Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost; 8 November 2020; Proper 27A (RCL); Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.
In got curious and looked up lampas in my Greek concordance of the NT (everyone has one, right?). Matthew uses this word or a cognate in three passages in his Gospel. First, in the Sermon on the Mount, he tells us that we are the light of the world, and no one lights a light and hides it under a basket but sets it on the stand so that it will shine on (lampein) everyone in the house.
Then, in the story of the Transfiguration, he tells us that Jesus’ face shone (lampein) like the sun. And in this story, the virgins bring their lampas to the feast. These are the only occurrences. There must be a connection. In the Sermon on the Mount, it is our good deeds that must shine before the world. Then Jesus goes on to outline a new righteousness in the rest of the sermon.
The story of the wise and foolish virgins is more clearly an allegory than a parable. Set beside the passage from 1 Thessalonians, it certainly looks like it has to do with the delay of the Parousia. Interestingly enough, all ten virgins fall asleep, even though Matthew tells us the point of the story is that we are to “Keep awake” for we know neither the day nor the hour.
And if it’s an allegory, we can certainly ask what the oil represents. If the light is holiness and good deeds (allusions to the Sermon on the Mount and the Transfiguration accounted for), then the oil makes these possible.
Paul frames the Parousia as the arrival of the emperor for a visitation of the city. The cry of command, the call to muster, and the blast of the trumpet all signal the arrival. Once in residence, the emperor would hear cases referred to him, make a boon to the city, and any other official acts necessary. Jesus likewise will make his Parousia, and call all Christians to meet him in the air (shades of Caesar’s apotheosis here). This is clearly a political event that Paul has in mind. Christians worship a different emperor.
Jesus was to return and to set everything to rights, to judge the world, and establish justice and righteousness. By Matthew’s time, it was clear that Jesus’ return was delayed. It was midnight, and there was certainly plenty of darkness to go around. Those foolish virgins thought they needed only enough oil for a few hours. The wise realized that this is the way the world was going to be for some time.
The oil, then, is our patience, our willingness to work in less than ideal circumstance, to work for justice and love; it is our charity, and large-souledness. In Greek, the word for patience is macrothumia, which means something like, large-souledness or expansive desire. That is what makes our light shine. It is the light that shines from Jesus’ face.