"Don't Forget Your Oil!" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer
March 19, 2023
People have been predicting the end of the world for millennia. Arguably the first person to do so was Simon bar Giora, a Jewish Essene who predicted a Jewish uprising against the Romans from 66-70 CE would bring about the arrival of the Messiah. Hilary of Poitiers, an early French bishop announced the end of the world in 365. Hippolytus of Rome, Sextus Julius Africanus, and Irenaeus all predicted Jesus would return in 500 based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.
793, 800, 847, 995, 1000, 1033, 1284, 1346, 1528 – these are all dates various men predicted the world would end, and the list goes on and on. In more modern times, Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, predicted the Rapture in 1936 and told his church members that only they would be saved. When the date came and went, he unsuccessfully predicted the Rapture three more times. Elizabeth Clare Prophet predicted nuclear war would start on April 23, 1990, and end 12 years later, causing her followers to stockpile weapons and supplies. And most recently, David Meade, a Christian conspiracy theorist, was quoted as saying the world would end on April 23, 2018. When that date came and went, he clarified saying,
“the rapture…will occur at some point between May and December of …but even the rapture will not signify the end of the world…[but] merely bring in seven years of ‘tribulation,’ followed by 1,000 years of ‘peace and prosperity,’ before the world is destroyed. ‘So the world isn’t ending anytime soon – in our lifetimes, anyway!’ Meade said.”
Certainly, quite a few of these folks were sincere in their predictions and weren’t trying to fleece anyone, as the more cynical among us tend to believe. I don’t want to make fun of sincere belief even if I don’t share it, but when it comes to doomsday or apocalyptic predictions I think it’s safe to assume many of us roll our eyes.
And the reality is, despite the eschatological – those things relating to the end times – themes in Jesus’ teaching and obvious belief by most New Testament authors that Jesus would be returning soon, we’ve either completely missed Christ’s return or no one knows for sure when Jesus is coming back. Jesus even says in Matthew 24:36-38, the chapter just before today’s reading,
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, no, even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were aware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
So the question becomes, “what does it mean to wait when you know there’s more to come? When you know something significant is going to happen?” What does it look like to live in the now and not yet? In an in-between time, the biblical writers couldn’t have anticipated?
Promises have been made to us. Of the goodness and plenty, inclusivity and justice of God’s kin-dom. But we can all agree that even with the best parts of our world we’re not living in the kin-dom of God. So what does it mean to be alert and attentive? In today’s parable – another that might give you pause the next time you’re invited to a wedding - it means not forgetting your oil.
What comes to mind when you imagine the bridesmaid’s lamps? I picture kerosene lamps or a brass lamp with a handle – not a great light source compared to an electric lamp but serviceable. More than likely, however, the bridesmaids’ lamps are small, made from clay, slightly teardrop-shaped, and fit in the palm of the hands. You can see examples of these at the Bible Museum at the Biedenharn. Because of their small size, the wick has to be trimmed carefully to avoid smokiness and using the oil too fast.
And it’s important to clarify that weddings in Jesus are quite different. Formal promises of commitment and property are made ahead of time at the betrothal. The wedding is a more casual affair, typically marked by a celebration and meal, in which “the groom and his attendants would come to the home of the bride’s parents and take the bride along with her attendants in a bridal procession back to his parent’s home, where the wedding celebration would begin” – no rings are given, no vows exchanged.
But participants are escorted and the groom in today’s parable is late, so late all the bridesmaids sent out to meet him have fallen asleep. Finally arriving at midnight, the groom shows up and the bridesmaids are called for. It’s time for them to trim their lamps and escort him to the wedding feast. Five of them have brought extra oil, but five have not, but rather than sharing the five bridesmaids with extra oil, tell their less prepared counterparts to buy more oil.
Now, don’t get sidetracked by the logical question of where oil can possibly be found at midnight. This is a parable and it doesn’t play by logical rules. Off go the foolish bridesmaids in search of oil, but they take too long and in the meantime, the other five bridesmaids have done their job. When the five oil-less bridesmaids eventually catch up, it’s too late. The feast is already in full swing and the groom refuses to respond to their cry, “Lord, Lord, open to us” by saying, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
As with most of Jesus’ parables, this seems like a harsh response for something as simple as being forgetful. And as commentator Elisabeth Johnson points out, “the parable is troubling because there doesn’t seem to be any grace in it. The bridegroom – who was late in the first place – has no mercy on the foolish bridesmaids…and the wise bridesmaids…show no mercy to their unwise friends. Haven’t we all been guilty of poor planning at times? Haven’t we all found ourselves on the wrong side of a locked door?”
Jesus’ point with this story, which comes in a series of parables about the end of the age and coming of the Son of Man, is not that we must literally stay awake at all hours waiting for his return. All of the bridesmaids in the parable fall asleep, not just the foolish five. His point is for us to avoid distractions. The oil in this story is only a means to an end, and it’s because of their distraction from the task of meeting the groom and escorting the bridal party that the five without oil are called foolish. Preoccupied with details, the five bridesmaids without oil fail to see that this is a lesser thing. In their last-minute focus on the minutia, they fail to see that they’re missing the feast. In their effort to provide what they don’t have they’ve been left behind.
One of the commentators I routinely spend the week with said the following on the Working Preacher podcast and I think it’s especially apt, “One of the greatest challenges of the life of discipleship is the tyranny of the ordinary.”
There is a greyness to waiting on Jesus. Much like the greyness of a January sky when Christmas is over and Easter is far away, waiting for what Christ will do not only makes falling asleep easy, it makes complacency and distraction even easier. We know our call is to be prepared for Jesus to return, but how do we do that when such a coming not only seems far off but downright unlikely? How can we talk about preparing for the coming of Christ without sounding like the kind of folks who see the Rapture around every corner? “What does it take to have the vital sense of the one who is promised and to maintain ongoing vitality…that keeps the life of faith alive and kindled?”
It takes feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. It takes doing “for the least of these” and seeing the face of Christ in everyone we encounter. The Good News this morning is that being ready for Jesus takes the form of active discipleship – of making the effort to love those with whom we disagree, of building and maintain relationships that aren’t convenient or easy, of working for the justice of God even if people aren’t appreciative. Active discipleship is practicing spiritual disciplines that people of faith have been doing for centuries – prayer, fasting, fellowship, simplicity, and stewardship.
And at the moment when the Son of Man comes in all his glory, active discipleship, our call as people, what motivates us and kindles our hearts will not be the command, “Don’t forget your oil!” but the invitation, “Come, walk with us. There is plenty of light. Come, walk alongside the one who came to give light to us all.”