Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Oil Shortage or Just Mean Chicks? (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year A)


Did you ever see the movie Bridesmaids? It’s a comedy about two girls who compete with each other over who can make the glitzier, more elegant, and more fabulous contribution to their girlfriend’s wedding experience The competition gets pretty fierce (and funny, too!) at times, and there’s a not-too-subtle streak of catty meanness running through the story line.

If you were to take a literal reading of the parable  Jesus tells in the appointed Gospel for Pentecost 23, Year A (Matthew 25:1-13), some of these bridesmaids[i] seem pretty mean-spirited. We can certainly applaud the prudence of the five young ladies who were clever enough to bring some extra oil for their lamps just in case the bridegroom’s arrival was delayed. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In all the weddings I’ve conducted in over twenty years, not one of them has ever started on time. We can also look down our noses at the five dumb chicks who didn’t have the foresight to think the groom might be late. These last have to make a late-night dash to the local Walmart, and they end up getting locked out of the party because the other girls won’t share with them. Can’t you just hear one of the smart girls saying, “Sorry, honey. It’s not my fault you forgot your oil. This is for my lamp. Better go buy some…and don’t be late.” Then the five smarty-pants girls giggle gleefully when the door gets locked and the others are shut out—rather like on The Bachelor when the girls still in competition share a champagne toast when their rivals are sent home in tears. There’s something cruel about this parable which I find unsettling.

In trying to break this story down and take some of the nastiness out of it, I’m aware of two things (besides the fact that young girls can be selfish where others are concerned!). The first thing is that time is limited. The second thing is resources aren’t evenly distributed. Nobody in this story knows exactly when the bridegroom is going to show. He could be hanging out with his buds having one more beer before he ties the knot. Nevertheless, when the party finally starts, the banquet hall doors get shut and those outside have to stay outside. Nothing in the story says the five prudent young ladies were 100% certain they were going to need the extra oil they brought. It’s possible they could’ve shared some with the other girls if they’d wanted to. Still, when the groom finally gets his lazy butt to the wedding, the opportunity to be generous is over. Perhaps we’ve struggled ourselves over the use of our resources, asking, “If I give, will I have enough for my own needs?” Perhaps, too, the door is already swinging closed on the ones who need our help. If we delay, it will be too late.

Of course, we could also look at the nature of the oil and what it might represent. In this story, there’s only so much oil to go around. Some have suggested that the oil represents righteousness, and personal righteousness can’t be shared. That is, you can’t give someone else your relationship with God. You can only be responsible for your own. You can only carry enough faith for yourself.

Another thing to consider is that the bridesmaids don’t choose to lock the door. The bridegroom is the only one who can decide who’s in and who’s out.

This is a tough parable in some ways, but Jesus might be being tough on us for our own good. None of us knows when the bridegroom will come. Like the girls in the story, we all fall asleep while waiting. None of us knows when to expect a life-altering event, so we’d better have our oil—our faith, our knowledge of the Word of God, our humility and acceptance, our self-knowledge and honest contrition, our willingness to forgive others, and our hope for eternity—with us at all times. We can’t share these things with our fellow “bridesmaids,” but we can encourage them to acquire some for themselves. Indeed, we are enjoined by the Gospel to do just that. And we can’t waste opportunities to be generous and compassionate to one another and the world in which we live, nor can we afford to be sloppy with our resources. We don’t know when the banquet hall doors will shut.

May God bless you today and always. I’m glad you stopped by. Please come again!

[i] If you want to get technical (and why wouldn’t you?), the Bible literally refers to these girls as “virgins,” or parqenois (parthenois). The fact that they’re going to a wedding and are performing the function of greeting the groom suggests that they’re bridesmaids. “Maid” or “maiden” always suggests an unmarried young woman, just as “virgin” does.

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