In High School, my French teacher was my nemesis.
I still shudder to think of her, even though there were rare occasions when she did smile (behind those half-rim reading glasses) and reveal that, beneath it all, she probably was a nice lady who was capable of being amused.
And, in all fairness to Madame, my demeanor – slouched in the back of the class in my tattered army surplus jacket and a veil of long hair – bore little resemblance to a “good student.”
That about says it doesn’t it: she behind her prim reading glasses, and I in my threadbare army-surplus.
Fate itself seemed to have pitted us against each other!
On the day in question, though, I was feeling good about things. I was anticipating getting back the results of a quiz that, I felt sure, would redeem my failing grade.
The quiz, you see, was on numbers.
If nothing else, I had mastered the French system of writing out numbers:
You can imagine, then, how stricken I was when Madame handed back my quiz.
There was an “F” emblazoned on the top of the sheet!
I howled in disbelief! There were x marks next to each answer – even though, as far as I could see, they were correct!
Was I losing my mind?
Well, the answer to the mystery is as follows: in French, like in English, when you write the words for numbers, the convention requires that one put dashes between the words.
I had gotten everything correct… but I had neglected to put in the dashes and hence my answers, according to Madame, were technically incorrect.
As a student, the lesson that I took from this experience was not that I should place dashes between the words when writing numbers in French.
The lesson that I got was – “I can’t do this.”
And for the rest of the semester, I turned off. It was the only class in my whole life that I failed.
At the outset of the parable that we have just heard Jesus says:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this…”
And then he launches into a story about 10 young women.
The phrase: “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this…” is over in less than a breath – and yet without this introductory phrase, we would likely have no interest whatsoever in the story that Jesus tells us.
Without this introductory phrase, the story is not all that interesting…
With the addition of the introductory phrase, this rather pedestrian story is transformed into a parable – and when it becomes a parable it takes on a whole new dimension of interest. The story, now, is not told for its own sake – each element suggests something beyond itself and, taken as a whole, the parable is intended to give us some insight into the nature of Heaven – what we, as Christians, can hope for if we are “saved.”
Like every parable that Jesus told, the church has supplied this parable with a traditional interpretation.
I doubt you even need me to tell you what the traditional interpretation is, because the parable spoon feeds it to you.
Ten young women await the arrival of a Bridegroom.
Five women are wise.
Five women are foolish.
The wise women have brought along extra oil for their lamps, in case the bridegroom comes late.
The foolish ones didn’t think about the extra oil and, it turns out, the Bridegroom is delayed.
When, at length, he shows up, the five wise women who have prepared for this eventuality, refill their lamps with the extra oil they brought, and welcome him with a procession of light.
The five foolish women ask the wise ones if they can use some of their oil, but the wise women turn them away.
They say: “…go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves”.
When, at length, the foolish ones return with more oil, the door is closed against them.
When they ask to be let in, the bridegroom says
‘I do not know you.’
In case anyone is thick enough to not get the moral of the story, Jesus delivers it in no uncertain terms:
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This, then, is the traditional interpretation of the parable.
To be a good Christian one must be vigilant.
One must be ready.
No one knows when Jesus will return to bring us into salvation… so if we want to be among those who are saved, then we need to be like the five wise women and…
I’m sorry to say, I’m not a fan of this parable.
Actually, no. What I mean to say is, I’m not a fan of the traditional interpretation of this parable.
First and foremost, I am deeply suspicious of any story that separates people.
If a story identifies one “kind” of person as virtuous and therefore worthy of being saved, and another “kind” of person as irredeemable and therefore dispensable, I ask myself this question:
Whose power does this story serve?
Which “kind” of people are being systematically excluded?
And which “kind” of people are being systematically included?
Because if you ask me, no human, no matter how foolish, should ever be considered dispensable.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the indispensability of the human soul the core assertion of our faith?
Since we are all made in God’s image, we are all children of God…
Isn’t it true that the holy gift of life is precious beyond measure?
With each beat, our hearts proclaim “I am!”
With each breath our spirits declare: “I am not dispensable!”
If my theological outlook has a core assertion, I think this is it.
When we were knit in our mother’s wombs, God gave each of us something sacred.
This sacredness is our shared inheritance!
How then, can the door to salvation be shut to half of the people (5 out of 10!) simply because they lacked foresight and let a small detail slip?
It’s like being sent to jail on a technicality.
Such logic feels too petty and arbitrary to be attributed to You.
Or are you just a great-big-French-teacher-in-the-sky?
I know that I would prefer not to think of God that way.
But how, you ask, are we going to find our way out of this theological pickle?
Let me start by returning to the phrase at the beginning of the passage – the phrase that went like this:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this…”
You will recall that this is the crucial phrase that transformed this story into a parable.
But there is something else about it.
When I looked at the phrase sitting by itself, without the rest of the parable connected to it, it occurred to me that this introductory phrase actually does a pretty poor job of introducing this parable.
Because the literal meaning of “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like this…” leads us to believe that the parable will offer a description of what salvation – what heaven itself – will be like.
But the parable – or rather the traditional interpretation of the parable – doesn’t do this at all. It focuses on something altogether different. It tells us how to get into heaven.
This parable is not about what it will be like once we are saved. It is about how to get saved.
Isn’t that weird?
Here’s a thought.
What if we took the introductory phrase at face value, and looked at the parable, not as a lesson about how to get into heaven, but as a description of what “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like.”
Is there any way that this could make sense?
And if it made sense, would it (hopefully) make God seem a little less like great-big-French-teacher-in-the-sky?
I hope so!
I failed that class!
Now when the seemingly unremarkable phrase – the one we have been beating to death – did its magic and turned this story into a parable, it gave us the permission to interpret any detail in the story as a symbol.
A symbol, as you know, is something that has two meanings: a literal surface meaning, and a deeper interpreted meaning that arises from the context in which it is used.
So what is the most important symbol in this parable?
I would say it is the oil.
The only thing that the wise women did, that the foolish women didn’t do – is remembered to bring extra oil.
If all ten of the women had the presence of mind to bring along extra oil, then all ten would have been saved.
The oil, then, is the symbol around which the entire parable revolves.
So what does the oil symbolize?
The oil is fuel – fuel that gives light.
So what gives light to human life?
Is it money?
Is it fame?
I don’t think so.
You know where this is going don’t you?
The single most important thing that gives light to human life, is love.
If love is the key to this parable, it changes everything for me.
If you replace the word oil with the word love, then God, in
this parable is no longer a great-big-French-teacher-in-the-sky.
Because having love, or not having love, is not some doctrinal technicality –
Experiencing love is part of the natural course of human destiny.
It is our divine inheritance, so letting it run out is foolish – losing it will bring on the darkness and close the door to heaven.
Wisdom consists in gathering it,
holding it dear,
sharing it extravagantly.
Indeed, if this parable centers on love, our faith can affirm, without reservation, that this parable has both meanings:
It helps us get into Heaven
AND it describes “What the Kingdom of Heaven is like.”
For what is our faith, if it does not insist that love gives light to earth and heaven.