“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.”
There’s an unassuming-looking man with an easy smile, a quick laugh, and an immense talent who lives in New York City named Sam Zygmontowicz. Sam is arguably the greatest violin maker living in the world today. He’s a colleague of George’s; we bump into him from time to time at violin functions, and George communicates with him via email on a somewhat routine basis. George considers it a real honor and a great help when he’s able to get one of his instruments in Sam’s hands, and have Sam check it out and offer him pointers on how it might be made even better. But when Sam does that, he never gives cut-and-dried “you need to do this and this and this” kind of advice. Instead, he just drops a trail of bread crumbs, as George puts it – giving him information bits that get him on the right track, but George still has to do the legwork – he has to use his own knowledge and intellect to really put the pieces together for himself and use the information in the way that works best for him. I suspect most of us can think of some teacher, professor, or boss who helped us to develop our own skills by giving us the same kind of help.
Most of the stories that Jesus told in order to teach us were similar to that. They’re trails of breadcrumbs that get us started on our way, but still leave us needing to go further. They leave us with at least as many questions as they answered. It’s a way of teaching that requires you to continue to engage your brain, to keep thinking about what’s being said, and asking questions, and maybe drawing new or different answers out of the same story at different times.
This story from Matthew’s gospel is certainly no exception to that.We’re all familiar with this particular story, and we’re all familiar with what we’ve generally considered its point: Jesus calls the five bridesmaids who didn’t bring extra lamp oil, and ran back to get more, foolish because they weren’t prepared when the bridegroom was delayed in arriving. So the moral of the story is that unlike those foolish bridesmaids, we need to be prepared, laying up enough spiritual stores, as it were, to sustain us until the Lord returns – we shouldn’t be found spiritually short-stocked when Jesus, the eternal bridegroom, returned.
I don’t mean to dismiss that meaning. It’s a valid moral to the story, a good spiritual lesson for us to hear. But at the same time, I always like to study a passage and try to see if there isn’t something other than the generally assumed, traditional understanding that we might also benefit from. I know that lots of people take the scriptures and twist them, often beyond the point of recognition, to say whatever they want, often crazy, ridiculous, even obscene things. People have done that over the ages, and they continue to do it; we just had an example of that in the national news this past week. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I want to look at a passage and see if there aren’t additional understandings we can draw out of it that’s still consistent with Christ’s teaching and the overall witness of the scriptures.
As I was researching this passage, and reading what other people have thought about it, I came across an article that someone had written that I thought had some real merit. In the article, the author questions the traditional understanding of this passage. She questioned the reason we’ve typically assumed Jesus was calling those five bridesmaids foolish. Was it because they’d fallen asleep before the bridegroom arrived? No, because all ten of them had done that. Was it really because they didn’t bring extra oil? Well, I don’t know, think about that for a moment. Would you consider yourself foolish if you left your house to go to a party with plenty of gas in your tank, but you didn’t also bring a few extra cans of gas in the trunk, just in case? Of course not; it wouldn’t be reasonable to think you’d need to do that. And what if the bridegroom had been delayed even longer than he was? If even the five bridesmaids who brought more oil ran out because they didn’t bring even more, would they have been foolish then, too? And if the bridegroom was delayed in getting where he was supposed to be at a certain time, wouldn’t *he* have been the foolish one for not leaving in time to account for traffic on the Gene Snyder at that hour, instead of the bridesmaids? Isn’t that typical – the guy screws up, and somehow it’s still the woman’s fault? Many Mormons have a practice of stockpiling a full year’s worth of food to tide them over in case of some extreme cataclysmic event. But would we consider them foolish if such a catastrophe really did happen, but the actual crisis ended up requiring *367* days’ worth of food? Probably not.
The author of this article suggested – and I think she’s correct – that maybe, what made the five bridesmaids foolish wasn’t that they didn’t have enough oil. Maybe it was that they missed out on the party because they ran back to get more oil. Maybe they were foolish because they didn’t just stay, and use the oil they had, trusting that the bridegroom would get there in time for them, even though their oil supply was running low. Instead, they used what little oil they had left to run back to buy more, buying into their own fears and worries rather than just staying put and trusting the bridegroom to come through. If they’d have done that, they’d have been fine, being there when he arrived.
I think that makes a lot of sense. And when Jesus says “stay awake!” at the end of the story, he’s saying to stay alert, and stay on focus, doing what God has called you to do, and faithfully using the resources God has given you to do it. Maybe, in this story, Jesus is saying to make sure that however much oil you may have, to remain focused, and to use the oil you’ve got faithfully to the very end, and trusting the rest to God.
And you know, that makes for a pretty good message for Stewardship Sunday, too – this culmination of the season when we’ve prayerfully considered how we’re supposed to use the financial resources – the “lamp oil” – that God has given us, whether great or small – realizing that in a very real way, the way we use our oil, the way we use our financial resources, is itself our statement of faith.
So when we turn in our pledges this morning, let it be a sign to God, and to ourselves, that in gratitude to God, we’re joyfully committing to using the oil we’ve got, in the way that God intended when it was provided to us. That we aren’t going to give in to our worries and fears and turn away from where God is telling us to be, or to use our resources in ways other than the way God wants us to do. I promise you, if we all do that today, it will be like music to God’s ears – music more beautiful than even one of Sam’s violins could ever make.
Thanks be to God.