If you have ever had the misfortune to run out of petrol, you know all too well the anxiety and frustration of the foolish virgins in Matthew 25:1-13 – as well as the embarrassment of having to admit your mistake and ask for assistance.
Although this passage is often used for a sermon on getting ourselves ready, or being prepared, for the coming of God’s kingdom, the more subversive message it contains is this: God wants you to protect your reserves.
The reality is that we should never find ourselves running on empty; or worse, running out entirely. Our petrol tanks are designed to hold a small reserve which, when activated, triggers a warning light which says that we need, as a matter of urgency, to get to a fuel station to replenish our tank.
And yet still it happens that we sometimes find ourselves running out: whether we have underestimated the distance we have to travel or the traffic we have to travel in, or overestimated the capacity of our reserve, or simply haven’t prioritized filling up, or maybe, even, are hoping that prayer will get us through to pay day so that we can afford to fill our tank, many of us can find ourselves in this awkward, embarrassing, stressful situation.
We certainly hope that if it ever happens to us, the person we reach out to for help will be kind and sympathetic and immediately available. So the response of the wise women to the foolish ones in verse 9 offends our nature and our understanding of what it is to be a good and kind Christian person:
“‘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.”
It’s a word that we seldom use, and when we do, often feel guilty for having in our vocabulary. We’re happy to teach our children to say “No” to junk food, “NO” to drugs, and “NO NO NO!” to sex before marriage but when we are asked to something for someone else so often we automatically respond with “Yes.”
Which is why we so often feel at the end of the day that we have nothing of ourselves left to give.
Yet, like the wise virgins, God longs for us to protect our reserve tank and I would propose three principles for doing just that:
1. Say “no” to the unimportant things, the distractions in life, the little crises that take away from your long term hopes and dreams. The Afrikaans assignment that your boss wants you to look over for his child which really doesn’t fall under your job description, or would lead to you working late to get your actual, pressing work done. The person who constantly calls you in tears asking for time togetether but bails at the last minute because something better has come their way. Even the colleague whose car broke down and who just assumes you’re available to help because they’re “on your way” – adding 40 minutes to your commute in the traffic and creating chaos in your household routine. Know what’s important, what you MUST fit into your life and schedule – things like family and relaxation and taking care of your health – and evaluate what else you can do once those needs have been accounted for and satisfied.
2. When you say “yes” to something important, be 100% present. In addition to struggling to say “no,” so often we try to manage our many “yeses” by doing a number of things simultaneously. We call it “multitasking” and smugly inform people around us that managing to do many things at the same time makes us efficient utilisers of our time and resources. In reality, we are simply dividing our attention and not doing what we have committed to as well as we could because 2 tasks can get at most 50% of our time and effort; 3, 33%; 4, 25%. You get the point. Rather, if you’ve committed to a family dinner leave the cellphone at home (or use that much-neglected “off” button). If you’re at work late, don’t feel guilty about what’s going on at home (assuming you’ve consulted with your partner, of course) but invest your time and attention into getting the task at hand done well. If you’re at church stop thinking about what you need to do for lunch and be present in body, mind, and soul.
3. Prioritise God. We know that when our warning light is on because our petrol gauge is near to empty, we need to be disciplined enough to refuel or we will find ourselves in trouble. Our lives are like that too. Sunday worship is not enough to tap into the abundant, overflowing, never-ending energy and power and love of God. We need to set aside time and space in which to refuel – whether that means soaking ourselves in Scripture, enjoying vigorous religious debate over coffee with friends, or sitting in on a worship practice so that our hearts can be uplifted by song. We need to prioritise God – not when we’ve run out and we’re requesting assistance – but every day; in multiple moments we need to open ourselves up to the fact that God is with us and longs to fill us and to bless us.
The wise women in the story were wise not because they had stocked up on oil for their lamps, but because they protected their reserve. They prioritised that which was important – being present to fulfill their purpose of meeting the bridegroom. And, in order to protect that priority, they said a very necessary “no” the the foolish women who had run out and who ultimately missed out on the dancing and the laughing and the celebration and the belonging of the wedding feast.
Protect your reserve tank. Prioritise God. Be 100% present in the things that you have committed to. And learn to say “no” to that in your life which is unnecessary.