Give Me Oil in My Lamp …
David R. Weiss
March 21, 2012
A brief mid-week Lenten reflection on Matthew 25:1-13 (the maidens and the oil lamps) and Luke 23:39-43 (the penitent thief).
How many of you remember Paul Harvey—the radio journalist who, in his own peculiar intonations, gave us “The Rest of the Story”?
This parable needs a “rest of the story” in order to be gospel. As it stands, it’s little more than a self-righteous warning. The sort of simple tale that might be owned with pride by those folks up at the Capitol arguing right now for photo ids as the ticket to vote. The simple, and unapologetically harsh message is this: Be ready … or else.
But that isn’t gospel. So, in good Jewish fashion, I’m going to argue with it.
In graduate school I was profoundly struck by an essay in which a Jewish biblical scholar explored differences in how Christians and Jews approach the Bible.
The author noted that most Christian see the Bible’s value in being able to end an argument. You find the right text, and you pronounce with satisfaction, “That settles it.”
For Jews, however, the Bible’s value—especially among rabbis—rests in its ability to start an argument. A biblical text is more valuable if it’s worth arguing about. And the best texts are the ones worth arguing with.
So—for the sake of argument—let me offer “the rest of the story” about this parable. It’s pretty clear that Jesus told parables for a living. He surely told some that never got recorded. And the ones we find in the gospels were undoubtedly ones that he told again and again. That’s why they were remembered and written down.
And Jesus told them not just because he liked the style, but also because he hoped for an impact. He wanted us to be stopped short, caught off guard, surprised into wonder and called into action by hearing something so unexpected that our world would be different afterwards.
So let’s imagine Jesus, telling this parable dozens of times throughout his public ministry. And every time the crowds listen intently … and then nervously … and then fringed with fear and wondering, “What if I’m one of the foolish ones, what then?”
And with each telling, Jesus sighs. Maybe he reminds himself, “You can’t connect all the dots for them. They have ears to hear, but they cannot hear. And grace anyway, need to be heard with the heart. With wonder. And with surprise. It’s not time yet.”
And then one day, finally, it happens. He tells the parable. And there’s the usual shifting of feet and awkward silence at the end. Until a young child steps forward, some spunky kid about to embarrass his or her parents. And the child says, “But, Jesus, what if those other maidens just didn’t have enough money to buy extra oil? How is that fair? Or who even cares if they were foolish, after all? Who cares? Didn’t your mama teach you to share?
“You gone and told us to be kind and merciful and even to love our enemies. So I’m tellin’ you what I’m doin.’ I’m takin’ my flask of oil, and I’m sharin’ it with them’s that’s got too little. And if it means I miss the marriage feast, fine, I’ll have my own party with the least of them folk on the outside.”
And Jesus stops. A smile moves across his face like the sunrise. He scoops the child up, high for the crowds to see. Then he says simply, “The kingdom of God belongs to children such as this.” And, to the child he whispers, with a wink, “In God’s house, the party is always ‘with the least of them folk on the outside.’ I’m with you, kid.”
Now Matthew didn’t write it that way. And I can’t say why. But that is the rest of the story. And here’s how I know: Because on the cross, one of those foolish maidens is right there hanging alongside Jesus, and he asks for oil. And Jesus doesn’t call him “foolish.” He doesn’t tell him he should’ve planned ahead. He doesn’t respond, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” He’s hanging there on the cross, oil dripping out of his flask, like his own life, leaking away. And still he says to the foolish maiden, “Sure, I got plenty of oil to share, and today you will be with me in Paradise.”
That, my friends … is the rest of the story. You see, the last word uttered by God may well surprise us, but it will not fail to welcome us. Ever. That’s why we call it good news.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more at http://www.tothetune.com.