Many of us are running on empty at the moment and we are in need of some oil for our lamps. Some of us are probably not sure if we are among the five wise maidens who brought enough oil or among those who may run out of oil before the bridegroom comes! (Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost. Matthew 25:1-13)
Many of us will remember from Sunday School or youth group the old song “Give me oil in my lamp, keep it burning; give me oil in my lamp I pray... keep it burning until the break of day.” It’s a bright little tune and easy to learn. Which is considerably more upbeat than: “Be awake therefore as you do not know the hour or the day.” which all sounds a bit sinister and end of world. Well it is getting close to the end of the church year and we do this each year at this time. Indeed the beginning of Advent is always readings about end times. And the pandemic is creating havoc and pain and the literal end for many people. And of course the election for those in the USA (and the rest of us who wait with baited breath). And it has been a disastrous year for the environment in many countries around the world, including here in Australia.
Now being awake and alert to how late in the day it might be: either for the planet’s health and our survival, or how uncivil our society has become, or how late in the day it is for our earth, many of us feel alarmed or anxious. But surely anxiety and alarm cannot be what the gospel wants for us or all that it means? This is a parable about the nature of the kingdom of heaven and how it comes into our lives, into the life of the world, and what is required of us in preparation.
So let’s focus in on the parable starting with the really physical obvious things. There are ten young women wise and foolish. We all get invited no matter our worthiness or ability. They all go to sleep while waiting and then wake up when the bridegroom comes. None of us are able or even expected to be constantly ready and perfect. The only difference, and it is a big one, is that five had the forethought to have extra oil just in case it was a long watch.
Then there are some symbolic things that matter. Firstly that Jesus said that he taught in parables (stories full of symbols and metaphors) so that the wise would not understand and the foolish of God would understand. The use of oil as an image is important. Oil is often associated with being anointed by the Holy Spirit. Oil therefore also has associations with righteousness and good works that flow out of being filled by the spirit of God. The bridegroom is clearly Jesus Christ. And the church is often referred to as the bride of Christ so this is not just about individual fate but also how is the church faring in its relationship with its Lord.
Also it’s worth noting that we are in the last few chapters of Matthew and it is the last teaching of Jesus before he is arrested, tried and executed so there is a mounting sense of urgency. The surrounding stories are all about sorting out who’s in and who’s missed out at the end of the age. So there is a lot going on in this simple parable.
Certainly the heroines of this parable are those who were wise enough to prepare for the long haul, to be ready for a range of outcomes, to invest their all in being available and ready to respond when the bridegroom does eventually come.
This week the lectionary writers offer us several options of what Old Testament readings go with the gospel. One of those optional readings is from the Wisdom of Solomon, so we can assume that in part we are being challenged and encouraged to practice wisdom. The wisdom tradition is much more than about common sense. Rather it is about pursuing right relationship, or deep connection, with the divine in all of life’s situations and perceiving God in all things. The desire for wisdom is the desire for inner transformation so that right knowledge and right behaviour flow out from a deep connection with the divine source of love rather than moral behaviour that expresses an act of will.
The Joshua option for an Old Testament reading requires us to choose today who we will serve. A very timely challenge not only for those voting at this time but for all of us all of the time as we make a thousand choices about relationships, investments, lifestyle choices that impact wisely or unwisely on ourselves and others now and into the future.
And the prophet Amos tells us that God despises our festivals! As so many of us struggle to keep the church afloat through the pandemic, often at great expense to our own wellbeing, this at first sounds like a cruel judgment. But upon reflection is not part of what wearies us and fills us with despair at this time is that we see parts of the church behaving in ways that we find repugnant. Maybe some of our clever high technology solutions are not necessary or what true worship needs? What is true worship and service in this time?
For those of us who are wearied and disturbed by much going on in our world at the moment I believe that the parable is both an accurate reflection of our fear that we will not have enough oil for the long night of waiting but also a source of encouragement. It is a timely reminder that we need to plan for a long night of waiting – for election results, for vaccines to be developed, to see if we can turn the environmentally devastating ways we live around. We need to bring extra oil. We are in for a long night. We are well into the night already one could argue.
What are the ways in which we can enter into the night confident that we have enough oil? I am sure many of you have strategies that will help including I hope accepting support and encouragement from others. Part of it is adjusting not our standards but our expectations of ourselves and our situation. Digging into wisdom to attend to first things first, choosing who we serve and how. Practicing love of neighbour in the small tasks of life regardless of who wins the election or what diseases rampage (the only difference being how we express love of neighbour according to best practice).
But mostly if the oil in the lamp is symbolic of the spirit of God then we need wisdom practices so that we lean deeply into the bosom of our God rather than counting on some large store we have accumulated. We need to constantly open up to the flow of divine love so that we are replenished even as we give and work. We know already the wisdom practices of prayer - including lamenting and fist shaking psalms, of singing - even if in our own homes, of practicing gratitude for ever thing that reminds us of blessing. And most of all we are called to be a people of hope, of resurrection.
So many of us are running on empty and we need to prioritise that which will sustain us and replenishs us. As do our people and our community. Let us be generous and gentle with each other. Let us lean into the constancy of God even when all else is changing. Let us attend to first things first and let others wait. Let us keep one another company. Let us allow the gifts of nature to replenish. Let memories of how our ancestors and forebears in faith prevailed and endured feed us. Let us dream of better times and when we cannot call up an image to hope for then let us trust that the God of the empty tomb can companion us through to a new dawn.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, be ever near us even as we wait for you like watchers for the dawn.