ARE THE LIGHTS GOING OUT?
Ponderings on a Parable.
November 15 2006
A few years ago I spent a weekend Cross Country skiing in the Algonquin Park. In the lodge there I met a professor of Environmental Studies at an Ontario University who did not possess a car and biked to work. After talking together for quite a while, I asked him pointblank, “Given the present condition of the environment and the nature of humanity, not really willing or even able to sacrifice anything substantial for the plight of the earth, and seeing how our economic and political system usually chooses jobs and profit over ecological considerations, what are our chances to clean up worldwide pollution?”
His one word reply was, “None.”
”What about us, humans?” I then asked.
Answered his lawyer friend from another university town, “That is not important. Humans have been on the scene for perhaps 20,000 years and the world can quite well function without them.” Said the professor, “As long as there is somewhere, say in Newfoundland, a rock left with some lichen on it, a new start can be made and evolution can have a new beginning. Perhaps the second time around things will turn our better in, say, another 10 billion years.”
These two people, he a specialist in environmental matters, she a well educated woman, had no hope that the present brand of humanity would be able to rectify the mess we have made of God’s creation.
Day after day we now read about the grave dangers the cosmos faces, from Global Warming, to Fish stocks collapsing, to Greenland turning green again, with the danger of flooding cities and entire countries.
I think that these two people have a very valid point, a point I happen to agree with, a point that the Bible also makes.
One parable, especially, supports that position, a parable that has long puzzled and intrigued me. Off and one for decades I have tried to make sense of the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
Curiously Jesus starts this strange story with the words, “At that time.” The ‘then’ refers to the previous chapter which deals with the End of Days in Matthew 24, the Day and Hour we don’t know, but whose approximate time we can easily establish. It is the time when the church has largely become irrelevant, when “the Left Behind” heresy finds almost general acceptance, when many, of not most thinking people have lost a measure of hope. The “Then” to which this bible passage refers, is “now”.
We know the parable. It speaks about Ten Bride’s maids, young girls, teenagers, I imagine, who are responsible for preparing the bride to meet the bridegroom.
If you were to film this scene you would see ten excited young women. They have been invited to an important wedding, and even better, have been asked to play a part in the proceedings. They are quite a relaxed bunch. The tension whether they would be invited or some other girls from among the bride’s circle of friends and relatives, is over. They made the cut and are happy. When they gathered in the hall, they were no different from young women today: because there was no prescribed dress, each had done her best to look pretty, but, still a bit unsure how they would compare to the others, they entered the hall with some trepidation, and when they had seen how the others were attired, they felt better and actually quite pleased with themselves.
If we would have had an opportunity to watch these females, to us they all would look equally qualified. But somehow Jesus made a definite distinction in the group. Five he called foolish. Five he called wise. That’s one thing I found questionable. Why are the foolish called foolish? We know that the foolish are labeled that way because they had not taken extra oil along for their lamps.
Tell me: What would you have done had you been among the chosen Ten? Picture the scene; visualize it before your eyes: The wedding is in the afternoon, say three o’clock. They were all there at least an hour before that. The party is somewhat later, but certainly all over before midnight, because tomorrow is another busy day. The lights are needed for that short trip to the wedding hall, so, until that time the lamps are trimmed to a mere flicker. With a full tank there’s plenty of oil for the entire proceedings, with fuel to spare. Plain common sense. The Bridegroom was known to be a punctual man, so why take along extra jars of that stinking and expensive kerosene? Suppose that the heavy crock pot would break and spill its contents all over the new dress. These containers weren’t like the metal or plastic ones we have: no, they were frail, cumbersome and heavy. Mother was right: just to carry a lamp with a full tank would be enough. Also, how to carry the presents when one hand is needed to carry the light and another to carry extra oil. I agree with the so-called foolish maidens. Their actions made perfect sense.
