Extra Oil

About a year ago, I heard a sermon on the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids in Matthew 25. One of three parables in Matthew 25, in the middle of the fifth and final major “discourse” or teaching sections of Matthew, this parable compares the kingdom of heaven to ten bridesmaids who go out with lamps to meet the bridegroom before a wedding banquet:

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).

The parable plainly contrasts five wise bridesmaids who bring extra oil for their lamps with five foolish ones who neglect to bring extra oil. The point of it, made in the final verse, seems to be that God’s people who eagerly await the kingdom of heaven must keep ever vigilant because we do not know when it will come in its fullness—that is, when the bridegroom will appear.

In the sermon I heard, though, the preacher quite insightfully pointed out that this parable is not at all about the unexpected arrival of the bridegroom. All ten of the bridesmaids were eagerly awaiting his arrival, after all. All ten of them went out to meet him, and all ten brought lamps. And despite the parable’s concluding exhortation to “keep awake,” all ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep. No, this parable is not about the sudden, unexpected arrival of the bridegroom. It’s about the unanticipated delay of the bridegroom. What separated the wise bridesmaids from the foolish was their preparation for a long night of waiting.

The best biblical scholars have a way of describing some new insight into the Bible in a way that makes you wonder how you’d never noticed it before. That was the reaction I had when I heard this preacher. Of course, I thought. It’s about the bridegroom’s delay! This parable is about preparation, cultivation of a faith that can last into the late, late hours.

The preacher went on to describe how important it was to have a faith that can last. What if the bridegroom is delayed in our personal lives? In the life of the Church? Do we, as individuals and as a community, have a faith that can stand up to the waiting?

The preacher went on to list examples of ways the bridegroom might be delayed, but I found my mind wandering—as often happens in sermons. (My way of “listening” tends to be a kind of midrash, where I take a Scripture reference or insight and mentally run with it in all sorts of directions, which may or may not relate to the point the preacher wishes to make.)

“What if the bridegroom is delayed one thousand years?” I thought. Does our Church have a faith can withstand that kind of timeline? What are the most important characteristics of such a faith? In other words, what sorts of habits, questions, confessions, and practices will enable the Church to thrive for another thousand years? What, to use the language of the parable, will be the oil that keeps our lamps burning that long?

A delay that long seems unlikely to those of us who are used to thinking in minutes and seconds and birthdays, maybe looking ahead to the next generation if we’re especially farsighted. A thousand years—surely Jesus will return before then. And yet such a delay is hardly impossible. It’s been almost two thousand years since Jesus’ death and resurrection. (That’s roughly twice as long as the interval between the founding of David’s dynasty and the birth of the Messiah.) To give no thought to the next thousand years is to refuse to pack extra oil to keep our lamps burning.

Of course, my mental midrash was not yet finished. “What if the bridegroom is delayed ten thousand years?” This seems even less likely than a thousand. And yet, two millennia removed from the first century AD, we are already 20% of the way there. We can maybe, if we stretch our minds and imagine as hard as we can, conceive of the kind of changes that will take place over the next one thousand years. But ten thousand? Will we even recognize the world that will exist then? Will we recognize ourselves? Or will the difference between our descendants and us be as great as the difference between us modern humans and those who lived through the last Ice Age? How could the Christian faith possibly last so long? What kind of oil will we need to fill our lamps if the bridegroom is delayed that much?

But I wasn’t finished. “What if the bridegroom is delayed one million years?” Lest we think that’s ludicrous, we should remember that it’s been 4.6 billion years since the earth was born and 13.8 billion since the universe as we know it began. Our Creator works on those time scales as well as those we humans are more familiar with.

There’s a real possibility that humankind itself will be extinct over such a long time period, apart from God’s providence. Homo sapiens diverged from homo erectus on the order of 300,000 years ago. Will our descendants, if there are any left, be a different species from us? What will be the nature of those differences? What will they believe in, and how will that faith express itself?

By the end of the sermon my thoughts were almost literally off in space somewhere (Kids, see what happens when you’re a Bible nerd who reads too much sci-fi and you let your mind wander in Church?)

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon and the possible extended delay of the bridegroom over the past year. It’s part of what sparked my interest in exploring the intersection of faith and science in more depth.

Now, I don’t think the parable implies we need to concern too greatly with the future of our faith. I don’t think the answer, in other words, is to spend as much time thinking about the Christian faith of the future than we do nurturing and shaping our faith in the present. Peter and Paul and many of the early Christians thought the bridegroom would come in their lifetimes, and they certainly didn’t anticipate a delay of two thousand years. They managed to plan the faith deeply enough, and water it well enough, among the early Christian communities that it continued to thrive. For those earliest Christians, it was enough to write down Gospels and teach the children. (Perhaps we need to take more seriously that the lives of children are where the present and the future intersect.)

Still, the parable does turn our attention somewhat to the future. The most important thing is staying awake and keeping your lamp burning, it tells us. But don’t forget the extra oil; it may turn out to be crucial. And that precaution might be more urgent than ever given the accelerating pace of change in our world today. Colonization of Mars might well happen in my children’s lifetime; tourism and industry in outer space almost certainly will happen within my own. Human lives will be on average longer, perhaps very much longer, in the near future. Human communication has already been altered forever with smart phones and social media over just the last ten years.

These changes, and others on the horizon we can’t even know about, cannot help but alter in some way our expressions and experiences of the Christian faith. I think it’s faithful to walk into this future with thoughtfulness and purpose, rather than just letting it happen to us and around us. This is part of what it means to bring extra oil so that our lamps are able to last the night, whether than night is ten or a hundred or thousands of years long.

And it’s critical to remember that we’re bringing extra oil for the lamp, not getting ourselves a new lamp. It’s not about reinventing the gospel, or about finding a new one altogether. Instead, it’s about investing in those aspects of our faith that promote longevity, and doing so in a way that’s faithful to the tradition we’ve inherited. It is, to use a term from Greg Jones that I’ve written about before, traditioned innovation.

I will conclude with a list of what these aspects of faith might be, a list which will necessarily be incomplete. This is a starting point, but I hope a helpful one.

  • Teaching the faith to our children.
  • Embracing reason and observation as an avenue for encountering God.
  • Communicating the good news of Jesus Christ in as many ways, through as many media, as possible, including current and emerging media of communication.
  • Exploring the intersection between the faith and science.
  • Affirming that humans are created in the image of God, whatever changes are on the horizon for us.
  • Acknowledging the reality of human sinfulness, despite the promise of innovation.
  • Expressing new encounters with God and insights into our faith in the language of the Bible and tradition, to see how they are natural outgrowths of the faith we have received.

As I said, these things are a starting point, but I believe each of these aspects of the Christian faith represent drops of oil that will enable our faith to last through a night that extends past our individual lifetimes.

What would you add to the list?

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