The devils were having their annual convention at the Infernal Hilton. The topic that year was: Temptation in the twenty-first century. The facilitator opened the floor for any suggestions on how to tempt people in the current environment. Mephistopheles suggested, “Tell people there is no hell. Then they won’t fear any punishment when they do wrong.” Satan disagreed. “People know that actions have consequences. They always suspect that they will have to pay for their mistakes.” Lucifer came up with another idea about tempting. “Tell people there is no heaven. Then they won’t be motivated to do good.” Satan disagreed. “People sense in their hearts how wonderful it feels when they do an act of kindness. They all too easily imagine what that will be like writ large.” The debate went back and forth. Finally, one little imp in the back piped up. “The best way to tempt people: Tell them there is no hurry.” Satan smiled. “Yes, that will work. Let them imagine there is plenty of time to become better.”
The parable for today of the ten virgins captures a common theme in the preaching of Jesus. “Stay awake. Watch. Be on alert. Keep mindful.” Jesus warns us that we must brace ourselves for the change that is coming. There is a gospel song: “Sign me up for the Christian jubilee; write my name on the roll… I want to be ready when Jesus comes.” Like the foolish virgins in the parable we frequently aren’t ready, we all too easily get lulled into a sense of complacency. They had one thing to do and they didn’t do it. There is a human tendency to put things off. I know this probably does not apply to the students of today but I knew a student once, who will go unnamed, who would look at the schedule at the beginning of the semester and say, “The paper isn’t due for thirteen weeks. The exams are not until the end of the year. There’s plenty of time.” But, of course, putting things off meant several all-nighters and more than a few cram sessions come December. Being ready would have been much better.
However, during the cram sessions when I, oops, the student who will go unnamed, would ask a classmate for notes they would share them. We helped each other. That is unlike the wise virgins in the parable. They did not share what they had, for there may not be enough for us and you. That “may not” is a puzzling reason since “may not” implies there is a possibility of “may.” The wise virgins were not willing to take a chance on giving. They were guilty of what economists call zero sum thinking. Zero sum means there is only so much available and if you get something, I get less. Think of eight people with a pie. Each of them gets one piece. What if sixteen people show up? The pie is only so big so the piece you get is much smaller. We are seeing zero sum thinking playing out in the news. When the city proposes housing the refugees somewhere protests almost always follow. The complaint is that we will lose something in our community if we share it with these others. There’s only so many resources and if they get something, I get less. Zero sum. The wise virgins had prepared. They were ready. They felt if they shared what they had their preparation would be for naught. So they expected the others to raise themselves by their own bootstraps, to take care of themselves.
The flaw with zero sum thinking is to imagine that there is only one pie. As a matter of fact, there are a whole shelf-full of pies in the back. We’re saving them. “There may not be enough pie in the future if we give it out now.” But our God is a God of abundance. Look at the sky and see the millions and billions of stars, according to one estimate one septillion, that’s a one with twenty-four zeros after it. Wherever a telescope looks there are more galaxies. Look at a cottonwood tree in the spring. How many seeds go wafting in the breeze to clog our drains and dirty our screens. Then there is the human brain with 86 billion neurons which generate 100 trillion connections. Lots to think about! A God who created such abundance can make sure there are enough pies to go around if we are willing to share.
I get it. I get the parable. We are supposed to stay awake. We need to prepare. There is no time like the present. Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today. The wise virgins teach us the valuable lesson of how important it is to get ready for what is coming. We do so by being prayerful – placing ourselves in the presence of God who has a plan for this world. We prepare by recognizing that the gifts God has given us are meant for a purpose, to be used to help people to recognize the kingdom of God in our midst. We need to wake up to the fact that time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future and we’d better use it well. But there is one lesson that I would add. Unlike the wise virgins, I believe we should take a chance on generosity, take a chance on “may” instead of “may not.” The Lord will not be outdone in generosity so the more that we give the more God gives to us. St. Paul says that “God loves a cheerful giver” so give it away and get back the love. As an old Mahalia Jackson song put it: “If I can help somebody as I travel along; If I can help somebody with a word or song; If I can help somebody from doing wrong my living shall not be in vain.”