The good oil
Week of Sunday November 6: Pentecost 21
Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
25‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
7: 21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
When the scholars look at all the clues in the text, two things become clear about Matthew’s gospel. He’s writing around the years 80 to 85, which is ten to fifteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. And he seems to be writing in a situation where the Jewish synagogues and the Pharisees, who’ve survived the fall of Jerusalem, are very hostile towards the Christians. Matthew’s Christians still have very strong ties to Judaism, but they’ve been kicked out. Matthew’s gospel has some real anger in it.
So we can imagine how Matthew’s folk feel when they hear him read Jesus’ words about the destruction of the temple in chapter 23 and 24. He’s just utterly denounced the Pharisees, and now, with the memory of the destruction of Jerusalem still fresh, they hear how Jesus foretold it all.
As a Christian Jew who been thrust out of the synagogue, we’d be tempted to feel a bit smug. Well, you got yours, didn’t you? Serves you right, you hypocrites! Jesus warned you, and you didn’t listen.
If we feel smug about those outside the faith, let us be warned that Matthew is setting us up, because the next thing he says, at the end of chapter 24 is this:
‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? 46Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 47Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 48But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”, 49and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
He’s not talking to the Jews; he’s talking to us! And then we hear the reading for his week.
What this means, says Jesus, is that if the Master comes back and finds us acting up, and not living faithfully, we will be like a bridesmaid favoured with an invitation to the wedding, who is then locked out. And when we bang on the door to be let in we will be told, even we who were specially invited, “I do not know you.”
“I do not know you.” This is not being said to the Pharisees. This is being said to followers of Jesus, who did not live out the gospel, who were not ready, who let the oil in their lamps run out.
The Christian faith has always had an inkling and a hope that at some time, Jesus will return. In the meantime, each one of us has to face our own end time. It can happen quickly, or it can sneak up on us.
There’s a big roundabout near our place. I rode into it one night, watching the traffic very carefully, as you do on a pushbike. The traffic on the left stopped to give way, so I kept going. It turned out that one big four wheel drive didn’t see me, for some reason. So when I was right in front of him, he started up again, and drove over the top of me. Suddenly there was nothing I could do. There were no more options; no choices. There was no chance to go and buy more oil; I had what I had.
Every day we enter the roundabout of life. If we are given those last few seconds, or a painful fading hour or two in intensive care, will we be at peace with what we’ve done, and who we’ve been? Or will we find we have an empty lamp; a life of regrets? I could not believe how quickly life went from riding in control to a hopeless attempt to avoid that car.
The end time comes more slowly for most of us. Blokes get to 45 and realise they’re never going to get higher in the company, or they lose their job and are told they are too old to get another one. They’ve been working so hard their wife is a stranger, and their kids hate them. Suddenly life is empty— no oil! It is a profound crisis. There is no time to begin again. So many choices that were once open to them are no longer available.
People suicide over this. It happens to mothers with empty nest syndrome. It happens to the well off and wealthy. It happens to the very young, who see the shallow emptiness of consumer society, but can find no fulfilling and sustaining oil for their lamps; no reasons to live.
Even if we avoid such a crisis, the slow loss of choice happens to us all. As we get older, the aches and pains grow. Our income will falter. Illness is more common. Our old friends die. Life narrows in around us.
Great walls of regrets can slowly push in on us, just as impenetrable as that closed door which has a voice behind it saying, “I do not know you.”
I fear ending up like this more than I fear death itself. I cannot imagine anything worse than feeling like I had wasted life, or gone in the wrong direction, and have no chance to turn around.
Maybe there is one thing which is worse, and that would be to end up feeling like I had no idea what life was about or what it meant. What would it be like to feel as though life was on the other side of a closed door, and all I could say about it was, “I do not know you?”
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Let’s say some stuff about judgement. The evil and oppression of Matthew’s time was so great, that no one had much doubt that some people deserved eternal separation from God. We can certainly see that Matthew had no doubts. “...these will go away into eternal punishment,” he says at the end of chapter 25.
But even before Matthew, people had begun to see that the love Jesus showed us was so great, that maybe even the most wicked would be loved back into the kingdom of heaven by God. Paul wrote, for example, “For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22)
The fact of the matter is that judgement is an unfinished idea. We do not really know what it means, or how it will happen.
By contrast, some things are much more clear.
One is that God loves us.
Another is that we can cut ourselves off from that love. Matthew hammers this point over and over again. And we know it from our own experience and observation.
How permanently we can do this is open to question. One of the church fathers wondered if Jesus would delay coming back until even the devil had fianally given up and succumbed to God’s love!
What is clear is that life’s choices, quickly or slowly, are reduced as time goes on. The circumstances of life hem us in. The pain, and tragedy, and injustice of life can be a living hell almost as potent as being thrown into the outer darkness.
Is there good news in all this, or do we just have to hang on, in the hope that all this stuff about heaven is true?
The good news and the good oil is that living the way of Jesus, living a life of Jesus type compassion, begins to lift us above the injustice and tragedy. We can see the example of the two members of our congregation, whose funerals we celebrated this week. Both those people had a remarkable attitude to life, despite ample reason to be swamped with bitterness and regret at the cards they were handed.
They were like the wise bridesmaids who brought spare oil, good oil. They each lived, in their own way, the way of Jesus. Not perfectly, as you know, but they lived the life.
Living the life keeps our lamp full of oil. It protects us from the despairs of life. It helps us not shut the door on God. It gives us light to see the good of life, and the hope.
I beg of you to live the life, and follow Jesus.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I love the way you write. Thanks for all your thoughtful contributions.