It’s not about the oil

A sermon for the online service of Morning Prayer at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, the Sunday after the 2020 US election, and the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.


In the days of Elijah the Tishbite, there was a famine in the land, and when he came to the house of a widow begging for bread, she told him that she had only a handful of meal and a cup of oil left, and that once the loaf it would make was finished, so was she. Yet she did not deny him, but took him in with herself and her son, and shared their last loaf with him. And lo and behold, for as long as the drought continued and Elijah was with them, the meal and the oil did not run dry (I Kings 17).

Many centuries later, the Maccabees recovered and restored the Temple, cleansing it after its desecration by an abusive conquering king. They celebrated the rededication of the Temple for eight days, burning oil in its lamps that, the Talmud tells, should only have lasted a day, but which God eked out for them, so that they could complete their ritual and restoration (see also 1 and 2 Maccabees).

A lack of oil is the presenting problem for Elijah, the Maccabees, and the bridesmaids of our parable; but it is not a stumbling block for the reign of God, and it is no hurdle to the mercy of God.

In the story of Elijah, God partnered with the self-sacrifice of the widowed single mother, the selflessness of the over-stretched woman, to save the whole family from disaster.

In the story of the Maccabees, God partnered with the those breaking out from under the yoke of oppression, those who refused to accept the crushing of their faith, the desecration of their religion.

In the story of the bridesmaids, we do not find those catalysts of mercy, generosity of spirit, selflessness, creativity which might have been moulded into a more satisfying ending. Instead, each woman was worried only about her own lamp.

Now, I do not think for a moment that Jesus is preaching about who will get into heaven and who will be locked out. The wise don’t get their ticket stamped by having sufficient resources to start with, and by refusing to share them with others. We cannot buy our way into the good graces of God, even less by withholding grace from others. Jesus spent his time preaching good news for the poor and an inheritance for the meek, feeding the multitudes with free bread and fish, healing people in and out of his network.

Nor do I think that Jesus is implying that if we run out of oil, or steam, or get momentarily distracted or diverted, that he will reject us, or pretend that he does not know us. The shepherd who would leave ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost lamb, when it comes belated and bleating across the hillside, is not going to turn it away or leave it to the wolves.

Jesus’ point about the kingdom of heaven and its in-breaking is not about the afterlife anyhow, but about the here and the now. Not that this, either, a commentary on our election processes, and the work we have yet to do to heal our nation’s hurts, although we might be forgiven for going there.

“Keep awake, therefore,” Jesus says; yet all ten of the bridesmaids had fallen asleep before the bridegroom came. All of them were flustered when they awoke in a hurry, and five realized that they had not planned ahead, and five failed at generosity, and all of them, in their fixation on filling their own lamps, failed to think creatively, or collaboratively, to find a solution that would save them all.

There are any number of different ways this parable could have ended.

I get that it would not make sense to spread the oil so thinly that all ten lamps would sputter and fail; but if they pooled their resources, and shared one lamp between two, they could have made a pretty welcome for the bridegroom all together.

“Why should we?” asked the so-called wise ones. “They got themselves into this mess. Let them get themselves out of it.”

The bridegroom could have had some compassion for the flustered and foolish maidens racing back from the oil dealers with their refilled lights, and let them in. But he said, “Too sad, too late.”

Those five young women, with a little creativity, could instead have ditched their lamps and gathered up posies of flowers, and arranged themselves between their wise and haughty sisters, ready to greet the bridegroom as though it had always been intended this way.

But they were each one fixated on having her own lamp lit, and none had time nor bandwidth nor the imagination to think outside the oilcan.

We can do better. This parable is a commentary, I think, about our continuing lives of faith and hope in the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, whose will, we pray, is to be done on earth, here and now, as it is in heaven.

If we fail to share our faith with our families, our friends, we fail the great commission. If we pretend not to know those who come late, or breathless, or empty-handed; if we exclude those who have had the doors shut in their faces for too long already; if we meet anyone without mercy, we open ourselves up to judgement. If we each look to our own interests and neglect the needs of our siblings, we miss the point of the parable. If we abandon our cousins to the outer darkness, we miss the whole point of the gospel.

This is the moment to double down on love.

We do not know even now where and when the next opportunity will present itself to welcome in the kingdom of God, to usher in the reign of heaven. We know from our faith history that God provides for that moment, and that we, in partnership with God’s mercy, God’s unfailing love, can do better than the wise, foolish, and selfish bridesmaids of the parable. A lack of oil is not the problem.

“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength,” writes St Paul, referring to the self-sacrificing love of Christ who was crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Or to paraphrase one of our diocesan [Diocese of Ohio] billboards: Love God. Love your neighbour. Change the story.


Featured image: The Parable of the Ten Virgins (section) by Phoebe Traquair, Mansfield Traquair Church, Edinburgh. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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