I heard someone recently compare Christianity to a Cornish pasty... there’s definitely something in it, but sometimes it’s difficult to find out what it is – and sometimes you bite down on a hard bit of gristle. This is kind of like our parable this morning with the virgins and the lamps and the oil (or lack thereof). There’s definitely something to it, but there are some hard bits, too.
So let’s dig in. A good place to start is with the context of our passage - where does it fall in the gospel of Matthew. Going back to chapter 24, Jesus begins by talking about the destruction of the Temple, but the conversation swiftly moves on to some pretty heavy stuff about the End Times. Matthew’s target audience was mostly Jewish, and he wrote his gospel sometime around the year 90. By that time, the Temple had indeed been destroyed; the church was growing, including Gentiles; and persecution was common. The church believed the Second Coming of Christ was imminent – and that it would be sudden and unexpected, like a flood or a thief in the night. In chapters 24 & 25, Jesus uses parables to warn about the need to be ready – to be prepared for ‘the moment’; a crisis would come sooner or later, so make preparations now, and keep them in good shape in the meantime, or you’ll be sorry.
These are ‘hard’ teachings – I like to think of them as the gristle in the gospel - those difficult teachings of Jesus that don’t seem to fit in with the ‘soft Jesus’ that perhaps many of us prefer. We’d just rather there was no ‘judgment’ side to God. But here’s a question: if there were no judgment, would we still take God seriously?
So what do we see in our parable. The setting is at the ‘end time’, and the main characters are 10 virgins (in some bible translations they’re called ‘bridesmaids’). At the outset, all 10 of these young women are alike: all pure, all innocent …and all apparently sleepy! But we’re told there is a difference between them: five of them are foolish and the other five are wise. That tells us this story has its roots in the Jewish tradition of contrasting wisdom with folly (there’s a lot of that in Proverbs, in Ecclesiastes, in other parables from Jesus and in some of Paul’s letters, too). So, five of the virgins bring their lamps but neglect to bring any oil. The other five do bring oil along with their lamps. It’s fairly obvious that wisdom in this case means being ready with enough oil for the lamp, and folly means not thinking about it until it’s too late. The bridegroom eventually comes, but the only ones who could go with him into the wedding banquet were the ones who were ready.
But hang on a minute - if Jesus is about sharing, wouldn’t it have been nicer for the five ladies who had oil to share it with the others?
The five who had oil wouldn’t share because they were worried there wouldn’t ‘be enough’ for them all if they did share. …Sounds a little like our current examples of corporate greed, doesn’t it! But here’s the thing: this parable’s not about sharing, because the ‘oil’ in this parable isn’t something that can be shared.
I want to talk about the meaning of the oil, but first let’s think for a moment about our faith. Although we share the road with others, our faith journey, in the end, is full of individual choices and decisions along the way: we’re free to love God, or not; we’re free to love our neighbour as ourself, or not. And no one can make anyone else pray. These things are individual choices and practices – they’re attitudes stemming from a personal love for, and relationship with, God. We can’t buy it, and we can’t share it with others.
So back to our parable, and to the oil. Now, some people think the oil doesn’t symbolize anything in particular, and that all we need take from this parable is that we must be prepared at all times for the Second Coming. And that may be true. But I think it’s helpful to try and imagine what the oil (or a lack of it) might mean. Because whatever it is, in this parable it’s essential, and at the crucial moment, it can’t be shared out …and money can’t buy it.
Some people might be inclined to think of the oil as good deeds: have I done enough good to be accepted into the wedding banquet in God’s kingdom? Others might think that the oil is related to the amount of faith we have – have we got enough faith to get us in to the banquet? Could we give away some of our faith to others if they needed it? I’m sure we would if we could.
How about Spirit? The New Testament has a lot to say about being ‘filled’ with the Spirit – perhaps the oil could be a metaphor for being filled with the Spirit. I’m reading a book at the moment called The Wisdom Jesus in which the author picks up on a spiritual meaning for the oil in this parable; that these hard teachings of Jesus are not about outward actions, but about inner transformation. She says “the reason the five virgins who have oil can’t give it to the five who don’t is that the oil symbolizes something that has to be individually created in you through your own conscious striving. Nobody can give it to you; nobody can take it away from you”. “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness” – it’s not a feeling, it’s a spiritual substance, impossible to gain by donation from somebody else.
Now, I realize that some people aren’t comfortable dwelling on the spiritual dimension of our faith; while others seem to prefer to focus solely on the spiritual, to the exclusion of the practical! – But we shouldn’t be quick to separate the two. Our practical actions, when we perform them as a response to the love of God that we’ve recognized in Christ through his Spirit, will always be accompanied by a certain substance – I like to think of it as an attitude; if our actions as Christians aren’t based on a spiritual attitude, then we probably need to check our motives.
Metaphorically speaking, when we’re at the door of the wedding banquet, Jesus will recognize us by our oil – our spiritual attitude; this is the oil for the lamp that gives out light, and it comes from a personal relationship with Jesus. That’s what it means to ‘know’ the Lord. That’s what brings peace and assurance. It’s easy enough to fill our life with ‘good deeds’. But let’s remember ‘the gristle in the gospel’ - there’s more to being Christian than just being quite nice – we have to work at our spiritual connection with our Lord and Saviour. So next time you eat a Cornish Pasty and you bite down on a bit of gristle, may you remember the gristle of the Gospel, and this little parable about the need for oil to put in your lamp. Being a Christian is not just about doing good deeds; it’s about being attentive to our spiritual relationship with God. It’s an attitude. Amen.