On Gathering with Those who Keep Oil in their Lamps

eucharist1Like many parables, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens is obvious and yet puzzling in some respects. The notion of forfeiting eternal life for failing to be prepared at a certain level is oppressive, but we can lift this degree of oppression by noting that the Kingdom of God is something we are supposed to be living NOW, in this life. This is what we are to be prepared for. If we are prepared NOW for the kingdom, entering more deeply into the Kingdom when we die will take care of itself.

It is worth noting that just before this parable, Jesus has thrown out the parable of the household where the wicked servant beats his fellow servants and gets drunk with the drunkards. Here we have an image of the violence humanity commits and suffers for not being alert to God’s Kingdom. Ironically, the wicked servant thinks the Master is delayed when the Master is already there in the servants he is beating. In contrast, the Foolish Maidens do not commit violence, but they fail to do anything that would stand up to violence such as that of the wicked servant.

I also think it significant that the parable is about two groups of maidens rather than just two maidens. As one who uses the thought of René Girard as a tool for interpreting scripture, I am inclined to interpret this parable in turns of contrasting human groups, each governed by a collective desire they share within that group. The wise maidens who have extra oil for their lamps are a community whose members encourage one another so as to keep their lamps burning. When they care about the Bridegroom and those the Bridegroom identifies with, their lamps burn yet more. I know how valuable it is to live in a community of men who all encourage me to remain ardent in prayer and kindness to those who come here, which makes it easier for me to encourage them in turn. The Foolish Maidens are quite the opposite. Here is a community, if one even wants to call it that, where the members encourage each other to remain apathetic and so strengthen apathy among themselves. Apathy is just as contagious as ardor, if not more so. When the people around us act (or fail to act) out of apathy, our own lamps are sure to burn lower and lower and eventually go out.

When the Wise Maidens say there is not enough oil to share when the Bridegroom comes, they are wrong in one respect. The strengthening of ardor among themselves could easily catch the foolish Maidens into its burning. The problem is that it is very difficult to extricate oneself from a group whose process has a strong grip on us and it is even much more difficult yet to change a whole group around all at once. Not even with the best will in the world could the Wise Maidens have enough oil burning to do that. The Foolish Maidens are like the drunkards in the previous parable who let the wicked servant beat the other servants and then drink with him. The Wise Maidens have the strength to stand up to the violence and witness to a nonviolent way of living. The Foolish Maidens may not be violent themselves, but they will be swept away by violence when it comes. We really do have to pay attention to the company we keep and how we keep it. The Wise Maidens do need to find ways to reach out to their Foolish sisters without getting caught in their apathy.

Finding themselves flatfooted when they realize the Bridegroom is here, the Foolish Maidens compound their foolishness by running off to the store in the middle of the night. With some stores open 24/7 these days, this act isn’t quite as irrational now as it was then but it is irrational enough. What they are doing is running away from the Maidens who have their lamps lit and away from the Bridegroom. They would have better off to stay with the Wise Maidens and the Bridegroom. It may have been humiliating to have empty unlit lamps but the Bridegroom is the one who lights the lamps of those who hold them out. They also would have been in a position to start catching the ardor of the Wise Maidens. By running off, they get plenty of oil but they have missed the chance to encounter the Bridegroom and those the Bridegroom identifies with. All of this is a perfect image of the kind of crowd panic in reaction to a problem that ensures that it only gets worse.The foolish maidens will almost certainly just let the oil run out all over again.

As with the wicked servant who thought the Master was delayed, the Maidens think the Bridegroom is delayed. The truth is that the Bridegroom is always already HERE. We can turn to the Bridegroom in love at any time and we can respond to the least of those the Bridegroom identifies with at any time they show up. THIS is what we have to be alert to and prepared for. There is lasting damage to being unprepared through apathy for the Bridegroom’s presence. I’m sure all of us can think of opportunities that we squandered and there is now no way to go back and make them good. The Forgiving Victim will still redeem all of us, but the diminishment and needless pain we have allowed always remains. Let these memories that we regret motivate us to stay close to the Bridegroom who lights our lamps in the company of others who will encourage us to keep our lamps lit.