s065g99 Somerton Park 7/11/99 Sunday 32
"flasks of oil with their lamps" Matt 25.4
And so we come, having travelled with Matthew's account of Jesus' words this year, today and for the next two Sundays, to the final chapter of Jesus' public teaching before he retreats briefly to the inner sanctum with his disciples. In Advent we begin again the account of the facts of Jesus' birth, that he was betrayed, arrested, crucified and raised - the subject of the other half of the Christian year - from then to the Ascension.
The injunction to watch, to be alert, is perhaps to make a cardinal virtue of insomnia, or to perpetuate a culture of "watching out" - to be forever careful. Neither of these I believe to be true.
There are three "parables of judgement" in the 25th chapter of Matthew not just one, and this immediately alerts us to the fact that God goes out of his, or her, way to get as many people into the kingdom. That there are three parables, not just one, means that there is a wideness to God's mercy - that God will get us into the kingdom, "by hook or by crook" - which is, of course, "by Christ". This shall be my theme for the next three weeks, and this morning I concentrate on the first, the parable of the wise and foolish maidens. This is the standard of judgement for Christians.
The point of this parable is to watch, to be ready, to be awake, to be alert. While Matthew has the other two parables of judgement following this; in fact both Mark and Luke agree that this message: "to watch" is the very final words of Jesus public teaching, before he retreats to the "inner sanctum". It is what the crowds are bidden to do. (Mark 13.37, Luke 21.36) It is therefore a particularly important word from Jesus.
There are, in "high church" theology, three separate oils - the oil of Catacumens used at baptism, the oil of the sick for healing and the dying, and the oil of Chrism used at Confirmations, Ordinations and (presumably) Coronations. ("This is our Faith" ed J John, Redemptorist Publication p 53, interestingly placing this section before the detailed discussion about Baptism and the Holy Communion.)
Oil has a long and venerable history in the faith of both the ancient people of God the Jews and the Christian Church. Rather than the traditional OT texts about oil, I want to bring to you Psalm 133, which says:
1. Behold, how good and how lovely it is:
when families live together in unity.
2. It is fragrant as oil upon the head, that runs down over the beard:
fragrant as oil upon the beard of Aaron, that ran down over the collar of his robe. ...
4. For there the LORD has commanded his blessing:
which is life for evermore.
Jesus is called "the Christ", "the Messiah" - anointed - and one is always anointed with oil of some description. So it is appropriate that we use oil in significant occasions in the life of individuals within the Christian community, even though here we only use it for healing. It deserves a wider appreciation.
I quoted Psalm 133, for I have never had occasion to be anointed with such a quantity of oil, and I cannot say I would enjoy it very much. It would tickle and saturate the clothing :-). But here it is really used in the context of our relationships, one with another. The oil of God is that which brings people together and to make their relationship harmonious.
The oil we use today in ordinary life, is firstly oil for cooking. It is a medium to bring the heat to the various ingredients in an even and homogeneous way - (I am thinking here of "stir-frys")
Oil is also ordinarily used for lubricating a machine, like the engine of a car. It means that the parts slide over one another easily, enabling the engine to perform the function for which it is created - rather than one part cutting into another, to the detriment of both, and the eventual destruction of the whole.
I once had occasion to talk to a fencing contractor, and he described water as the oil for the ground. When digging a hole in dry ground, a bucket of water makes the job a whole lot easier.
I would point out a unity between salvation, healing and ordination - despite there traditionally being three separate and distinct oils. I am reminded (in "Directions" by Philip Carter of the Julian Centre) that Donald Coggan said: "The Name which is above every name (Jesus - Joshua - deliverance FROM and TO) is derived from the Hebrew root that denotes "to be spacious". To be "saved", to be healed, and to be authorised and enabled to minister to others - these are all one and the same thing.
Our parable today speaks of flasks of oil needed to be ready for the celebration of the wedding. I point out that this oil is NOT the oil of charity. The five wise bridesmaids refuse to share their oil with their foolish friends. Charity is another standard of judgement - for those who know not the King - those who are neither Christians or Jews - the Atheists, Agnostics and those of other faiths, in the third and final parable in Matt 25.31-46.
What is this oil if it is not immediately about charity. Here I would point to the verse: "God has anointed you with the oil of gladness" (Ps 45:7 // Heb 1:9) The flasks of oil are, I believe, a gladness, a preparedness to join in the celebration of the marriage, with other people as guests. We are "saved" from narrowness. We are healed through our relationships. We are authorised and enabled to minister to others as we enjoy one another's company.
And here we see the reason for the lack of charity of the five wise maidens towards the five foolish ones. Being prepared to join in the celebration with others is a precious commodity indeed. I would not want to give away my gladness for life to another. God does not need surly guests.
Are these foolish ones saying: "Accept me first"? "I want to feel more important than everyone else to you"? No, we are all equal - just bridesmaids.
The oil is a preparedness to celebrate in the kingdom of God, with others who are likewise ready, as well as with the ancient people of God the Jews who haven't hidden their talent in the ground for fear of the king, and also with the atheists, agnostics and peoples of other faiths who have been charitable in their lives. Hence the reason that Matthew puts the parables together and begins with this one.
And so the oil is described as oil for lamps, which bring the light and warmth of acceptance to other peoples, or other faiths and of no faith, of other cultures, of other genders, whatever.
And our psalm tells us that this is "life for evermore".
Jesus is the anointed one. He comes to enable us to live together as we are, not make us clones one of another.
The "standard of judgement" is that we are ready and glad to join with others in the wedding feast of the King. It is not a standard of judgement imposed externally by others, by God or by the Church. God's kingdom is full of all sorts of people - do we want to join in with others as they are, without them being made "Christian" or don't we? It is ourselves who choose - the oil is from within. Do we have enough? Do we want to associate with others as they are, or not? The five foolish bridesmaids are told: "I do not know you". If they were not ready with gladness to associate with others as they are previously, are they ready with gladness now? Or is it that they now do it only under sufferance, because they risk eternal damnation if they don't. That is the sort of people who spoil celebrations, not contribute to them.
For those who have not seen it, I would draw your attention to a little short story by JRR Tolkein entitled "Leaf by Niggle" in his book "Tree and Leaf" for a delightful parable about being ready for death, about our relationships and the afterlife.
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