Someone jokingly introduced me to his friends the other day as a snake-oil salesman. Ah, to be a clergy person when the church is so well-recognized and the ministry is respected! I dated someone once who was mortified to name my profession (though that might have been about different prejudices and stereotypes)…
Reflecting further on the unwelcomed description of how I make my living, it occurred to me that my work is not unlike another kind of oil salesman. That might surprise you who know me well enough to have heard me on my soapbox about our North American fossil fuel addiction and how we are quite literally burning up our planet. Thank God, I’ve figured out — with my bike, public transportation, line-drying my clothes and no air-conditioning — to make myself a little less implicated in our self-destructive deals around energy-dependence. But, relying more on how the bible uses oil as a metaphor, I can understand myself as pedaling a renewable source of energy.
Oil in the Scriptures, unless used in cooking, is the fuel used in lamps for light. Turning to Jesus’ parable of The Wise and Foolish Maidens, my work is like that of a lamp oil salesman. From such a one, all ten virgins would have bought oil originally, explaining with excitement that they were invited to a wedding. Perhaps it was to the same lamp oil salesman that five of them returned later, in the middle of the night, frantic when their oil had run out before the bridegroom had arrived.
As a pastor, I always imagine that when the ten maidens first showed up, and firve of them tried to buy as little as they possibly might need… I believe the salesman would have encouraged them to purchase more, “just in case.”
In the wedding customs of biblical times, one never knew: the groom had great leeway about when he would show up– tomorrow, or in a few days, or next week.
The sensible maidens took the salesman’s advice: “better safe than sorry.” But the foolish ones figured, “at the best, the lamp oil salesman is just a worry wart.” Or more cynically, did they think he was pushing more product to line his own pockets?
I wonder then what the saleman thought in the middle of the night when, pounding on his door, they awoke him?
“Could I have impressed upon them more their need and the risk they were running?”
“Maybe I should have given them the extra oil they needed… on credit, and they could have paid what they owed me when they brought any unused oil back.”
Often, in the face of another’s misfortune, there’s not much room — or even a temptation –to moralize. But, if he was just exhausted and feeling impatient, perhaps he could only manage, hopefully to himself: “I told you so.”
How much worse he must have felt when he learned what he must have feared… that by the time they got back, their opportunity to join the wedding party had closed before them.
Like my predecessor, beloved, I am trying to encourage you to err on the side of plenty. In life with its sometimes long shadows, dark days and death valleys, you can never have too much lamp oil, too much light or too much God. Be good to yourself and others whose way you may illuminate, and don’t scrimp.
I’m not suggesting that going to church each week or living a Christian’s life of loving, giving, serving, forgiving… that you somehow amass great, deep oil reserves that will never run out. Faith isn’t really an edgy tax credit system! And, we all come up dry at sometime or another. So that’s not what I am saying.
But experience has taught me that those who keep buying oil week after week and year after year are much more likely to have it at hand when it’s needed.
See you in church,