Saying “No” in the Kingdom of God
November 10, 2002
There’s an unexpected word in today’s gospel. But it is a word of power. It is also a word of the Kingdom. That word is “NO”. When all the bridesmaids get up and begin to trim their lamps, the foolish say to the wise, “give us some of your oil because our lamps are going out”. The wise respond, “NO”. Now that’s rather shocking. After all, this is a parable of Jesus. This is a parable that gives to us a description of God’s kingdom. Wouldn’t you expect that the wise bridesmaids would be a bit more generous, sharing what they have with those in need? How do they get away with saying “no”?
The wise bridesmaids can say “no” because it is an appropriate response in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Moreover, “no” is a valid response in the kingdom of God. You see it is essential to understand that in this parable the ten bridesmaids know one another. The wise bridesmaids know that the other five are foolish. They know that the foolish bridesmaids are habitually negligent. They share a history with one another. Time and time again the wise found themselves used by the foolish bridesmaids. They share a history where frequently the wise had to bail the foolish out. So over a period of time it became clear to the wise bridesmaids that giving the foolish ones what they asked for was not helping them. It was only enabling their deficiencies and negligence. That is why the wise have the right to refuse the request. That is why it is valid for them to say “no”.
Now don’t get me wrong. “Yes” is at the very heart of the gospel. Giving of ourselves to others is what makes us true disciples of Jesus. Laying down our life for one another is the very crux of salvation. But it is precisely because giving and sacrificing are at the heart of the gospel that this parable today is so important. Because what this parable calls us to is wisdom, a wisdom to discern one thing from another. There is a difference between a “yes” that helps and a “yes” that harms. There is a difference between a sacrifice that is redemptive and a sacrifice that is destructive. There is a difference between a “no” said out of selfishness and a “no” spoken out of wisdom.
To be a follower of Jesus we are called to give of ourselves, but we are not expected to give ourselves into the hands of those who would hurt us and abuse us. We are called then to recognize that there are foolish people in the world, people who will take advantage of us and hurt us. If we are wise, we will figure out who those people are. If we are wise, we will realize that we have a right and responsibility to protect ourselves from harm. God has made us and made us valuable. We have the responsibility to protect ourselves, to preserve our future, to ensure our joy.
So if you find yourself in a situation where you are being abused physically, verbally, mentally, do not think that it is holiness in putting up with that mistreatment. You are a person of value, and the gospel calls you to say “no”—to say “no” to your spouse, to your parent, to your employer, to your priest.
If you find yourself in a relationship where you are being manipulated to do things that are not healthy for you or for others, where you are spoken to in a way that destroys your self-worth, do not think that you are following the example of Jesus by suffering these things in silence. You are a person of value, and you have every right and responsibility to say, “this must stop”.
If someone has lied to you habitually, continually promised you one thing and delivered another, you are not doing something laudatory by believing that person yet one more time. You have every right and responsibility to say, “Your word is no longer good with me. I will not put my life again in your hands again.”
The sad truth is, there are people in this world who are foolish, selfish, and manipulative. The gospel calls us to love them; but it does not advise us to believe them. Jesus asks us to forgive them; but he warns us not to trust them. The parable today calls us to wisdom. A wisdom that can discern when giving of ourselves is praiseworthy and when it is a waste of our time. We are called to be wise persons, people who look at our experience and use our heads. A wise person will know when giving and sacrificing are warranted and when the only response which is right and holy is to say simply, “no”.
Against Presuming Too Much
November 6, 2005
Many of us are suspicious of the promises that people make to us and sometimes even of the promises that we make to ourselves. It is common to encounter promises that do not turn out to be true. Here is a partial list of untrue promises: “The check is in the mail.” “Your money will be cheerfully refunded.” “You have already won a valuable prize.” “One size fits all.” “Your table will be ready in a minute.” “This won’t hurt a bit.” “I’ll start a better diet tomorrow.” We have all heard or used these statements. They betray a pattern which is gaining acceptance in our society. The pattern is this: Promise—Fail—Negotiate.
“Oh, you didn’t receive your check? I’ll have it to you on Monday.” “You’re waiting forty-five minutes for your table? I’ll look into it and I’ll give you free dessert.” “You want your money back? It’s not under warranty, but you can have fifty dollars off the repair.” “I can’t start my diet tomorrow, it’s Charlie’s birthday. I’ll try again after the holidays.” Promise—Fail—Negotiate.
The frightening thing about today’s gospel is that Jesus does not seem willing to negotiate. The foolish bridesmaids have promised to be ready. They failed, and the door was shut. They had some good arguments for a negotiation. They could have said: “The bridegroom didn’t show-up until midnight.” “If fifty percent of the job is showing up, we showed up.” “We intended to do the right thing.” “We did bring oil, just not enough.” But Jesus is unwilling to hear any of these arguments. He says to them, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” And that’s that.
