Human beings often like to sit on the fence on many subjects and issues.  But Jesus thinks some things are so important that fence-sitting is not good or appropriate, which is why some of his stories force us into a decision.  For example, in order to make a point about the importance of obeying his words he tells a story of a wise builder who constructs on rock, and a foolish builder who builds on sand (Mt 7:24ff).  The issue is clear – you either obey Jesus and are wise, or don’t and are foolish.  Make your choice.

I was reading  Matthew 25:1-13 recently and saw Jesus make a similar contrast – telling a story about people who are wise and foolish.  Here it is:

1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’  9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. 11 Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ 12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’  13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

This is a story about 10 people – 5 foolish and 5 wise.  They have much in common.  In fact 3 things are mentioned:

1) All are waiting for the bridegroom to come (v.1). That’s like us – waiting for Jesus to come.  We’re waiting either for his 2nd coming, or for a major visitation of Jesus on his church and people in the North.  Like these people we are waiting for Jesus. And here both the wise and foolish are waiting.

2) All have lamps (v.1). Apparently both groups are waiting to escort the bridegroom in a kind of torch-lit procession. The people would hold high their lamps, to make a way for the bridegroom, and to make him look good. So the lamps symbolise us making a way for Jesus – to show him off. That’s what we’re supposed to do – to shine so others can see Jesus.

3) All are drowsy and sleepy (v.5).  Again this is a lot like us! We know Jesus is coming and yet at times we get tired and we’re not very attentive.

But eventually the bridegroom comes – and suddenly everyone is up and about and excited.  But only half (the ‘wise’) are ready, and sadly, only the wise are welcomed in to the great wedding banquet.

So why were the others not welcomed in? What is the difference between them?  Look carefully and you will see that there is only one difference.  Oil.  The wise have a jar full of oil.  The foolish don’t. That’s the only difference.

The oil in the story powers the lamp, that shows off Jesus. Oil is the power-source. Elsewhere in the bible, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  Elders, according to James, are to anoint a sick person with oil, to symbolise the power of the Spirit, to help enable healing.  In the Old Testament prophets, priests and kings were set apart for their work by anointing with oil, to symbolise this ministry of the Spirit.  So oil represents the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is therefore saying that without the oil of the Holy Spirit, we will not show off Jesus. Without the oil of the Holy Spirit we will be found wanting.  We need the oil of the Spirit.

So the message is simple: be ready (v.13) by having lots of oil. It’s the oil of the Spirit which makes all the difference.  How do we get the oil of the Spirit? Jesus is very clear elsewhere (eg in Luke 11:13) that the Father generously gives the Spirit to those who ASK. For there is plenty of oil for us all – if we ask. So ask.

Want to be wise, rather than foolish? The difference is the oil.