Context is important: this is a basic fact when dealing with the Bible. If we take this to heart when reading and wanting to understand the Bible, we can come up with exciting results, as in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, for example.
“Make sure you have enough oil with you.” This appeal is well known from New Apostolic divine services, and not only from days gone by. But what exactly is meant by this oil? A very concrete answer can be found by examining the context.
A glimpse of the future
Look at the splendour of the temple. The disciples are thrilled by the view from the Mount of Olives. But all Jesus says to them is that not one stone will be left on another. Now the disciples’ attention is riveted. What does the future hold for them?
This is the scene at the beginning of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 and 25. First of all, Jesus describes what will happen until His return: the signs, the great tribulation, and ultimately the coming of the Son of Man.
He illustrates His admonition to be vigilant with four parables that are well known to us today: the parables of the faithful and evil servant, of the wise and foolish virgins, of the entrusted talents, and the parable of the Last Judgement.
A message in four parts
These four parables are not just loosely strung together; they are interrelated, interlinked, and build on each other.
- Each of the four parables answers the question of how people should prepare for the return of Christ.
- Each parable uses the same structure and clearly details one wrong and one right behaviour and contrasts them with each other.
- The setting progresses from the closed door of the wedding banquet to the statement “Enter into the joy of your lord”, basically right into the throne room of the King and Judge of the world.
- The connecting points of the parables are linked by two alternating common threads: on one hand, the warning that “no one knows the day or the hour” (Matthew 24: 36, 42–44 and 25: 13), and on the other, the warning that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, which we can read about in Matthew 24: 51 and 25: 30.
The core message becomes more and more concrete from parable to parable. The parable of the two servants teaches us a simple “Don’t waste your time”, while the virgins admonish us to “Prepare yourselves actively”. And the parable of the talents advises us on how to go about this: “Work with what God has given you.”“
The parable of the Last Judgement goes even further. It breaks with the pattern. Instead of speaking in images, it formulates very directly what must be done: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, invite the stranger in, and see to the ill and those in prison. Because “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”.
Understanding them backwards
Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries were well acquainted with enumerations of this kind. This is not just a question of general good works, but rather of specific works of love. These differed from alms in that it was not money that was to be given to the neighbour, but Christian love in the form of reaching out and committing oneself to one’s fellow human beings.
At this point we begin to understand the series of parables in a new light: in the end, when it comes to reaching out to our neighbour, and thus to Jesus, and committing ourselves personal talents—or minas, as it is called in Luke—naturally carry weight. So to bury what has been entrusted to us means refusing to pass on and share and give back to God what He has given us.
Fuelling works of love
And what about the virgins’ lamps? The answer ties in with the works of love and takes us:
- via Matthew 5: 14, 16: “You are the light of the world ... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
- and John 15: 8: “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.”
- to Ephesians 5: 9: “The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth.”
This is how the parable can then also be read: whoever confesses Jesus Christ sets out to meet the Lord. Those who perceive the sacraments and the word of God have trimmed their lamps and have them with them. However, without love—which 1 Corinthians praises as the greatest gift—this would be nothing but an empty vessel.
In this sense, the call to have oil with us is very concrete: “Fill your hearts with love.”
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