Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Parable of The Ten Virgins: What Is The Oil?

The 3 questions people have when they read this parable are:
1. What does the oil stand for?
2. Why wouldn’t the wise virgins share their oil with the foolish virgins?
3.  What is the difference between the wise and foolish virgins?

What is the parable supposed to teach us? It must be something like: If we manage certain things in our lives wisely we would make it heaven just like the wise virgins managed the lamps and made it to the wedding. We should emulate the wise ones and avoid acting like the foolish ones. So, it becomes obvious that finding out the difference between the wise virgins and the foolish ones is the most important question, which always leads to the question of what does the oil stand for?  After all, it is the amount of oil you take with you that makes the difference?  Right?

Let’s examine the characteristics of the oil. Perhaps that would allow us to ID it. The oil has such strange characteristics:
1. The wise virgins have more of it. But,
2.  It is easy to come by. Anyone can go buy as much as they want of it.
3. It is not too expensive. The foolish virgins seem to have enough money to buy as much oil as they want.
4. Everybody probably has enough of it at home.
5. It does not require a lifetime of commitment.
6. It is not a characteristic of the person. It can be simply handed from one person to another
Confused yet?

Growing up in Egypt we used to play a game similar to “20 questions” called ‘My Bride”. One of the kids leaves the room and then we choose an object. When he returns he would go around the room asking each kid, “My Bride?” Each person would tell him one feature of his “bride”. For example, “Is in this room”. Next, “has four legs”, “made of wood” and so on until he can figure out what his bride is. Once in a while one prankster kid would suggest that we play a trick on the guesser and choose nothing. The more innocent kids would ask, “What does that mean”. “It means you can say whatever you want. It is nothing or it’s everything”. So each person would say anything they want as a feature of the bride. For example: lives in the sea, is made of plastic, is baked in the oven,… You get the point. The kids would giggle and the guesser would think they are giggling because they chose a very difficult one. Eventually the guesser would figure out that when you add up all the characteristics it cannot be anything. Sounds familiar?

Why did the wise virgins refuse to share their oil? It seems that there should be enough. Each wise virgin still has a whole flask full of oil and there is no more waiting. You just need to put some in the lamp and take off with the groom. The parable tells us that they didn’t think they had enough oil, and for the purpose of the parable that is the undisputed truth. Some people might say even if they thought it was not enough they should share and take their chances. That would be an act of charity and self sacrifice. Here it is very important to remember that the parable is about wise virgins make it to the wedding not about nice virgins showing us how to behave or charitable virgins making it heaven. Just like the parable of the prodigal son is about how a father can keep his kids at home or make sure whoever has a rebellious phase comes back home. It is not about how a father shows justice or makes sure his kids make it to heaven. OK, so they don’t have to be charitable, but how could they be so dumb to truly believe it would not be enough. Which brings us to the final question of what is the difference between the wise and the foolish? The parable deliberately points out the similarities between the wise and the foolish. There is really no difference whatsoever except with regard to the oil, which so far seems to stand for nothing. The reason the wise virgins didn’t share is in the parable itself.  It is not that each virgin did not have enough oil for two. Perhaps they did. But, what we know for sure is that they didn’t THINK they had enough. It is as simple as that. Whatever the oil is, they didn’t think they had enough of it. If they shared their oil with the foolish virgins, that would defeat the whole purpose of the parable. Not because all ten virgins would make it to the wedding. No, far more important is that if they would share then there would be no difference between the wise and the foolish. What DEFINES the wise virgins is that they really truly don’t think they have enough of anything or everything. And, that is what the oil is. It is everything- grace, virtue, holiness, charity, faith, prayer, sacraments, etc. Whatever it is, the wise don’t think they have enough of it. They are always trying to have more and conserve what they have. It (the oil, or all the above) is so precious to them because it will get them to meet the Groom.

The virtue of always thinking that you don’t have enough and the fault of thinking that you do will help you understand why the Lord is so upset with the angel of the church of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:
14] And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
[15] I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
[16] So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
[17] Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked

It will also help you understand why Jesus gives credit to the losing king in Luke 14:
[31] Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?
[32] Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

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