It’s important to check your oil. I was working outside on a recent warm day and realized I needed to check the propane tank. I tapped the barrel and heard a hollow echo, and had a sinking feeling. The gauge was close to zero, and it was a Friday afternoon, so I couldn’t get a delivery till Monday. I worried that weekend that our guests might run out of propane in the middle of a shower, but everything worked out. I have never had a propane tank; we had natural gas piped in, so I never had to think about anything but paying the bill.
Reading this parable about the bridesmaids and lamp oil brought home how convenient modernity is. When we need light, we flip a switch. Hot water comes automatically from the tap. Modern life makes so many menial tasks easy that we forget how hard life was before electricity. No plumber or electrician could come and bail you out. If you weren’t prepared, you were cold, left in the dark, and you might even die.
Ten bridesmaids wait for the groom so the party may begin. Five women were wise, and five were foolish. The Greek word translated as “foolish” is “morai.” That’s right; they were morons. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says, “A very stupid person. A dated word, now offensive.” Moron -as in, “What kind of moron doesn’t bring water on a hike, or sunscreen to the beach, oil for a lamp, or votes for…” Well, you get the picture.
Let’s probe a little deeper. The five bridesmaids without oil are not foolish because of a lack of intellect or wrong beliefs; they are unprepared. Unpreparedness strikes me closer to home for my anxieties. I tend to be a list maker and try to be well-prepared. It also irks me when I have prepared with hard work and others show up without thought and expect things to work out. It’s the dreaded group project where you get a group grade. I’m stuck deciding whether to bail the group out or hold them accountable. I don’t like either option.
I hate being unprepared. That keeps me awake at night. Do you have a dream about an impending biology test, and you haven’t read the book? Sometimes, being unprepared is from lack of energy. I am more likely overwhelmed than careless when not ready. What is the life situation for the foolish five? Did they have burdens others don’t have to carry? Are they caring for sick or aging relatives? When experiencing the pandemic, we know the burdens of making life work. Many people have unmanageable responsibilities. We need a lot of grace sometimes, as our oil burns low.
Christian Century magazine recently had an article wondering, “Wouldn’t it be great if the five wise bridesmaids shared their oil, and everyone got to go to the feast together? That would have been a real, inclusive party. After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us if we have two coats, give one to your neighbor who has none? When urged to help someone poor, we aren’t supposed to decide whether they are worthy. God calls us to give. And what about the time you were foolish, and you received grace? Don’t be too quick to judge the other as foolish.
That sounds compelling, but I must point out that the wise bridesmaids did not share their oil, and they were invited into the feast while the foolish five had the door slammed in their faces. Is this pointing us towards tough love and letting others live with the consequences of their actions? Nothing in this parable says the wise five were greedy or selfish. Even the “morons” didn’t argue and ran off to go buy oil. (Where do they go in the middle of the night to buy oil before Seven-Eleven?). The foolish bridesmaids are not poor or without the ability to get fuel. They just weren’t prepared. You can’t salvage some situations. If you are on an expedition up Mt. Everest, you can’t just take a person along who is not prepared. If they only brought tennis shoes for the journey, you can’t take them along. It is unsafe for the whole group. Sometimes, you miss out.
There is a tension in this parable that doesn’t lend to either/or thinking. We live in this paradox. Sometimes, we must set boundaries and tell people, “You didn’t bring enough oil, and I can’t bail you out.” Other times, we offer grace and even sacrifice for the other person, regardless of their mistakes. Take some of my oil; God will get us all through. Isn’t that the miracle of Hannukah? How do we sort this out? The question I ask myself is, what am I protecting? Am I protecting myself, my ego, comfort, or power? Then, share more. Or am I defending the community’s integrity, my values, and or the negative consequences of irresponsible actions? Then, I need to set boundaries and call people to be accountable.
A lamp and oil symbolize having a good relationship with God and being diligent and faithful. At the center of the first tabernacle in Exodus was a Menorah. The priests were responsible for keeping the seven lamps burning with a continual supply of pure olive oil. This light symbolized the constant presence of God, which must be perpetually tended. God doesn’t just show up and shine in the darkness when we suddenly pray because we suddenly realized we were in trouble. Humanity has a role to play as keepers of the light. God asks us to participate in the light of wisdom and truth.
While it was a priestly duty to keep the menorah perpetually aflame, Jesus talked about the need for all of us to be keepers of our lamps and light. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16). While we all need community to support each other in faithfulness, we all must take responsibility for our faith and relationship with God. I can help someone struggling with their faith, but I cannot give them faith. I can set an example, but I can’t have faith for someone else. Everyone must check their oil. We are back at the paradox of faith. We are called into community to share and support each other. Also, we each have a responsibility to nurture our inner flame through prayer, reflection, and other spiritual practices that help us seek the wisdom of Christ.
We must keep our light shining so we can see and act in the moments of darkness. The world needs the light you have to offer. An important story to me in grade school was about a teenager named Kate Shelley, who lived near my hometown of Boone, Iowa, in the 19th century. Kate had a hard life after immigrating with her family from Ireland. Her Father died when she was young, and her mother worked at the railway depot to help make ends meet. The most important moment in her life occurred when she was 17. A strong thunderstorm struck central Iowa, and the Des Moines River overflowed its banks. The Chicago Northwestern Railroad sent out a work train to ensure the train tracks were passable, but a section of the bridge was washed out, and the train plunged into the river.
Kate heard the crash, and she knew the train schedule. A passenger train from Omaha would reach the bridge in an hour, and there was no way to alert anyone that the bridge was out. Kate took her lantern out into the storm, found two survivors of the wreaked crew, and then made her way across the precariously damaged bridge. After crossing the bridge, Kate still had a mile to go through the storm to the train station. Legend has it that the lantern went out at some point, and she had to crawl and feel the rails to make it the last mile. But she arrived in time and delivered the message that the bridge was out before passing out from exhaustion.
Kate’s heroism saved the lives of 200 passengers. A new bridge was constructed in 1901 across the Des Moines River. This bridge was crucial for trade across the country, and to keep it above the periodic floods, it was the longest and tallest double-track railroad bridge in the world at that time. It was named the Kate Shelley Bridge, and I often made the three-mile trip from Boone to see it. It was a modern wonder of the world, right there near my little Podunk town. Later, the town bought a steam engine, and I took a ride across the grand river valley. The story of Kate Shelley has always inspired me to remember the need to keep a lamp ready for the storm. You never know when you might be called to do the most essential thing in your life.
Check your oil. Keep your sacred flame burning.