March Madness…Like a Virgin

I’m getting ready to study the passage for this coming Sunday about the ten virgins, five of whom had oil in their lamps and five who didn’t.  On the surface of it, the whole story seems to run contrary to the golden rule.  “Do for others what you’d want others to do for you.”  If I was out of oil, I’d want you to give me some oil – so if I have oil, and you don’t, I need to give you some oil.  That’s generosity.  That’s charity.  That’s the gospel.

Instead, Jesus confounds things for us by having the story unfold in exactly the opposite way.  When the bridegroom came, the five who didn’t have enough oil asked for help.  The answer they received was, in essence, “Get your own oil.  If we help you, none of us will have enough.  Better that some of us get into the party (i.e. we who had the good sense to prepare).

What’s going on here? Is Jesus Darwinian after all?

Parables always have a point, and one of the big problems with parables is that the point the teller of the story is trying to make is the only point he’s trying to make.  If you don’t understand this, you can come to all sorts of wrong conclusions, thinking that Jesus is advocating both selfishness and theft in various parables which, of course, He isn’t.

So what’s the point of this parable?  Jesus is trying to tell us only one thing:  “You need to have your own oil” if you’re going to participate in making God’s good reign visible on the earth.  Some of us in America have just passed through the cultural phenomenon known as March Madness.   There were 65 college basketball teams a few short weeks ago, selected as the best, who then fought each other in a tournament of single elimination games until, Monday night, the Blue Devils of Duke were crowned as champion.  Millions of us filled out brackets, playing prophet to predict who would reign as the top team.

we shouldn't confuse watching with playing

Because we filled out brackets, we’d predicted who would win each game.  Because we’d predicted, we watched, cheered, even had some strange sense of ownership.  Some of us yelled at our TV screens when the teams we’d chosen failed to deliver.  We fought with the refs.  We shouted advice to the coaches.  We cheered and jeered players.  These were our teams, even if we didn’t even know where Murray State, or Butler, were located on a map.  We loved these teams, cared for them; they were our teams.

Except that they weren’t.  The whole ownership thing was a vicarious illusion.  We jumped on bandwagons for a week or two, and we’ll have forgotten, by next week, the names of the players we had such a high stake in.  The culture of spectator sports, as much as I love it, can easily make us all feel like we’re bigger than we really are, and more athletic – identification runs the risk of becoming illusion:  “I watch – therefore I am”.

Role this over into the life of faith.  This past Sunday, about 2800 people passed through the doors of our church to celebrate the good news that Christ is Risen.  We sang songs.  The choir sang songs.  I preached.  But the crux of the event was my invitation to give God the pen, so that he becomes the author of each of our stories, each of our lives.  Giving God the pen is like having the oil – each of us needs to do that for ourselves.

We run the risk, in a culture where it’s easy to sit and consume worship services as if they’re basketball games, of thinking that “being there” equates with having oil.  It doesn’t.  If you want to participate in the good reign of God, then you need to keep your lamp full of oil.  This means practicing habits that will enable you to remain full of the Holy Spirit, and pouring out your life in acts of service.

Our church presently participating in God’s good reign through an initiative called Spilling Hope, which last year raised  135k for wells in Uganda.  I’m hoping and praying that as we embark on this again this year… we’ll have even fuller participation from our church, because as we grow larger, the illusion of vicarious participation intensifies.  You need your own oil – spectator Christianity is an illusion.

How can churches help create a culture of Christianity that swims upstream against spiritual consumerism?

I welcome your thoughts.

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  • Kevin

    It seems that although you recognize the multivalent character of parable narrative, you have rendered a somewhat binary polarity between what you deem to be active participation and inactive consumption. Although there is much said against consumption, it being often cast as a spiritual failing or weakness, I would argue that there is no more fundamental an expression of participation than taking one’s seat at the table and enjoying the meal that has been prepared for them. Indeed, no more fundamental an expression of the Kindgom, as Christ’s final command to his followers was to take and eat, a communal expression of remembrance and a command which formed the basis of the Church’s liturgical praxis. I don’t want to get into Mary and Martha imagery, but I would say that we as a Church are tasked with helping to feed a world that is starving; how could we then decry them for being consumeristic?

  • raincitypastor

    I like where you’re going with this Kevin (especially since you probably didn’t fill out a bracket). But I think you’re making my point. Yes, we’re all invited to eat, all invited to sit at the table – but it’s precisely because we’ve been filled that we can impart light. I’m warning against two dangers:

    1. the danger of filling our lamps and never lighting them
    2. the danger of thinking that because we’re sitting next to someone on some sunday who’s filling their lamp, that we’re doing just fine.