“But,” says Jesus, “those wise women took the trouble of lugging these heavy jars with them.” Why would they do this? Ridiculous, really. How could they properly attend to their task preparing the bride, and also carry the extra wine and food? That smelly stuff could easily mix with the other provisions! Nothing could be more impractical. Those who Jesus called ‘wise’ do things totally beyond the call of duty, needlessly complicating their lives. To me the Foolish make much more sense.
Can you think of one reason why Jesus calls the practical teens foolish and the overcautious wise? Jesus must have a reason, so let me make a guess, and for this I will take a little detour.
Going to church or a Christian College is a bit like going to a wedding: we expect to meet the Bridegroom, we expect to hear about Jesus. The routine of Sunday, our hearing a sermon and attending a Christian Institution, can be compared to the normal supply of oil.
But we all know, there is more to meeting the Bridegroom than routine matters. That’s why the super-cautious, oil-bottle-bearing women are called wise. They are prepared for more, and they probably don’t even know what that more is. However, they find this out when the Bridegroom took so long in coming.
We must see the context of this parable. It is set after Matthew 24, which has as its heading, “Sign of the End of Age” and “The Day and Hour of Jesus’ Return Unknown.” Jesus, after a long sermon on the final days of humanity, speaks this parable. He begins, “Then” or “At his particular moment, at the End of Days”. That could mean ‘Now.’ Today too there are two kinds of people: foolish and wise. I think that Jesus knew that at the End of Days Oil would again be a key element in the world. Jesus had a perfect overview of history from the embryo beginnings to the pollution- saturated end. It is a rather curious phenomenon that OIL has been the very cause of wars in the last decades. So, when the young girls, exhausted after extending their teenage chatter well beyond their usual bedtime – which was at sundown, as oil was too expensive to use for extended periods – the wedding feast turns into a slumber party. All Ten are sacked out on couches and across the floor of the verandah where they were keeping a lookout.
Then, finally, at midnight, there was a cry, “There comes the Bridegroom. Wake up to meet him.”
The parable portrays the practical reality of life: The unexpected does happen. It happens all the time. Fish stocks collapse. Ozone layers disappear. Entire regions lose their pine trees to a tiny beetle. Arctic ice is melting at a record rate. Glaciers are disappearing. Suddenly the doom-sayers have substantial evidence for their message. The unexpected does happen. Before you realize it, the Lord is there. Still quite unexpected while we slumber the time away.
“Then all the maidens rose and trimmed their lamps.” They all straightened out their dresses, quickly combed their rumpled hair, turn to their lamps and five of them discover that they have practically run out of oil. They are not ready anymore to welcome the Bridegroom. All the wick-trimming in the world, all the shaking and trying is useless: their lamps are dead. The unexpected did happen. The Oil is gone. The always reliable, punctual bridegroom was late for his own party.
So what are we to think of all this? What does this all mean? I believe that the professor I mentioned in the beginning is right. God has taken so long to do anything that the world has dug its own grave. The lights are going out in this world. I also know that I am not the only one with this opinion: in the depths of their hearts many knowledgeable people realize this. The lights are going out for this world. I was at a conference on Peak Oil in Boston a few weeks ago. The theme was: “Peak Oil has arrived: it’s all down hill from here.” The prudent ones, those with the common sense amount of oil, are sunk. We, in North America have built our entire society on the premise of cheap and unlimited oil. Unless there is something other than the wisdom of the world to help it, there is no way that the world can straighten out the mess, politically, ecologically and economically.
So, what do we do? Ignore the signs and go on as if nothing is the matter? What must we do as Christians? That is the real question we face.
Well, listen to the rest of the parable.
“And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give as some of your oil, for our lights are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and you. Go to the fuel dealer and buy some’.”
How is that for a Christian answer? Aren’t we supposed to share things with others? Try to buy some fuel at midnight!
