The Energy of Small Oil
David K. Weber

The word parable literally means to “to throw alongside of.” To tell a parable is to throw down a fictional story alongside the facts of existence. This throw-down creates a middle interpretive space for the fiction to transform the facts. When done well, parabolizing generates literary and artistic energy that extends beyond the first telling of the story. For example, Luke’s telling of the parable of the prodigal son gets read by Rembrandt, who recognized himself in the story and then painted The Return of the Prodigal Son, which may be the greatest story ever painted. Then in 1994, Henri Nouwen, seeing himself in both the painting and the story, writes the beautiful meditation The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. Better than any mythical perpetual motion machine, the well-told parable gains energy over time.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25 is not typically a favorite. Perhaps this is because the great folly of the foolish seems like a trivial mistake that inexplicably resulted in an absolute rejection. This, coupled with the cold callousness of the wise to the plight of the foolish, means the parable is oftentimes avoided, if not disliked. It also means we will have to work harder to find its edifying energy, which begins by recognizing  that the parable aims to define the kingdom of heaven.

Kingdom-defining parables aim to help us see the King’s domain. Some parables define the domain in terms of common things like seeds, yeast, and keys. Others define the domain by experiences like an accidental discovery of a hidden treasure or the anxiety of an unexpected visitation. Still others recognize the need for definition because the internal relationships in this kingdom are counter-intuitive: The poor in spirit somehow have the advantage; its glory is for the least of these; you grow up to become like a little child, and wealth is treated like weight—the less you have, the better off you are. Moreover, since Freud effectively defined belief in this hidden kingdom as neurotic, superstitious wish fulfillment, we have to work ever harder to know what we mean when we pray “thy kingdom come.”

When the inner workings of the kingdom of heaven are like a wedding feast, severity tends to obscure any sense of festivity.  In the parable told in Matthew 22, the A-listed guests’ rejection of their invitations results in an invitation going to the town’s despicables. When one of these B-list guests refuses to adhere to the dress code, he is banished to an eternity of weeping and gnashing his teeth, leaving us to wonder why he had ever thought it was a good idea to accept the invitation. And in the parable before us, the exclusion of half the bridesmaids (disturbingly captured in William Blake’s painting) eclipses the festivity of the wedding feast. While we are supposed to be wise, it is impossible to identify with the wise virgins because, as Blake represents them, they are not human but angelic. They have been awake all night and their hair is flawlessly coiffed, their gowns are perfectly pressed, and nothing in their composed posture suggests any resentment at the Bridegroom’s poor time management. That is perhaps because they are happily occupied with sneering at the folly of the foolish virgins. And if you listen closely to the painting you can hear the wise virgins gustily singing a favorite hymn: “Some are welcome, some are welcome, some are welcome in this place.”

William Blake's The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (detail), ca. 1799-1800.

Folly, Fear and Trembling

So, to understand the parable’s energy, we are to identify with the foolish virgins. Again, Blake’s characterization makes this easy, because his characters depict a shame that we have all felt when our foolishness is brought to light. In a sense, the images of the foolish are cathartic, in giving a license to admit to being a screw-up, which is the deep freedom of repentance. Except these foolish characters are not free; the damning effect of their folly is so final. It is this finality that Søren Kierkegaard recognized as fueling the parable’s energy.

Using the title of his most famous book about the faith of Abraham, Kierkegaard prayed, “Thou my God and Father! The question of my salvation concerns no other being but me—and thee… Should there not, ought there not, must there not, be fear and trembling till the last? Was it not the fault of the foolish virgins that they became sure, and went to sleep; while the wise virgins kept awake?”

Recently, I foolishly started reading Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Eric Larson. (By foolishly, I mean I’ve been shirking my duties because I’ve been blowing through Larson’s gripping historical stories.) One disturbing image of the Lusitania’s sinking in 1915 was the bottoms-up floating corpses. How this came to be is a long story of folly. The Lusitania’s passengers left New York for Liverpool assured that they were safe because the Lusitania was nearly impossible to sink. Moreover, Cunard, the shipping line, had learned from the Titanic disaster to have enough lifeboats and life jackets, and the crew offered daily, voluntary tutorials to show passengers how to put the lifejackets on. But few availed themselves to these tutorials, because they didn’t need to worry, having heard assurances of the ship’s superior design, seeing all the new, ample life boats, and believing the company’s advertisements that the Germans would never torpedo a ship with so many Americans aboard. Paying attention to lifejackets didn’t seem wise until the torpedo struck. Then, because of the speed with which the ship sank, the lifeboats could not be launched. The difference between life and death was knowing the instructions on wearing a lifejacket. To have loved instruction was life; to have avoided instruction resulted in the fear and trembling finality of floating head down and feet up.

The finality of the foolish virgins’ exclusion is meant to ratchet up the parable’s imaginative experience of fear and trembling. It does this by invoking the energy of the shame of Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden—to coin a phrase. This is the energy of the primordial fear of being locked in or shut out, which explains why the key is such a powerful symbol of Christian hope. This is why exile from Eden was fearful but not final. The exclusion rather fueled the deep desire to find our way back to paradise. The parable means to incite fear, to show that fear is real but not final. The parable aims to transform this experience of fear by making it a stage on life’s way that brings us to love. Luther’s catechetical formulation, “We must fear and love God” captures this staging. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, which puts an end to fear. The fool who says in his heart that there is no God is still left with fear. Fear concentrates the mind; knowing what we truly fear losing helps us understand what we truly love. When fear is rightly recognized, it is a necessary but temporary stage that energizes our desire to enter the domain of the perfect love that casts out fear.

Small Oil’s Big Energy

The parable is an imaginative way to come to grips with the fearfulness of my existence. I do not need a parable to come to grips with the incurable anxiety and despair of existing. I need the parable to reveal an alternative. Kierkegaard recognizes that I fear because I am a single individual, which means there are things that cannot be shared. The oil cannot be shared because it represents the aspects of existence that each of us experiences alone. No one eats, thinks, sleeps, suffers, dies, or decides to learn to wear a life-jacket except on their own. It causes us fear to recognize that that “The question of my salvation concerns no other being but me—and thee.” Things that cannot be shared are inner things of the spirit, which means the wise and foolish are hard to distinguish from the outside.

And so, as single individuals, we must know ourselves from the inside by knowing what fuels the light of life. Without fuel, a lamp is not a light, and, says Amos, God hates attention to external things that have lost the inner light of life: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…. let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21, 24). The oil gives inner life, even in a fearful, unmanageable world. There are the bad days when you manage to flee a lion only to run into a bear. Then you manage to escape into a house, where you rest your hand on a wall and get bitten by a snake. The next thing you know, you’re floating head down in an ocean. The world is fearful because it is unmanageable. The Wisdom of Solomon expresses the alternative:  “The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom” (Ws. 6: 17-20).

The inner oil is the wisdom that cannot be shared because it comes by in-struction. Hope that depends on re-structuring the outside is always appealing because it is foolish. The oil is the hope of that in-structuring that “leads to a kingdom” where perfect love casts out the fear of our foolishness. There is much folly afoot these days, and the fear is palpable. The alternative is Wisdom, which “is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (Ws. 6:12). The parable summons us to a better way of existing.

David K. Weber is lecturer in theology at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from a sermon he gave at Valparaiso University’s Chapel of the Resurrection on November 13, 2017.

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