From the outset it is helpful to understand that these oil lamps (in the Gospel) were not like what we know as hurricane lamps. There was no glass chimney, no neat wick or adjusting device, and no attached tank in which oil would be stored. It was more like a large, flat, bowl, with a rag or rope-like “wick.” This kind of lamp could be attached to a pole, and used as an outdoor torch to light one’s way.
And, erase from your minds the idea that the five foolish virgins ran out of oil. The text is clear on this point; the five foolish virgins never brought any oil with them. Otherwise, why would all five have run out at the same time? It does seem quite possible if the ladies had been traveling in daylight they would not have needed their lamps to light the way – so they wouldn’t have had to carry an extra flask of oil. What little oil was left in the bottom of the lanterns would have burned off quickly. Then, POOF – they’d all go out in rapid succession. To minimize their foolishness, the five described their predicament as “running out” of oil.
All ten virgins waited for the groom to come to the bride’s house … remember these were the BRIDE’S maids … but the groom dallied, eyelids grew heavy, time passed and darkness set in. Suddenly the cry was heard: “He’s coming, he’s here!” but now it’s midnight and its pitch dark. Everyone scurries to their light lamps.
When the five foolish virgins realized their plight they asked the five wise virgins to share their oil, but their request is denied. It wasn’t that the five wise virgins didn’t care; it was because there would not be enough oil for all ten lamps. Better to have a torchlight parade with five working lamps than with ten non-functioning, lightless, lamps. The foolish virgins were told to go purchase their own oil, which they promptly scurried off to do. But during their absence the torchlight parade took place, and the groom, accompanied by the five wise virgins entered the celebration hall. The doors were then closed. Later, the five foolish virgins arrived, with a good supply of oil, but it was too late. That part of the festivities had already been completed. There was no need for the services of these five virgins, and they were not allowed to enter and join in the wedding celebration. Even though they pleaded, “Lord, Lord …,” they were sent away with the words, “I do not know you!” Jesus concludes the parable by applying it to His disciples (and thus to us and the church). He urges His disciples to stay alert, because they do not know the day or the hour of His return.
I was having some trouble thinking of a contemporary example of what’s happening here. The best I’ve come up with is drivers running out of gas. According to Siri – you know her, the voice on Google – every year at least a half million people call “On Star” or AAA because they have run out of gas. One might understand this happening 50 years ago, when gas gauges were not nearly as accurate as they are today. Warning lights were pretty much non-existent. But now we have warning messages that the fuel level is running progressively lower. One could say that most people have little excuse. And, in our situation the Sisters have NO EXCUSE for calling for roadside service for gas since John fills our cars twice a week.
So you might say, “You’ve used a silly example.” So to what should I compare the lack of oil? I know: printer cartridge ink. Modern day copiers warn us well head of the moment of critical need for ink reminding us: “prepare a new toner cartridge.” But still we wait, coaxing every drop of ink even as the copies grow progressively fainter. Until, like the car without gas, the printer says, Amen, that’s it – no more copies.
I believe that the five foolish virgins had no oil for the very same reasons people continue to run out of gas or ink. First, people don’t believe the warning signs. They don’t think things are as bad as they are reported to be. Experience tells them, “I must have more gas than that!” Or, “I’ve gotten this same message before, and I’ve always been able to get to the gas station before running out.”
Those who run out of gas or printer’s ink are the kind of people Jesus is talking to. Sticking with the analogy of the car, those who run out of fuel are those who wrongly suppose that they still have plenty of time to get to the next exit. We know when our gas gauge is low. Good grief, we can see the flashing lights on the dash. We know the signs of burn out – we get impatient with everyone about any little thing. Or we fall asleep in chapel. But we lull ourselves into thinking that there is still plenty of time to deal with the problem. False confidence has gotten many people into trouble. Those who think they will have other chances to come to faith in Jesus are making a very dangerous assumption. The coming of our God may well be sudden and unexpected, when we are least ready. All chances of changing our course will be forfeited. The coming of our God ends our opportunity to turn to Him in faith, and it seals our doom or our reward in eternity. We do well to pay heed of the words of the Gospel Acclamation, “Stay awake and be ready! For you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”