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.