This is the perfect Dr. Phil parable. I can see the stage now. Dr. Phil’s stool is placed strategically in the center with five chairs to his right and five to his left.
“Today’s show is about weddings, preparations, and doors being slammed in your face. Five bridesmaids who knew what to do and five who were left out in the cold.”
I can just hear Dr. Phil now, “So how’s that lack of oil thing working out for you?”
This is one of those parables that is often described as an end of the world or final judgment parable. At first read, that looks to be the case. In short, if you’re not ready when the Big Guy, the Man Upstairs, (fill in your euphemism here), you’re going to be left in the outer darkness, eternally separated from God. Any parable that can be retranslated or retold as a bad country song, has usually got what the theologians call, “a larger eschatological meaning”. Five drunk virgins with dead flashlights, out of batteries, out of the party life, with no place, when the big bad door was slammed in their face.”
So if not drunk virgins at a 1st century Palestinian wedding whose lack of preparation and eventual banishment to eternal darkness while the real party goes; what is this parable about? Are we the unprepared bridesmaids just waiting to run out of oil? Were that not the case, wouldn’t Jesus have just buy more oil and be ready so you receive the Son of God? What did Jesus want his disciples and followers to take away from this story?
Yes, at one level this is a passage about being prepared. But I think that’s a far too simplistic reading. It’s a story about us, people waiting on God to return. I think the much larger question is: “What do we do while we wait, no matter how prepared we imagine ourselves to be?”
What are you going to do while you wait on the groom to arrive? Sit around and tell each other, week after week, “the groom is coming, the groom is coming” or actually work for the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Will you sit in your holy bunkers, breathily exclaiming, “this might be him”, or will you go outside and embody the reality of God’s kingdom by serving a needy person, standing up for people who are marginalized, eating with every sinner under the sun, and generally irritating the fire out everyone because you’re modeling you’re life on Jesus actions. It’s not enough to tell people the groom is coming, get ready for the groom without cultivating a faith that connects to humanity’s most disregarded people. This is the main thing you do while you wait for the groom to come knocking.
Honestly, what do you think groom is going to do when he arrives, ask you how many people you’ve told about his arrival and have come to terms “or accepted” that he’s showing up? Or do you think he’ll be more concerned with what you did that knowledge? Did you share that knowledge for the sake of sharing knowledge? Now that you know the bride is coming we can go on to the next ignorant person and tell them. Was this your plan? Talk, talk, and more talk. Christianity has never been about talking someone into submission or beating a dead horse. Discipleship is about doing the things Jesus did and walking the way Jesus walked. There was no litmus test for the 12 disciples. If there were, they would have failed miserably. Discipleship was about learning, growing, and doing until they were ready to assume leadership of the Jesus movement following his death and resurrection. You don’t learn by just reminding yourself to be ready, you learn by preparation and making the most of the time available.
The second important point in this parable is the oil itself. The oil becomes a character, a figure in its own right. Do we have enough oil? Will we be able to get more oil if ours runs out? The oil, even more so than the bridegroom, is driving this story. At one level the oil represents the oil in the lights burning in the temple. The oil represents the presence, work, and love of God; in our lives and the lives of those attending this wedding. The oil makes the light possible. The oil is the source of light. However, if we think about the oil (and the light) as God’s presence, work, and love; that’s usually something we like to think of as unlimited. God’s presence and love never run out. There’s always enough grace from God to go around for everybody. After all, it’s not as if there was no oil. They just didn’t have enough with them. There was plenty of oil available in the all-night oil shops. The oil was always, like God’s love, readily available.
The oil might also stand for our good works, actions, and righteousness. Let me ask a stupid rhetorical question. Is it possible for us to run out of steam, oil, energy, and light? Yes, of course. That’s not something we want to do either. It’s an idea that comes up as a risk in this passage but never really materializes. We don’t want to go dark, especially when it comes to our relationship with God. Whether we had enough in the beginning or not, the oil is what helps us find our way back to the door. If you ran out at the last minute to buy more oil or came with an entire tanker, the oil functions in the exact same way. When the oil is lit, it leads you to the door. If you can get the oil, no matter when purchased the oil (whether at a midnight shop) or you brought it with you, it shouldn’t matter. You’ve got it in hand. You’re ready and can head in the right direction.
