Oil in the Lamp, Matthew 25:1-13

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“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom.Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

“When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’

“Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’

“But the wise bridesmaids replied, ‘No, because if we share with you, there won’t be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

11 “Later the other bridesmaids came and said, ‘Lord, lord, open the door for us.’

12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’

13 “Therefore, keep alert, because you don’t know the day or the hour.

–Matthew 25:1-13

 

People can go to extreme lengths to be “prepared.”

Take for example my old Scoutmaster, Mr. Menger. Mr. Menger was a great scoutmaster, and he, along with several of the adults in my scout troop, got me ready for a life of goodness, virtue and service. As many of you know, the Boy Scout Motto is “Be Prepared.” It’s a solid motto to live by, because you never know what you’re going to encounter in this world, especially in the wilds of nature.

Mr. Menger took the scout motto I think as far as it can go. The man had an REI bill that probably cost as much as a down payment on a house. The dude bought every gadget, gizmo, and state of the art wilderness survival tool money could buy. GPS trackers, titanium walking sticks, tents made of high tech fibers, boots that cost  far more than any boot could be worth, breathable Columbia and North Face hiking gear. You name it, he bought three of them.

Of course, inevitably half of the gizmos didn’t work or weren’t needed. I remember giving a hearty laugh when his titanium alloy walking stick broke in half.

He’s not alone though. More and more, people tend to stockpile and hoard out of a fear of not being ready.

Several years ago there was a show on National Geographic called Doomsday Preppers, where it would give an episode to different people preparing their houses–and their lives–for the end of the world. Be it through nuclear apocalypse or otherwise, they’d hoard weaponry, food, fuel, and other supplies, turning their house into a fortress. Happy homes transformed into castles, for the fear of the end.

It was a bleak show, but also a funny one in a way, at least to me. I’ve actually met people who prep in this way, stockpiling freeze-dried food and building silos for canned goods. In a way, to me, it’s a consumption and hoarding turned into a hobby, a lifestyle. This lifestyle is both sad and frightening, because in my mind, you’ve let fear define your life. Most of all? You’re preparing in the wrong way, according to Jesus Christ.

The parable of the Bridesmaids is, like many other parables, is simple to hear, but hard to grasp. On the face of it, it’s divisive between two groups of people, those prepared and those not. However, more meaning is always found beneath the surface. Jesus wants us to be prepared, to stay awake, and not be afraid or forgetful of what is truly important.

Caught Off-Guard

The story Jesus uses, one of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom to come for a wedding, may not be the most applicable to today, but the meaning still exists for us.

There’s about 2000 years of wedding tradition changes between us and the story, for example. We don’t celebrate the same way anymore. In a modern wedding, the one we have to wait for and on is not the groom but the bride. Bridesmaids perform a more ceremonial role today, where as then, these would be not friends of the bride, but her servants. And certainly, a wedding wouldn’t start in the middle of the night. We don’t even use oil lamps anymore unless the power goes out in our house and we have an old hurricane lamp kicking around. So there’s a significant amount of distance between us and this parable, which in a way, defeats the purpose of a parable. Parables are meant to use ordinary events to explain extraordinary ideas.

Nevertheless, we still can glean the meaning behind it all, even without the immanence of the experience. We still get waiting. We still get weddings. And we still, for the most part, understand why you need oil in a lamp, although for us, we’d just switch it out for batteries and a flashlight. So say for example, you’re waiting for someone to arrive to take you to a bonfire in the middle of the woods. Ten people are waiting, five wise, five foolish. Five have flashlights with good batteries, five forgot to bring a flashlight. When the five fools arrive at the rendezvous point, they see the wise ones’ flashlight, and go out to the CVS and pick up a little flashlight for the hike. While they’re gone, the party leader arrives, and they are left behind without directions. No cell service in the middle of the woods, either. They’re left out, because they weren’t prepared in the way they needed to be.

Because that’s the thing, right? The bridesmaids were prepared for a wedding. They probably had their makeup and their hair all done up, and their finest dresses on, but one detail they forgot wound up being the one that got them left out of the party.

I’m sure it felt like a small detail. They probably didn’t know that the groom would come in the middle of the night. They more than likely simply didn’t think of this one unlikely situation, and they had so much other stuff to do that it slipped their minds. Weddings are like that, after all. But that’s just it: half did think ahead. Half thought about what they would need in an emergency and planned ahead. They didn’t base their life around it, and hoard the oil, but they made sure they had it if they needed it. They didn’t want to be caught off guard.