So what are we to make of this harsh stance by Jesus in the parable? How are we to interpret this passage of the ten bridesmaids? It is a warning, a warning that the pattern of Promise—Fail—Negotiate does not fit the Kingdom of God. God has given us everything. God has gifted us with life and opportunity. In accepting God’s gifts we promise to follow Jesus’ teaching and to do God’s will. This parable tells us that God takes our promises very seriously. It warns us not to come before the Lord with an array of excuses and the expectation that we can renegotiate the contract.
We do not want to be standing before the Judge of the Universe and have to say, “I wanted to spend more time with my family. I intended to be more just with my employees. I planned to reconcile with my brother. But since I did not do those things, can’t we put our heads together and work out some way for me to respond to your salvation?”
We do not want to be standing before the Gates of Heaven and have to say, “I should have been more patient with my mother. I should have been more honest in my business. I should have been more concerned about my prejudices and how I passed them on to others. But since I wasn’t, is there anything I can do now for extra credit?”
You don’t want to look Jesus in the eye and say, “I should have been more thankful for your gifts. I should have been more public with my faith. I should have been more generous to the poor. But I did give fifty dollars to the tsunami victims. Doesn’t that count for something?”
Today’s parable is a harsh warning that Jesus expects us to live up to our promises. Now of course, no one parable captures the whole truth. I could point to many passages in the scriptures that present our Lord in a much more flexible attitude. I could point to passages that show that Christ would be willing to make allowances, that there would be divine mercy to overcome any of our deficiencies. Those passages of scripture are there, but this parable warns us about presuming too much. This parable reminds us that we know who we are called to be. We know what is expected of us. We know that God will not believe that the check is in the mail. Knowing these things, the wise person does not live life counting on a last minute negotiation. The wise person chooses to live the gospel today. Let that wise person be you.
Loving Like a Wise Virgin
November 5, 2011
There are certain passages in the New Testament that pull against the grain. They seem to contradict a central teaching of Jesus, a central part of the gospel. But their purpose is not to negate that teaching but, instead, to balance it and place it in a clearer perspective.
Today’s gospel of the ten virgins is one such passage. Its setting is a Jewish wedding feast. The ten virgins are friends of the bride or groom, and they play a specific role in the Jewish wedding ritual. Their role is to accompany the bride and groom in procession as the bridegroom takes the bride into his own home. Because this happens at night, the virgins are meant to carry lamps of oil to illuminate the way. So the virgins in the gospel are comparable to bridesmaids today. They have a specific role to play in the wedding ceremony. They have been chosen for this role, and everyone is depending upon them to fulfill their responsibilities. The problem in the story is that five of these virgins were wise and five were foolish. That is, five of them prepared themselves for their role and five of them did not.
The wise virgins, knowing that anything could happen at a wedding, decided to bring some additional oil with them so that they could assure that their lamps would be burning for the procession. The foolish virgins did not worry about such preparations. Their attitude was, “We will deal with that when the time comes.” Well, the time came. The groom was delayed. When it was time to perform their role in the ritual, the foolish virgins found that their lamps were going out.
Here we come to the crux of the gospel passage. The foolish virgins asked the wise virgins to share their oil with them, and the wise virgins say no. They rightly point out that there is not enough for both of them. Therefore, the foolish virgins would have to go and buy some oil for themselves.
Now, this refusal by the wise virgins to share might surprise us. Clearly these virgins are meant to be an example to us. Their decision not to share their own oil runs against the grain of the gospels. It is not what we expect. If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them, “What do you know about Jesus?” or “What does Jesus tell us about relating to others?” nine times out of ten the person would say, “Jesus asks us to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, to give of ourselves for the sake of the other.” That response is correct. Just two weeks ago we heard Jesus’ great commandment. He told us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. And if you ever asked that famous question, “What would Jesus do?” almost always the answer comes that Jesus would give of himself. Jesus would sacrifice himself for the sake of the other. This attitude is central to the gospel. This is why it might shock us when the wise virgins act in exactly the opposite way. When they are asked to share their oil, they say no. When the foolish virgins ask them for help, they refuse. In fact they tell them to go and find their own oil, and then they continue on with their business.
What are we to make of this response? The refusal of the wise virgins to share is not telling us that we should dismiss the command to love our neighbor. But it is reminding us that love is not always giving our neighbor what he or she asks of us. If our neighbor is irresponsible or manipulative or destructive, we have every right to refuse the request and to protect ourselves. If we are dealing with someone who is abusive—verbally, mentally or physically—if we are dealing with someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, we are not required to allow that destructive behavior to continue, even if the person asks us to. We have every right to say, “Unless you are willing to change, this relationship is coming to an end.” When we have to deal with someone who has lied to us and hurt us time and time again and expects us to cover for their irresponsibility, we do not need to feed their dysfunction. What would Jesus do in that circumstance? In that circumstance, Jesus would say, “We are not going to play this game any longer. I cannot give you what you want.”
The example of the wise virgins in today’s gospel is an important example to consider seriously. Yes, we are called to love our neighbor. But there are times when that love needs to be tough. At times we need to be strong enough to say to our neighbor, “What you are asking of me is foolish and destructive and I will not give it to you. I love you but I will not help you. You are on your own.”
