Years ago I heard a memorable sermon on this text. The preacher was so angry at the women who had the oil and did not share it that he flat out preached against the text, condemning the women for being cruel. He preached instead about sharing and God’s economy of generosity.
On the face of it, his concerns make sense because the women are not Being Nice (which our parents and school teachers have assured us is the Essence of Christianity). And yet, deciding that “the women are being bad because they’re not sharing and God wants us to share” seems to be pretty much the opposite of the point in this parable. So what happens if we start with the assumption that the women might actually be right?
To even get to that assumption, we have to realize that this text is part of the apocalypse in Matthew. This chapter has three stories about the end times, three warnings about how time is short and that judgment is unexpected, therefore “keep awake!” The stories are intended to be warnings, they are supposed to be about judgment and if judgment is going to actually judge then it is going to have to say “no” as well as “yes.” The Greek word for judgment/making a decision is krisis which we took straight into English as “crisis.” The word for ‘a judge/person who decides’ is krites from which we get “critic.” These are not happy words of fluffy bunny hope, they are words of warning and part of a call to faithfulness in the face of our own urge to avoid hard work.
Even more, they are calls for us to live wisely and that is the second place where people trip when confronted with this text. “There were ten women” we are told, “five were wise (sophoi) and five were foolish (moroi).” We’ve taken this as a charge to “be smart” instead of “stupid” (the Greek word moroi is the root of “moron” after all, so those five must have been hopelessly dumb right?) But doesn’t that just make the smart women extra mean? They had foresight and wisdom, they were smarter than ‘those poor dumb girls’ and yet they still wouldn’t help.
By making that assumption, we have crossed another line because sophoi means “wise/thought-full” not “smart” while moroi are “unthinking/thought-less” not “dumb.” There is often little real difference between the two from the outside, but the fundamental principle is very different. You see, a wise person is someone who is using their ability to think to the fullest. The raw power of their mind is not the question, at issue is the insight they bring to their life. Insight, wisdom, thinking-ness can be brought to bear by anyone. It is the product of a life well lived and deeply reflected upon.
It is this reflection that is key. If we reflect upon and use our life experience to the last molecule, to the very edge, we gain wisdom. If we work with what we have been given and use it until the covers fall off, we are the sophoi. If on the other hand, we approach our life experience with our heads down and a really good raincoat to keep out the bad stuff, we can get through the whole thing pretty unscathed and go back to watching TV with our minds scarcely more activated than your average sheep.
If the notion of ovine contentment does not appeal however, we are going to have to work. This work cannot be done by proxy (because it’s our life and no one else’s) nor can we simply coast on our parents’ insight (because they are not us and lives are not interchangeable). We’re going to have to do something that will cost us. To use the saying, we are going to have to “pay cash for it.”
Paying cash is not something we like to do. Actually giving markers of value to someone else feels like a loss and so we avoid doing so. We whip out our card and then get it back with a little receipt we can ignore until we get the monthly bill. Paying with credit is much less painful and much more popular (this is why cruise ships give you a shipboard charge card instead of letting you pay with cash. You pay more with a card and thus they get more money from you).
But paying cash is pretty much the marker of real life. The saying is even used for situations when money is not the currency in which we pay. In military situations people talk about “paying cash for the objective” and it has nothing to do with putting money in someone else’s hand. The bill is paid in blood and bodies, in broken hearts and damaged spirits. But when that bill is paid, we paid it by God and its ours.
This insight from the world helps us understand something about the seemingly selfish young ladies. What if the oil they didn’t share was unshared because they couldn’t share it. What if the oil was the product of spiritual experience of lived faith? What if they didn’t share because they had already “paid cash” for it and it was therefore part of who they were spiritually? They could no more share this than they could share the memory of a summer day or a perfect kiss.
The point of these stories in Matthew 25 is that time is short and life has to be lived fully, completely, and deeply. This story reminds us that living means living our life to the very ragged edges and that this will mean paying cash to gain the insights and wisdom of being spiritually alive (sophoi) as compared to wallowing in ovine contentment (moroi). This is not fair, it is not nice, and by God it looks downright mean from the perspective of Precious Moments Jesus, Fluffy Bunny Church.
But Fluffy Bunny Church is for children, unformed and uninformed beings who do not even understand that there could be more “further up and further in.” And in this season of the year Jesus himself challenges us to dig deeper, to go further, and to become more fully the living beings we were made to be.