Give Me Oil in My Lamp …
David R. Weiss
March 21, 2012
On Matthew 25:1-13 (The maidens and the oil lamps); and Luke 23:39-43 (The penitent thief).
Jesus said, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But 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.’ And 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. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Matthew 25:1-13 (NRSV)
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; a simple and unapologetically harsh message: 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 Christians 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, needs 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 Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
Nice article, David. You write well. Look forward to more!
Well written, as always David! Your discussion at the beginning about how Jews and Christians approach Biblical texts differently reminds me of a lecture I attended this fall, given by New Testament Jewish scholar, A.J. Levine. She said that in some ways, Jews have a benefit in their ability to disagree over Biblical texts, because it is not only their faith that makes them Jewish. Being Jewish is an much of an ethnic identity as a religious one. Jews can argue with each other, but at the end, when they leave the argument, they can still recognize the other as “a good Jew.” We don’t have that as Christians. We come at disagreements and leave them with the attitude of, “if you don’t agree with me, you aren’t a good Christian.” I was very struck by that observation. And wish we had a better way of engaging one another.
Anyway, great article! But, did you have to stick the song, “Give Me Oil in Lamp” in my head for the rest of the day? : )
Thank you for sharing your oil with us, David. Blessings this Lenten season and always.
A very thoughtful writing. It brings new life and meaning to the parables and the life Jesus was inspiring us to lead. Thank you.
Love the image of the little boy.