"Jesus is Coming -- Look Busy!" A friend of mine likes to respond to complacent, life-negative Left Behind aficionados with this bumper sticker sentiment. And at first glance the Gospel lesson today would seem to be pointing in the same direction: Christ will come again, so you'd better do what you're supposed to.
But what is the "doing" that's supposed to be done here, in this parable? What is the oil that half the bridesmaids fail to steward well? Why is the bridegroom's reaction to their poor planning so devastatingly harsh and final?
Brian Stoffregen has some interesting thoughts in this regard. He notes, and rejects, Luther's suggestion that the bridesmaids' oil symbolized faith. (Which, if it were true, would contradict Luther's own theology...faith being a gift of God.) There is a bit more support for the idea that the oil represents good works -- but there again, when thought through this fails to satisfy.
Stoffregen suggests that the answer may lie in the dismissive words of the bridegroom: "I don't know you."
Most of us have heard the phrase "knowing in a biblical sense." And indeed in Scripture, to know someone can mean to have an intimate relationship with him or her. Throughout Scripture, God is imaged as the Divine Lover.
How does this story work, wonders Stoffregen, if we think of the oil in the bridesmaids' lamps as the fuel of our relationship with God? -- the redeeming, reconciling power of God in our lives that allows us to be the people of God, to do God's work in the world? What happens if we neglect the attitudes and actions that open our lives to intimacy with God and, flowing from that, healed relationships with other people and with all of creation?
I might possibly be the worst person ever to be giving out relationship advice, but if someone asked me what to do to strengthen a relationship with a significant other, I might suggest things like spending uninterrupted quality time with that person; listening to that person; learning about that person; sharing activities with that person; showing that person, in words and actions, that s/he is loved and honored.
With those things in mind, how can we strengthen our relationship with our Divine Lover? Prayer and contemplation create quality time to spend with God. Being open to the Word speaking to us in Scripture, both in the context of our faith communities and in our own reading and hearing, give us opportunities to listen and learn. We share in God's work when we ourselves engage in healing, reconciling acts, great and small, as the situations present themselves to us. Worship, both corporate and personal, is like a love song to God in response to the Word; the Eucharist is the song sung back to us.
I have to admit that this parable is a "hard saying" for me because of the finality of the bridegroom's rejection of the careless bridesmaids, and I suspect that others may feel the same way; likewise the "too bad, so sad" attitude of the other bridesmaids. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels makes a career out of saving people who can't get it right; it's difficult to hear him tell stories like this, where everyone doesn't live happily ever after. But perhaps the point Jesus is making in this story is that, what matters much more than the quality of our response to God's love and grace is our intention -- how much we care. In other words, the error of the foolish bridesmaids was not in bad planning, but in not caring enough to plan at all.
This afternoon I was listening to a cover of Ray Charles' poignant "You Don't Know Me." Reading the Gospel lesson, I can hear the same longing and disappointment in Jesus' voice as he tells his parable: I don't know you, because you don't want to know me.
"Clever Bridesmaids," He Qi