Monday, March 30, 2020

There are some things in life that are just not shareable

There is a familiar story that we come across in the gospel of Matthew (25:1-13) where Jesus speaks about the ten bridesmaids or virgins, and we are told that five of them were wise, and five of them were foolish.  All were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, and all grew sleepy and tired, but when the bridegroom and his entourage arrived (presumably after midnight), all ten were awoken, but the five who were wise had brought with them extra oil and began to trim their lamps.  An interesting development then arose where the five who were foolish and did not have any extra flasks of oil with them asked those who had extra oil to help them out.  They responded that they could not share their oil, and when the bridegroom’s entourage came, the door was opened and those who had oil in their lamps went in with the bridegroom, and those who had no oil were left outside and the doors were shut.  

Technically and logically, there is not much that is puzzling about this parable on the level of its literature.  The language is simple and direct, and there is a certain logic to it, with the one major unsettling thing being the seeming selfishness of the five bridesmaids who told the other five that they couldn’t share their oil, and had advised them to go to those who sell it and buy some for themselves. 

It does seem to be rather uncharitable on the part of those five with the extra oil, doesn’t it?  After all, doesn’t the Christian life put so much stress on the virtue of charity, and this includes the willingness to share what one has, especially with those who need it most?  Where is the heart of charity of those first five?  And they got to go into the banquet hall with the bridegroom!  Where is the justice in this parable?  Did someone forget to send them the memo?

We need to realize that oftentimes, parables are multilayered in their teaching point, and the analogues that are used in the parables are not often immediately deciphered for what they mean, and if one doesn’t break through the surface, one can sometimes end up hardly learning its important point.  The oil that needs to be shared is the crux of the matter here, and until we get a better grasp and appreciation of what this oil is, this parable will not sit well with us as Christian disciples.

At the very heart of the Christian life is the love that God has in his Trinitarian relationship of three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This never-ending, ever-giving and always emptying love is the reason why every Christian needs to have his or her heart more and more expanded and enlarged to imitate as much as he or she can, the pattern of this divine and dynamic love. 

It is the reason why the Christian practices and embraces forms of mortification and sacrifices, and endeavors to live lives of effortful humility.  When one is able to join all those dots, one then begins to see how imperative it is to not only worship and adore this trinity of divine persons, but also to have a relationship predicated on love and adoration as well.  And it’s not the kind of relationship that one has with one’s friend or pal that I’m referring to here.  That’s way too simplistic and disrespectful, which is why I often squirm a bit whenever I hear Christians saying that Jesus is their friend and that they relate to him on the level of a friend or a ‘buddy-ol’ pal’.  Jesus is way more than a mere friend.  He is certainly more than just a pal.  He is divine and he deserves much more than friendship that we often mess up with our earthly friends.  Yes, at the Last Supper, Jesus did say that he calls us friends, but that doesn’t give us any license to dispense with any reverence and adulation that befits the King of kings and the Lord of Lords.  

So what is this ‘oil’?  It is precisely the kind of reverential yet personal relationship that every Christian needs to have through effortful cultivation with God in and through the meandering route that is our life.  Oil that is bottled and material and which can be measured using a measuring cup is definitely shareable.  It can be portioned out, re-bottled and with some science, can even be synthesized where a synthetic form can be manufactured.  

But ‘oil’ that is essentially a relationship built on trust and devotion and one that is shown by giving one’s life over to God cannot be portioned out, measured out, cannot be re-bottled, and definitely cannot be synthetically produced.  There are just some things in life that cannot be shared and a relationship with God that is deep, mature and sacrificial in nature is one of them.  At best, the five bridesmaids who had the extra oil could only ask that the other five who lacked the extra oil go and ‘acquire’ it from those who sell it, if these purveyors exist at all.

Why was this such an important point that Jesus chose to use a parable to convey its truth?  In all likelihood, it is because the human person has a shared tendency (probably stemming from the original fall) for seeking quick fixes in life. Here he seems to allude to the fact that for the very pertinent and germane issues of life, there just are no quick fixes.  A lot of these require a process and it is going to be in the ‘sturm und drang’ of life that these are learnt, processed and acquired.  There is no instant ‘oil’.  It’s a bit like the reserves that a country has which has been squirreled away and invested when times were good, and can dip into them when times are dire and challenging.  Only in this case, these are our ‘spiritual’ reserves.

And this is where the doctrine of purgatory perfectly dovetails with the core teaching of this parable.  What is purgatory but a time of purification for the soul which, for probably a different million reasons, had such a small heart of love that was pure, unadulterated and unmixed for God – probably like the extra oil in those flasks of the wise virgins.  Purgatory is where one willingly allows the purification of the heart to take place, before one can eventually enter appropriately to be united with the bridegroom.

In this time of the coronavirus, a vast majority of people are living in lockdown or stay-at-home conditions.  Use this time advantageously and prudently to cultivate a more affective and personal relationship with God.  These efforts of yours will help to increase the ‘oil’ in our flasks.  

How do we start this?  Begin by making it real.  Say (whether it is in the silence of your heart, or really out loud as your pray) “Lord my God, you alone deserve all my love, praise and adoration, but in reality, I give you much less than I should.  I want to love you with all my heart, mind and soul, but my love for you is so little.  Help me to love you as I should.  With you grace, may I be able to love you for who you are, and not only for what you can do for me.  Purify my love until you can see the reflection of your face in my heart.”

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