‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids* took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.* 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids* got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids* came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.* (Matthew 25, NRSV)It's always interesting to parse out Jesus' stories, especially those that reference cultural customs that no longer make sense to us. People of Jesus' time would get the necessity to carry oil with one's lamp on an errand of indeterminate length. For us its harder to hear much beyond the implied threat in Jesus' response.
I was once part of a pretty conservative church that use the "Keep awake...you know neither the day nor the hour" to scare us into "good" behavior. The concern about being "ready" for the Lord's return (read: second coming to judge the heathen) is known in a lot of traditions, from old concerns about dying outside of a state of grace to current worries about being "left behind."
So its natural to read this as being about preparedness, much like we have concern, this fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, that we are "ready" for the next monster storm.
If the lamp represents our reflection of Christ's love in our lives, the reading says we need to keep that lamp lit until that day Jesus comes for us. The oil that keeps that lamp lit is prayer, the story of God's salvation, time spent connected to Jesus. So the message (as I originally wrote at our community bible discussion) is: Devote yourself to these things so that you are ready when the kingdom presents itself.
This begs some deeper questions. When am I foolish, or ill-prepared, or indifferent? (Almost all the time.) When am I not ready for the kingdom, unfaithful, or selfish? (Only when I am breathing.) What do I want to do to be more ready, wise, and expectant? (As little as possible, please.)
I wonder if wisdom and foolishness is quite as clear cut. Are the bridesmaids who head out sans oil foolish or expectant, more sure of the coming of the bridegroom than those who packed oil just in case? Jesus on more than one occasion told his disciples to travel light, with only what they need for the moment. Is the desire for security embodied in carrying extra oil faithful, or an example of trust in self?
Note that all of the bridesmaids become drowsy and doze off. When the bridegroom finally comes, all are awakened with a shout. All trim their lamps -- the "foolish" ones are running out of oil. And the "wise" ones send them off to the dealers to stock up -- not to the bridegroom they all await! They need oil while they wait in a dark world. But do they need a lamp when they are in the presence of the light of the world?
Back to the metaphors of light and oil -- isn't it possible to read light as the result of the goodness embodied in the oil? In that case, do the bridesmaids running off to buy more oil represent us in our moments of thinking that we are not good enough, smart enough, holy enough, faithful enough to be in God's presence? Isn't this idea of running off to "get right" before meeting Jesus counter to our theology of grace, that Jesus comes to us where we are, as we are, in the midst of our foolishness and unpreparedness? Of course, this is not license to stay ill-prepared fools, but at the end of the day it is Christ's light and love, not our own, that illumines the world and our lives.
Hearing "Truly, I do not know you" can and should frighten us -- that is the last thing we want to ear the Lord say to us. But does Jesus "not know" the "foolish" ones because they didn't carry enough oil? Or because they did not trust him enough to provide oil and light for them?