Keep on Pouring the Oil!

Sunday 9th November 2014
Year A, The Third Sunday before Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Wisdom 6:12-16
Matthew 25:1-13

In a parody of Groucho Marx who famously said that he would never join a club that would allow him in, I will not join any organisation that needs an ethics code; because if it needs such a code, people are behaving ethically for the wrong reason, as a matter of compliance, not of free will based on sound ethical training which is why I have such problems with the Gospel of Matthew in general and today's story in particular, about the bridesmaids.

This story follows directly upon the end of Chapter 24 where Jesus warns us to be on our guard against the end time, just as servants must behave properly because they never know when the master will turn up. In other words, they are behaving pragmatically not as a matter of principle. In our story there are two ideas about being prepared: the first sets out the rather unlikely scenario of twelve bridesmaids, half of whom forget to bring oil for their lamps and are accordingly shut out of the heavenly banquet; the second, which looks like a sub-plot, shows all twelve going to sleep but the story ends with an admonition to watch rather than an admonition to make sure that you have some oil about your person, to be some kind of pragmatic, moral boy scout, always prepared with a Swiss Army knife and a ball of string. It is often said that the tone of Matthew's Gospel was dictated by the circumstance that he was trying to distinguish the new Christian sect from traditional Jews but I don't see it; his approach is legalistic and doesn't demonstrate a sense of behaving well out of love of Jesus and neighbour.

Contrast this approach with the words of one of my favourite hymns: "MY God, I love Thee; not because I hope for heaven thereby, nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally."

Even Aristotle taught that the way we achieve virtue is by practising it and we surely try to lead the good life, to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven because that is what we were created to do, not because we're frightened of divine retribution; as TS Eliot remarked, the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

Then there's the issue of oil. I suppose, like me, you sometimes get weary of doling out oil to the careless bridesmaids. In some situations people make genuine mistakes but in others we are faced, as a country, with fixing a situation against which we warned. IN the case of Ebola we have to take some responsibility for not building up the health service in Sierra Leone but in other cases we are pouring oil away because of corruption. All right, I Hear you say, there's an underlying reason for that corruption for which we might be responsible, I accept that but, still, I can't help growing weary sometimes of the oil pouring.

And yet I believe that is what we are here for, no matter how difficult it is. I believe in unconditional and not contractual giving, giving because there is a need without making judgments about the recipient; it's reckless, it's not pragmatic, and it's certainly not contractual but I would prefer, no matter how imperfectly, to be a fool for Christ rather than a wise, pragmatic moralist. That is why I'm not keen on the tone of our First Reading.

So what are we supposed to do when we come up against Biblical passages we find difficult. Well, first of all, we must not behave like the Second Century Marcion who advocated excising all the bits of the Scriptures he didn't like, including the whole of the Old Testament. Secondly, as the canon of Scriptures became sanctioned over a period of almost 400 years by the early Church, we owe it immense respect. Thirdly, we have to ask ourselves in what way is the Bible the Word of God. Some people think it was communicated verbatim by the Holy Spirit without it, so to speak, touching the sides, so that the author was merely an instrument; but I have far too much respect for God's creation of humanity to accept that and would rather say that the Bible is the Word of God as we have imperfectly recorded it and imperfectly understand it, imperfection being our creaturely lot; and, of course, whether you believe one of these two positions, or another, it's clear enough that there are many voices in the Bible and they don't always agree.

Which leaves, quite properly, the obligation to pray and to struggle intellectually, accepting that the way we use words about God is metaphorical; in other words, the only way we can properly use words is about ourselves because God is outside words. But, you might quite properly reply, these were the words of Jesus, to which my answer would be that Jesus, in his human form, was also using human words in metaphor to describe his own role outside time.

For me, then, the starting point is that Matthew in particular features classic public speaking rhetoric where exaggeration, simplification and colour are used to get a point across. Secondly, we have to look at any passage of Scripture in the context of the whole; and it isn't just because it suits me - although it does - but because I think that the overall theme of the New Testament is unmistakably about God's love not God's punishment. Saint Paul, who was inclined to take a rather harsh view of his fellow human beings, could not help himself, he could only see the love and, in his First Letter to the Corinthians 15, he also saw the triumph. So, at the very least I would have to say that the pragmatic approached to behaviour is less helpful than that based on love. There is, too, a deep puzzle in Christianity about what happens to the wicked and there is, too, a deep puzzle about the nature of wickedness and the boundary between wickedness and psychosis.

All in all, we have to make our own minds up. I watch and pray as much as I can but we all know the experience of falling asleep and missing the crucial moment of a TV thriller; and in spite of my serious misgivings I would still have to say, keep on pouring the oil.