Focus on the Right Things

Oil in the lamp. Seems a small thing to be left without. But it made all the difference in the end, because it was essential. And there’s so much that we, in our own lives, in our own faiths, think is relatively unimportant, but becomes essential in the end.

Jesus was telling this to his disciples, who in the previous chapter, were obsessing about the end of all things, and when, specifically, it would come. Jesus responded by simply saying that there would be signs, that disasters would happen, and that you would know it when it happened. As for specifics, Jesus did not give that out. Instead, he gave them this parable, along with a couple more, which we’ll discuss in their own time. He never told them the answer to the question, but rather, that in the meantime, they should get ready.

So how should they get ready? What DO we need to have prepared? How ought we to live in preparation for Jesus’s coming?

Let me go back a sec and think about the Doomsday Preppers.

These are people who have planned out to the Nth degree the end times. Every eventuality has been planned out, so much so that they are well stocked for any disaster that might arise. In the process, they have made their entire lives about the end of the world, and surviving. All their money, free time, and energy goes to their preparations. Is that what Jesus is saying here? Is Jesus telling us to live like a doomsday prepper, holed up in our basements, waiting for the bombs to fall? Does that sound like this parable at all? No, I don’t think it quite matches up.

For instance, these young bridesmaids weren’t prepping for the end of the world. They were waiting on a wedding. Jesus repeatedly compares the end of the world to a wedding feast, and a wedding feast is a party! And if it’s anything like Jesus says, his grand wedding feast will be the biggest party ever. New Year’s Rocking Eve hasn’t got anything on this party. Jesus wants us to know that what’s going to happen will be important and earthshaking, but also fun, and exciting, and joyous.

So rather than preparing ourselves for the end of the world with stockpiles and shelters, what if we prepared for the end as if it was a party?

What if we got excited for it, because it will be a joyous occasion? What if we made preparations for something not disastrous, but something magical? And what if our preparations were joyous in the process?

If that’s the case, we don’t need to hoard supplies. But something tells me there’s another dimension to this as well. Jesus’ most vicious criticisms came from the religious officials of the day, the priests and the pharisees. Jesus responded in kind to them. They criticized him for being a false prophet, and not maintaining religious cleanliness and purity according to the Torah. For associating with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus accused them of being false prophets as well–for not practicing what they preach. For focusing on all the unimportant things when the most necessary thing is what is forgotten.

They focused on a lot of the small laws, regulations and practices. Things like eating the right foods, washing your hands, not working on the sabbath in any way, and 600 other rules like that one. Jesus wanted them to focus on the law, but the law they needed the most: the law of love. Not the minutia of wedding planning, but the most basic things, like light. If you’re going to have a wedding, you’re going to need some kind of light source. You gotta have oil in your lamp to keep the light going.

That oil for the light will make everything else possible. You can’t see the decorations if there is no light. You can’t find you’re way to the party if you don’t have light. Without the light of love, none of the other rules makes any sense! It’s  Because the point of it all is love, joy, peace, kindness, and gentleness. Love is light, and light drives out the darkness.

Love Light’s the Way

The end of everything, though the signs will be destructive and chaotic, is not something to be scared of. We aren’t supposed to hole ourselves up in a bunker. Nor are we supposed to religiously shut ourselves off from the world, judging and condemning. We are supposed to be prepared for a wedding, a party. We need to be ready to walk in the darkness and bear the light. To do that, we need oil to light the way.

So don’t be afraid. Be ready for the coming of the Lord, but don’t be afraid, or malicious. Be bearers of the light, and get ready for a party. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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About grantimusmax

Grant Barnes, aka Grantimus Maximus, aka The Nerdcore Theologian. He is a graduate of Perkins School of Theology with a Masters Degree in Divinity. He is also a commissioned elder in the United Methodist Church, and Senior Pastor at Hemphill First United Methodist Church and Pineland United Methodist Church. He graduated from Texas State University Cum Laude with a Bachelor's degree in English, minor in History. He watches way too many movies, reads too many books, listens to too much music, and plays too many video games to ever join the mundane reality people claim is the "Real World." He rejects your reality, and replaces it with a vision of what could be, a better one, shaped by his love for God.
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