Foolish or Wise
November 12, 2017
Every parable sets up a world. The issue in the world of the parable from today’s gospel is the difference between wisdom and foolishness, between being a wise virgin or a foolish one. But if we are going to understand how the parable distinguishes between wisdom and folly, we have to understand what the oil that the virgins are expected to possess signifies in the parable.
The oil is meant to represent the joy of following Christ, the light we shine into the world. And what this parable tells us is that a moment will come in our lives when we will need that oil, and either we will have it or we will not. If the moment comes and we have that joy and light, we will be considered wise. But if the bridegroom comes and we have no oil, we will be considered foolish. The parable is adamant that we should not presume that we can find that oil at the last minute. That is why the bride groom comes at midnight. You see, the foolish virgins always presumed that if they ran out of oil they could go and buy some. We watch in sadness as they go off to do just that in the parable, because we know no one is going to sell them oil at midnight. So the hard message of today’s parable is that if the moment comes that we need oil and we do not have it, we are unlikely to find it. This is why the parable encourages us to store up the joy and light of Christ today.
We all know that our children are blessings from God. We take delight watching them grow and standing in their love. Of course there are many things in life we must accomplish. We have to be attentive to our career, to our friends, and to our own need for relaxation. But when the day comes to drive a son or daughter to college for the first time, how wise we will be if we have stored up the oil of that relationship beforehand. On that day we will be wise because we took time with our child, discussed difficult issues, and built up a relationship that will last.
We might be particularly fond of our grandmother and love to visit with her, sharing stories from her childhood and our own. Since grandfather died she has been living alone. We have planning to spend some time with her. Then the moment comes when we hear that her mind has slipped, and she no longer recognizes people. How foolish we will be in that moment, if we have stored up no oil of light and joy, because now there is no place to buy it.
We might be looking forward with our spouse to retirement, working hard to increase our income, downsizing our house, talking together of trips we will take once work is over. And then the moment comes: an unexpected stroke. We are alone. How wise we will be in that moment, if we have stored up over the years the light and joy of that relationship, the many times we expressed our love and celebrated our blessings together. Even then in the sadness of loss, we will have oil by which we can shine our light into the world.
We never know the hour at which the bridegroom will come. That is why today’s gospel encourages us to store up joy and light today, to express our love to one another now, to celebrate our blessings while we can. Because the time will come when we will need that light and joy, and either we will have it or we will not. But how wise we will be, if when that moment comes we realize that we have more than enough oil to light our lamps and enter the wedding feast before the door is locked.
Disagreeing with Respect
November 8, 2020
It is important to realize that today’s gospel parable is given to us from God’s perspective, and God knows everything. Therefore, we actually know more about the characters in the parable than they know about themselves. From God’s perspective, there were five virgins who were wise and five foolish. But we should not presume that the virgins in the parable knew that they were so designated. The wise did not walk around saying “We are smarter than anyone else. We always make the right decisions.” The foolish did not consider themselves dense and compromised or think that no one should trust whatever they say. All ten virgins probably thought that they were making the best decisions they could in their particular circumstances.
We are all like those virgins. We see the world, choose to act, and make decisions based on the best knowledge we have at the particular time. Are our decisions wise or foolish? One day we will find out. How close we come to reaching what God wants will one day become apparent. But until that day we act with partial knowledge, because only God sees completely.
Now in light of this, the most important lesson in the parable is how the ten virgins deal with one another. They disagree but treat one another with respect. When the foolish ask the wise to share their oil, the wise do not agree. They refuse because they feel that everyone should be responsible for his or her own oil and bear the consequences of the decisions they make or fail to make. But even as the wise virgins disagree with the foolish ones, they treat them with respect. They do not demean or belittle them, saying, “You foolish virgins. Why didn’t you think ahead? How often have we told you that you should have some extra oil just in case?” The wise virgins simply express their disagreement and then let the foolish virgins find their own solution.
There are circumstances in our lives where it is proper to disagree with respect. When we meet a person of a different faith tradition, it is proper for us to disagree about the role of Jesus. We hold Jesus to be fully human and fully divine. Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do not. It does us no good to pretend that all religions are the same. We disagree about important spiritual truths. But even as we disagree, we should still respect people of other traditions because they are people of faith.
As we continue to face the coronavirus, we do not all see things the same way. Some people question the number of cases and the reported deaths. Others question the role of government to limit business or large gatherings. Not everyone feels that wearing a mask is the best way to proceed. We cannot pretend that we all agree, but as we disagree, we should not deny others the dignity that is their right.
We just finished an election that clearly shows that we are divided as a nation. Politicians will now all call us to unite, and unity is good. But unity does not mean that we all agree with one another. We hold radically different visions of the role of government, the definition of injustice, and the kind of country we think America should be. But as we disagree with one another, it is important not to demonize others. We should offer them respect.
Only God sees everything. What is wise and what is foolish is only partially in our sight. And that is why today’s gospel asks us to use that partial knowledge as a basis for humility. Then, even as we disagree with others, we can still extend to them the respect we all deserve.