This Sunday we begin the countdown to the end of the church year with the first of three parables that deal with the coming of Jesus at the end of time: The Parable of the Ten Young Women. The Kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, is like ten young women who prepare to meet the bridegroom when he comes. Back then, women from the bridal party went out to welcome the bridegroom when he arrived at his parents’ home for the wedding. The bridegroom of Jesus' parable arrives at night, so the women need light. They need oil for their lamps. The wise women take along a little extra oil, just in case. The foolish do not. When the bridegroom is delayed, all ten women snooze as their lamps burn. But when the bridegroom gets close, everyone goes out to meet him. The foolish women have run out of oil, so they tell the wise to give them some of their own. But the wise do not. They direct the foolish women to local providers, saying they need what they brought for themselves. This stinginess appears all-the-more tragic as the foolish women return to the scene of the wedding and find themselves locked out. “Lord, lord, open to us,” they cry. But the door stays locked. They remain outside, missing out on all the fun.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve wrestled with how such selfish women in this text can be considered “wise.” My brother and I went to different schools, and I was the youngest in my grade growing up. There were times I didn’t get the memo about bringing extra change for the field trip lunch...times I would come with the wrong kind of gear for the overnight outdoor club trip. It was a relief to discover a grownup had brought “extra” of whatever I needed. Would it have killed the wise women to have shared SOME of their oil? I can’t help wondering. Especially when considered in light of the story’s context (the end of time and the arrival of the heavenly bridegroom) their actions seem overly cautious at best, downright selfish, at worst. But once upon a time, in approaching this text, I was directed to the familiar instructions on airplanes that never cease to surprise…and maybe even unsettle us: “In case of emergency, air masks will descend…Please put on your OWN mask first, before assisting others.” There is wisdom there. Even parents, before saving their children, should insure they get their OWN oxygen first. If they don’t, they might not have the life they need to be of any use. If we consider how the oil of the wise women is similar to enduring faith fueled by the Word of God in the Scriptures and the sacraments of the church, a Word that says, “Yes, you are a sinner…but in my Son Jesus you are a FORGIVEN sinner,” then the wisdom of an oil crisis averted by self-care first, becomes apparent.
It is a good thing to assist one another. It pleases our heavenly Father when we open our hearts, homes, and wallets to help those in need around us. But the three-part focus on the End by Jesus we begin this week starts with the need for vigilance in the face of our own impending oil crisis. It begins with the need we each, individually have, for oxygen…and that we need to get it for ourselves before we can share it with those around us. Too often I find myself responding, willy-nilly, to the emergencies around me. How wonderful that Jesus, my Wisdom, is there for me in God’s Holy Word and in the Sacraments of the Church, to bring me life, when I find myself gasping at the end of the week! As you and I look forward to the glorious wedding banquet that is coming at the End of time, may Jesus continue to fill us up and keep us strong so that we might be a blessing to those around us.