Filling Our Lamps

Sermon from November 9th, 2014. Text for this week’s sermon came from Matthew 25:1-13. May God bless you.

Filling Our Lamps

I’d like to talk again about the television show Doomsday Preppers. I love that show. I’ve always been a sucker for survivalists and dystopias, and thinking about how I’d survive without the comforts of the modern world is one of my great entertainments. And I think preparedness matters, though I don’t think that the hypothetical scenarios proposed are likely to come to pass. But I think part of being a Christian is that we have been told that we are living in the last days, and so part of our work is preparing for that time. The parable of the ten bridesmaids is an example of that theme, suggesting that we prepare and keep watch for the Kingdom of Heaven.

One of the things that I struggle with the most about the show Doomsday Preppers, is that nearly every prepper is engaging in a sort of violent fantasy about their particular vision of Doomsday. Sure, these folks stockpile food and supplies, water and power. But what really gets them excited is their stockpiles of weapons. Guns, ammunition, improvised bomb-making gear and more. Why do they put such a strong emphasis on weaponry? Because nearly all of them believe that if things get bad, it will become every person for himself or herself, and they are preparing to gun down their neighbors and friends, in the event that the pillars of our world begin to collapse.

It’s a depressing vision of reality and a selfish response. I prefer a Houston friend’s vision of disaster response. He says in Houston in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, when the storm is gone but the power won’t be back for a few days, every one goes out into the streets with a grill and starts cooking all the meat from the freezer. So whenever there’s a disaster they end up having a block party. This is a much more Christian vision of disaster response. Jesus often compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a feast or a banquet. And on the other hand it’s hard to claim that your Lord is the Prince of Peace while you are preparing to shoot anyone who comes near the house. The Golden Rule tells us that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It’s hard to imagine how stockpiling ammunition so that you don’t have to share qualifies.

In our Gospel Passage for today Jesus tells a parable that describes a similar situation. There are five bridesmaids who are prepared and have enough, and five who are unprepared and do not. The bridegroom is late, and they all fall asleep waiting for him to arrive. When the shout arises that the bridegroom is coming, they awake to find that their lamps have gone out. The five who are unprepared, whom Jesus calls foolish, beg their friends to share some oil with them, but the friends refuse. There won’t be enough, they say, and all our lights will go out.

Should we read this story to mean that the Doomsday Preppers are right? Should we say to our neighbors, “We won’t share, because otherwise we might not have enough?” No! The whole of scripture testifies against that interpretation. When people ask John the Baptist how to live in their new lives, he tells us that if they have two coats, they should give one to someone who has none, and so on. Jesus gets more extreme. He tells us that if a man asks for our coat, we should give away our shirt too. “Give to everyone who asks of you,” Jesus says. We’re told throughout Scripture that we should be generous when we have a lot and when we do not. In the Old Testament, we’re told over and over again to be kind and generous to the foreigners and aliens in our midst, because we were once strangers ourselves.

What leads to this “I got mine” attitude that plagues not just Doomsday Preppers but all of us, is an inability or unwillingness to read Scripture with critical eyes. We don’t make the distinction between passages that should be read literally and passages that should be read in another way, whether as poetry, apocalypse, metaphor, or parable. When we insist on trying to read the Bible only one way, we have to go to more and more elaborate lengths to try to make it make sense, like praying in our closets, or believing in the Rapture. Did you guys know this? The idea of the Rapture was developed in the 1800s by a man named John Nelson Darby, who was trying to make literal sequence of events for the last days. No one had ever heard of such a thing until then. Calvin wouldn’t have recognized it, nor Zwingli or Knox, Augustine, any of the church fathers or even the disciples. It was invented less than 200 years ago by people ascribing literal significance to symbolic words (which required making up a lot of things in the process). But it also contradicts the larger narrative of Scripture. The Bible talks about a God who comes down to us in the world, and walks with the suffering and the miserable, even when it is God’s punishment that causes them to suffer. God never pulls people out of the world. God enters into it.

So what do we do with the bridesmaids, then? What is Jesus telling us about preparing for the Kingdom of God if he doesn’t mean stockpile things and refuse to share? We have to look for another way to look at the parable. And in this case, the best fit seems to be allegory, a type of story where everything in the story is symbolic of something else.

Jesus often compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a banquet or a feast, especially in the Book of Matthew. So we can understand the wedding banquet to be referring to the Kingdom of Heaven. And Christ is often compared to the bridegroom, ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven. The lamps suggest two interpretations. We read in the Psalms that “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” so we might read the lamps as embodying or representing the Word of God. And Jesus talks in the book of Matthew about letting our light shine, not hiding it under a bushel, as the song goes. These two are related, in a way. The light we shine is a reflection of what we encounter in Scripture. The light of scripture leads us to shine light into the world through our lives.

Which leaves us with the oil, which is the only symbol that isn’t readily identified by looking at what Jesus talks about in the book of Matthew. The Old Testament talks about the oil, for things like anointing, but of course nobody is being anointed with lamp oil. So we have to expand our search a little bit. We know that oil is fuel for the lamp, so we might think that the oil represents what fuels us, what keeps us going, so that we can shine our light and be guided by the light of Scripture.

One of the things that comes up when you do research on this comes out of the Rabbinical tradition, coming a little bit after the book of Matthew but perhaps representing a tradition that had been going on before. They speak of lamps in the same way that Matthew does. But when they speak of lamp oil, they talk about good deeds. It comes up in an explanation of the book of Numbers, “that the study of the Torah must be mingled with good deeds.”[1] This makes the story make a little more sense. It explains why the five wise bridesmaids couldn’t give their oil to the foolish ones. Good deeds aren’t a commodity that can be given to someone else. We have to do them for ourselves. So perhaps the oil represents our good actions. This resonates a little bit for me because I find that when I do something good for someone else I want to do more, and thus each good deed helps fuel the next.

Like any Bible story, we leave the text with more questions than answers. Why is there no bride in this wedding story? Why is it that the foolish are too late even though the party is still going on? But the deep question that it asks for us today is what fuels you? What is it in the world that keeps your lamp burning? What helps you shine your light in the darkness?

Is it worship? Is it time alone, in contemplation or prayer? Is it friendship? Or study? The challenge for us, as we try to stay ready for our bridegroom who seems late in coming, is to keep our lamps brimming with oil. Talk with God often. Share with each other in pain and in joy. Do good deeds that you may be emboldened to do more. Find what fuels you and fill your life with it, so that when the bridegroom finally arrives, the one whose light outshines the darkness, you will be ready to join the feast.

[1] Donfried, Karl. “The Allegory of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-13) As a Summary of Matthean Theology” Journal of Biblical Literature 93 no 3 S 1974, p. 427.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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