Now here’s where it’s going to get fun. Remember, this is the same Jesus who said it didn’t matter when you arrived at the work site. You all got the same money, a fair chance to get paid; whether you had worked one hour or eight hours. If you’ve got your oil, no matter when you got it, why would the door to the party ever be closed to you? Wouldn’t it make sense that the people who got God’s grace (let’s stick with that idea as to what the love means), eventually, would still get a shot at the door. Especially when these people had never been totally without oil (God love and grace) in the first place. They didn’t show up to the all night bridesmaid party empty, they ran out part way through. So they went and got it. For me, this is the $64,000 question this parable raises: Is the door to God’s grace and love a door that will one day slam in our faces? Even if we’re bad at math, sometimes slack sinners, who screwed up on our figuring our oil needs, or worse?
Many people are going to tell you yes. In fact, they’d even say, “Hell, yes.” I’m going to be honest and truthful with you. The answer depends on who you want to believe once you realize who you’re talking about and look at the context of the entire New Testament.
So let’s rewind for a moment. You and I were foolish. We’re all like that sometimes. We ran out of oil halfway through our wait for the delayed bridegroom. The other bridesmaids wouldn’t share their oil with us. Operating some myth of scarcity, that God’s grace is finite, they said, “Run out and get some ore of your own. If we share with you we’ll run out as well.” Not being confrontational types and certainly not wanting to be blamed for ruining the wedding of the century, we did the right thing and took their suggestion. Apparently is 1st century Galilee there are all night convenience stores that sell oil. How lucky for us! The oil is not in short supply. The myth of the scarcity of God’s grace has been shattered. Now we too can return to the celebrations with everyone else.
But wait, what’s this? Once we return, the door appears to be shut, closed, and locked. We’re knocking on the door but no one comes to answer. No matter how many times we knock, bang, and call no one comes to the door. “Let me in, I got my oil,” I say. Regardless of what I yell, do, or say nothing seems to have any impact on this door opening. What’s going on? I’m just right here on the other side of the door. Have we suddenly jumped from Matthew 25 to Luke 16? Am I the rich man calling up “across a great chasm that can never be breached” to Lazarus up in heaven? I don’t feel rich, thirsty, or separated by a chasm, only this door.
Besides, I have my lamp and I got my oil right. Over in Matthew 5, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told me not to put my lamp under bushels or anything that might put it out. I’m here, with oil, standing outside this door, doing exactly as Matthew 5 says, “letting my light shine before others” so that they can see God’s glory and give that glory back to God in heaven. Light is how the Bible talks about us reflecting God’s love in the world (in the darkness) so others can see God at work in our love and service. What’s the problem with that? Still, nothing. The door doesn’t open. Why won’t the door open?
Are their limits on how many people can come inside? Are their limits on God’s love? Have we been told wrong all of these years, that God’s love is limitless unless you’re a foolish bridesmaid? As I said earlier, if you’ve got your oil, no matter when you got it, why would the door be closed to you?
Because if Matthew were a poker player, he’d be one who plays with limits. He’s not a “no limit Texas hold-em” kind of guy. Matthew places limits on the extent of God’s love and mercy. In Matthew’s gospel, God will go so far then stop.
Later on in this 25th chapter, Matthew starts to use terms like, “outer darkness” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. He’s the one who put the eternal in “eternal punishment” and “eternal fire”. The people who are in the places are beyond God’s love, grace, and presence.
That’s not my image of God. That’s Matthew’s. Many people enjoy that image but it doesn’t jive with the entirety of Jesus’ message and the rest of the New Testament.
I can imagine a God who is bigger and better than Matthew’s. I have an image of a God, “who not sparing his only son, his own Son, gave himself up for all of us. Will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Romans 8:32). Will he not open the door, regardless of the time or night? I can imagine a God who would wait even for Satan to repent. I can imagine a God, waiting patiently, his door always open for his wayward son and his insolent brother.
Which God will you imagine?