That was another mystery for me. For a long time I really did not know what to think of that rather snotty reply of the Five Wise Women. Now it seems to me that this answer suggests that there comes a time, and perhaps has come, that we have to shrug our shoulders and go our own way. Time does run out as it always does in real life. “There is a time for everything, a time to be born and a time to die,” says Ecclesiastes, “a time to share and a time to refrain from sharing.” The parable suggests to me that a day will come when it will be too late to reform society. Could it be that we have reached a point in world development where it is too late to turn to ecological balance in the world, too late to reform the ecclesiastical situation, too late to revamp the economic structures, too late to change the political system? It seems to me that matters everywhere have their own inevitable momentum, leading either to total chaos and anarchy or to complete redemption.
It’s on that note that the parable ends. “While they went to buy, the Bridegroom came, and those who were ready, those who had the extra oil, went with him into the marriage feast and the door was shut. Afterwards the others came, knocked and said, ‘Lord, open up.’ But he said, ‘Sorry, I don’t know you’.”
Isn’t that a strange reply? The Lord doesn’t say, “I have never called you, or I have never loved you.” No, he says, “Listen, you have never bothered to get to know me. You never really took the time to seriously find out what I really stand for and what my creation is all about. You spent your time getting ahead in the world – nothing wrong with that. You developed good social skills. Good. You even dabbled a bit in theology. I’ll forgive you. But what about a real close relationship with me? What about preparing yourselves so that the entry into the Kingdom, the renewed creation, is not a shock, but has become the next logical step in your life. Since you did not understand that to be my follower is to love creation for whose redemption I died. That’s why I now reject you. You were so caught up in the system and assumed that the commonly accepted, pragmatic solution was the norm, I now don’t know you.”
It’s difficult to learn about God’s Kingdom/Creation. In this age of instant solutions, instant heating and cooling, we expect instant salvation and an instant Jesus. I don’t believe that life works that way: a marriage, a faith, a friendship, one’s life in Christ takes a long time maturing. That’s why Jesus has given us lots of time. He has come late to give us more opportunity to see what is good and what is bad in this world, so that we can avoid errors later.
In this late hour of our present civilization, the remaining time is of the utmost essence. How do I utilize this last hour before entering the wedding hall?
I try not to waste my time on unproductive dialogue, whether with government, business or within ecclesiastical structures. It seems to me that it is too late in history to effect structural changes in society. I try – we all should try – to live a creationally responsible life, in preparation for the New Earth to come, because I see this life as an experimental station for eternity.
There is a curious word in the last verse of Matthew 5. The Greek word there is teleios, which is translated as ‘perfect: “Be perfect as my Father is perfect.” Of course, we can’t be perfect. But we can be ‘teleios’, of which a better translation is ‘all inclusive’, ‘holistic’, having the ‘telos’ the End of matters in mind. In everything we do we must contemplate its final destination: will it pollute and so help Satan who wants to destroy creation, or will it help the coming of the Kingdom, the New Creation.’ Make ‘teleios’ your life motto.
There is hope for this world. That hope is more than a piece of lichen on a rock somewhere in Newfoundland: it is the New Creation, a renewed Earth under a heaven cleaned of all the space junk. I believe now, as never before, is the appropriate time to share with others, people of all walks of life and from all denominations or with no church affiliation that Jesus is All and in All things. Col.1:15-20. We must, with others, explore ways to understand the creation-killing lifestyle we are engaged in – and which leads to death for all – and try alternatives, so that we can prepare ourselves for Life Eternal.
Perhaps thinking about it, talking about it, trying to comprehend what we are doing and have done to God’s earth, and ask for forgiveness, is all we can do.
We, as children of love, must show that we love God and thus his creation, and love neighbors as we ought to love ourselves. Those are the great commandments. The rest is of relative unimportance. Only when we show our love, will we know Jesus and will Jesus acknowledge us. That requires unconventional actions, such as taking along extra oil, being prepared for all eventualities, going against all accepted wisdom. In practical terms that may mean never to fly again, never to use an automobile, or more positively grow your own food, build an energy-efficient house, install solar panels. That means consciously preparing ourselves for a life of eternal permanence, to live as if we already are in the renewed creation.