The story of the ten virgins, five wise and five foolish, comes in the middle of Jesus’ teaching about the end of the age and the signs of his coming. He will come as a thief in the night, when least expected, like the bridegroom at midnight. And there are many correct and obvious connections to make here.
Be prepared, like the Boy Scouts. No one can say when he will come. It may be this afternoon, but it might be another thousand years from now. No one denies the needs of this life. Sleep if you are sleepy, only keep the lamps close. Be ready to trim those wicks and have what you need for the journey. Be prepared.
All of this is good and well worth considering, but I want to look especially at one aspect of this story; because the wise and foolish are divided by only one thing. They were all virgins, check. They were all properly dressed for the wedding, check. They all had lamps for when the bridegroom came in the night, check. They did not all have enough oil.
What is so important about oil?
In those days, oil was the one thing that meant the difference between living in the light and living in the darkness. Having enough oil meant staying in the light. But beyond that, oil at that time was used for plenty of other things as well. They cooked in oil. They made their daily bread as the widow found out when her jar of oil and flour never ran out. They also used oil for something we might not think of.
In those days, oil was used for bathing, for getting clean. Gladiators bathed in olive oil so they would glisten in the arena. Women bathed in it as well, not only to glisten, but to have baby-soft skin. So oil suggested being clean as well as being fed and living in the light. Think about it. All these images must have come to the mind of the people when Jesus talked about having enough oil.
For us, oil goes even further. Maybe we don’t bathe in it, but oil has been the chief driver of our lives, our economy, our civilization. We can’t get enough of it. And it has value, like black gold. If this were a modern tale, perhaps the brides would have to drive to the wedding feast and five might be out of gas.
Oil, for us, brings us everything. It drives our trains and trucks. It drives our cars and heats our homes. It makes jet fuel which takes us around the world and it brings things to us on planes and ships from all over the globe. And with natural gas and coal it makes most of the electricity we need to drive everything else, including this internet. Oil for us is massively important, far more than it was back then. But there was one way oil was important back then that may be hard for us to grasp, because it gets back to this cleansing idea.
“Thou anointest my head with oil. My cup overflows…” Oil came in little alabaster jars. It was for the anointing of kings. It was the ultimate symbol of being clean. It designated the filling of our souls with the Holy Spirit of God. It not only keeps us in the light, cleanses us and keeps our entire lives and civilization moving forward, it also stands as a symbol of being filled with God’s love and acceptance in the Holy Spirit.
Without oil, people will live in filth and squalor in the darkness, and worse. People will go hungry and live unclean lives. People will lose all the benefits of the modern world and turn back to some kind of medieval existence. Without oil, we will burn out, our personal light will fizzle and die. That would be a shame, because we are not supposed to hide our light under the basket. We are to let our light shine, the light fueled by the Holy Spirit.
Are you ready? You may be chaste, faithful, covered in white robes, your lamps trimmed; but do you have enough oil? Does your cup overflow? Are you filled with the Holy Spirit? If not, you might want to work that out now while it is still day, because the night is coming.