  • Kevin

    Good points. I guess my question is this: whose lamps are we talking about? Considering the relative amount of arm-pulling and cajoling that it took to get even the scant amount of volunteers that we had on Sunday, it would seem that this is a very apropos message for Bethany, that we have a lot of people standing by and engaging in the movements of the Spirit only by proximity. On the other hand, it would be injurious to make assumptions as to why that might be. Perhaps there is a third danger, here, and that is standing in the position of the bridegroom and rendering judgement, imposing some sort of oil quota. I know that I don’t need to fear any fire and brimstone from your pulpit, but an encouragement for finesse couldn’t hurt, could it?

    *You’re right about the bracket by the way; until the day that they have some sort of regimented elimination system for the Tour, then I will remain a bracket virgin (one of the five whose lamp is filled with chain lubricant, of course).

  • Jen

    Is it presumptuous for us to decide who has enough oil?
    Let’s say we define being “prepared for the bridegroom” to mean we live justly, love and serve our neighbors, and nurture our relationship with Him through prayer, worship, and study. Do any of us do this perfectly? Of course not. (Good thing our bridegroom is so impossibly gracious and loving, and so apparently smitten!) Anyway, our acts of preparing are still our demonstrations of faithfulness. It doesn’t seem appropriate to decide who’s prepared based on their participation in certain fundraisers or any other particular, specific action that appears faithful. There are some who raise lots of money, or whatever, but their hearts are still hard and they don’t know Jesus.

    I get your comparison with spectator sports, but I would suggest that for many, just showing up to worship IS an act of faithfulness. Stepping out of the comfort zone of Sunday morning bed, getting dressed & out the door when the neighbors are drinking coffee in their jammies, singing the songs and hymns, opening heart to receive the message, sharing space and prayer with the gathered community… while Sunday morning worship alone doesn’t fill the lamp, there is oil there worth collecting (and fire for ignition). Worship isn’t a spectator sport.

    I am on board with your exhortation to be active participants in our faith. I just get the heebie-jeebies when I start to feel smug about my own lamp and judgmental about how others seem to be preparing for the bridegroom. The bridegroom will recognize the ready virgins when He gets back.

  • Graham

    Jen, I hear you. It WOULD be presumptious to judge the oil and preparedness of somebody else, especially by how much they contributed to a certain cause. I think (and hope) that Richard is not proposing this but rather for each of us to examine our own hearts; because worship CAN become a specator sport, especially in a larger church where it’s so easy to go in, “consume,” and get out without getting involved in anyway with the community. I did this a bunch in college as I floated from church to church depending on which I thought was the hippest at the moment, or had the best music or preacher. It was easy to slip in the back on Sunday, listen and leave without talking to a single person.

    Richard, to answer your question of how to swim upstream against church consumerism: service orientated small-groups, a bigger push towards membership, “engaging” worship services. Now how to engage 2000+ people that are multi-generational, multi-denominational, mulit-you-name-it is beyond my pay grade…the question I find that I ask myself
    (that I would pose to you) is “what is the common denominator?”

  • Krista

    common denominator? Christ, and wanting to shine his light to the people we encounter in this world. Jen, yes, presumptuous for us to say who has enough oil, or what kind of oil they should have, so we need to focus on making sure we have oil…filling ourselves so we can give to others and ultimately know Christ better. attending church? yes it can be an act of worship, but it is not necessarily so. at some point, one needs to move beyond that and become increasingly engaged, both getting to know the people you are actually worshipping with (this is definitely a weakness of mine) and also serving those you say are in need (not a strength, but getting a little better)

    countering this spiritual consumerism is hard. Richard, I think your messages frequently calling us to action rather than just sitting enjoying church help. Also these discussions that the disciplines, being able to talk about Christ aren’t the goal, rather actually knowing Christ and making Him known to others is the goal so when the time comes we all have our lamps full of oil. For me the actions of filling out something and leaving it at the altar (or planting a seed as we did at the ash weds service) help “force” me to do this in a way, but that makes me think more action oriented (though that in and of itself is not the goal)

  • Linda

    I believe the wise virgins are the true believers, the converted part of the visible Church, and the foolish virgins to be the nominal Christians – the unconverted.

    The late J.C. Ryle has an excellent article on the Ten Virgins parable, you can read it here:

  • Linda

    The wise virgins were the people whom God put His love (Holy Spirit) into their hearts:–316099

    The foolish virgins never had the love of God put into them.

  • Glenda

    I get the “moving beyond” part, but if we believe that there is truly some kind of transformative dimension to an encounter with the Holy Spirit (ie. Paul on the Damascan Road), then why are we as a body not engaging in these movements as a natural result and expression of such encounters?