough for me”? Could there have been a miracle of oil in this case as well? I’ll leave you to puzzle that one out.
Dr. Balabanski suggests that this parable was reworked over time. And that the last portion, the bridegroom response, and the “moral” were added later by those telling the story after the death of Jesus. Would this make a difference in how the original parable felt? That got me to thinking. We often think of Jesus as the bridegroom. I mean, the bridegroom is called “Lord” (as would any person of privilege). But the Bridegroom answers the foolishly unprepared ones with “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.” And for those of us who have been hearing Matthew’s gospel for all this time, if there is someone who says, “Truly, I tell you…” it is Jesus!
But what if we uncouple Jesus from the bridegroom in this parable—which might have some merit since the bridegroom himself is pretty petty when he won’t recognize part of his wedding party, and locks the door on them! A fairly ungracious and unloving thing to do. If the bridegroom isn’t Jesus, then we can ask: In this wedding scenario, at the moment when the door is shut—where is Jesus? Is he inside with those who were ready? Or is it possible that he is outside with those who weren’t?
All that we know of Jesus speaks to the second possibility. And if Jesus were with those outside the door, wouldn’t that underline the idea that we are supposed to open doors. That we are to make what we have be enough for everyone. That part of being ready isn’t just a personal task, but inspires us to try to bring along as many guests to the banquet as we can. That maybe those “foolish” bridesmaids could be seen as “the least of these, my brothers and sisters.”
I hear more gospel echoes. The gospel of John is famous for its way of talking about Jesus in “I Am” statements. The most famous is probably, I am the way and the truth and the life. But there is also I am the resurrection and the life. I am the vine and you are the branches. I am the light of the world. I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. And one we don’t often talk about: I am the door (or in other versions, I am the gate).
“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the door for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’” (John 10:7-10)
What if Jesus is the door. And that door opens wide for the sheep. In fact, the good shepherd goes looking for the sheep that are lost so that they too can go through the door, the gate, and graze in green pastures and drink of still waters. If we seek the Kin-dom of God we are told, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” I think Jesus might have something to say about that shut door.
And shut doors, especially this close to the end of Matthew’s gospel, this close to the passion narrative (even though we are getting ready for Christmas, our parables are right before the story of Jesus’ death), in that context, shut doors remind us of the stone rolled across Jesus’ tomb. Surely that is a shut door if ever there was one.
For all those long hours of grief, the stone rolled across the tomb opening was a terrible barrier. And the disciples were shut outside. Not able to even be with the body of their Lord.
But we know that the stone does not stay there. We know that God rolls away the stone. God opens the door and then there is life after death, then there is a mixing up of who is outside and who is inside, then there can be that Kin-dom that Jesus talks about in parables, maybe even the parable of the ten bridesmaids.
--Maybe I just want to believe that God made doors to be opened.
--Maybe I just want a world that can imagine there might be enough for everyone, if we were willing to share.
--Maybe I just want a happier ending than “Stay Awake” when that means there are some who are left out in the cold.
--Maybe I just want us to be able to hear the call—be ready, practice what you preach, Love God and neighbor and self every day, stay awake, on the one hand,
AND on the other hand
--Know that Jesus is always a door, a gate, a way, a light for our way, our bread for the journey, our steadfast vine, our shepherd even for lost sheep
Yes, Jesus is our resurrection and our life.
We are anointed with oil that we can share with others.
And we are given keys to open the door to a better world.
May we be ready.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.