I’m a fan of the television show “Seinfeld”. I’ve watched most of the episodes so many times I could recite the dialogue as easily as the four main characters – Jerry, Kramer, George, and Elaine do. Reading this parable of the 10 virgins, 5 of whom are wise and well-stocked in oil and 5 who have foolishly come not fully prepared for the unexpected delay of the bridegroom reminds me of a Seinfeld episode.
Elaine and Jerry are at the movies with their respective dates. They are sitting in two different sections of the theatre each watching and waiting for the other couple to show up, not realizing both couples are already there. Elaine excuses herself to go to the ladies room, enters one of the stalls belatedly realizing after she enters that she has chosen a stall with no bath tissue. So she calls to the lady in the next stall, who, not surprisingly, is Jerry’s date. Now, Elaine has never met Jerry’s date so she asks this “stranger” for a “few squares of tissue” but without success. The woman will not give her any tissue pointing out to Elaine she should have looked before she sat. Elaine responds, “You can’t spare a few squares, just a few squares of tissue” to which the woman responds, “no, I can’t spare a square.”
Life is kind of like this. We may not always be as prepared for the uncertain events that come and go in our lives as we might hope. We may think we have all the time in the world to make whatever changes are necessary or to overcome a bad habit or heal a broken relationship. We may not be as aware or as prepared as we might believe we are and then one day, when something happens unexpectedly, it throws us for a curve. In those moments of crisis, we find ourselves without the necessary squares of tissue or flasks of oil that might help us cope with each bend in the road.
This is a cautionary tale. Jesus tells the parable to those anxious to know what the kingdom of God is like. What are they to expect? But like most of the parables, which Jesus tells this one causes surprise and concern among his listeners. And well it should. We, however, may not feel the same degree of concern. The customs are puzzling to us and so, for us, this may seem like a rather silly little story about a group of virginal girls – one half of which had what they needed and wouldn’t share and the other half unprepared for a great wedding event.
In the days in which Jesus lived, wedding feasts were great celebrations and wonderful entertainment. There wasn’t much else to do, outside of required religious feasts, which could also be a bit entertaining. Weddings took place at the whim of the bridegroom. He would choose the time and place for the event and would take great pleasure in catching his guests off guard. In fact that was part of the excitement; no one knew when the wedding might occur so all had to be prepared to attend on a moment’s notice. A call would be issued throughout the town…”the bridegroom approaches” and all were to hurry to the site of the wedding feast ready and prepared and appropriately dressed.
Very different from the way our wedding feasts take place. In our cultural world, invitations go out 6 weeks in advance with a set time and place. They include the stores where the bride and groom are registered so there are no surprises in the gift department. There are cake and menu tastings, a rehearsal, well, you know the drill. But in Jesus’ world this was not the case; the bridegroom’s arrival was greatly anticipated but unexpected and uncertain so this custom made a very fine metaphor for the coming of the Kingdom of God, equally unexpected yet highly anticipated.
I would guess that for most of us “Kingdom of God” language doesn’t hold the same charm or magnetism as it did for those who had firsthand experience with the bearer of such language. Jesus’ presence would bring God’s Kingdom home to the many who actually heard him speak and saw his healing and saving actions. But what we can identify with is the need to be ready for the unpleasant occurrences in our lives like the death of a loved one, the pain of an illness, or the need to repair a relationship. These would be our own opportunities to experience the Kingdom of God in our midst. These could also be times when we are without the necessary strength to deal with those losses and the pain of daily, human existence…our shallow flasks and empty tissue tubes in which what we need to survive, to be ready is missing or at the very least, lacking in substance, quantity and quality.
So, what we gain from a parable like this one is a sense that our need can be better filled when we keep our focus on the One who does heal and does save even today. Jesus still walks with us. Jesus is still someone upon whom we can open ourselves to and receive through him, God’s grace and love. Our hearts need to be prepared and to be ever ready to receive what is being offered to us daily. God’s love is always here but we won’t know it or recognize it unless we stay aware and awake. Unless we keep our oil flasks unstoppered and ready to be filled. If we think of the oil in those flasks as the lubricant that makes our faith and lives work, we’re going to need plenty of it. Life may be unpredictable but God’s grace is there for the asking. So fill up. In Ellsworth Kalas’ words: “Buy enough oil for life’s crises, including the ultimate one. It’s a buyer’s market, and the price is within your reach. In Jesus’ name, buy now. Buy lots! You can never have too much.”[i] Amen.
[i] Parables from the Back Side” J. Ellsworth Kalas, 108.