The week before it shut down due to COVID-19, I had to go to the DMV. Even before the pandemic, the DMV had very long lines as everyone qued up to get their new IDs. I arrived as early as could. I got there at 7:00 am, well before it opened and already the line was 30 people deep. I had my documents in order and I knew what I needed to do.
When I got to the head of the line, I was as courteous as I have ever been. The woman at the desk checked my things, told me which paper to fill out, and pointed me toward the standing tables. I asked if I could have a pen. She looked at me blankly and said, “No. You should have brought your own.”
So, I went to the table and scoured my purse for a pen. I usually have one, but I guess I gave away my last pen. The man next to me was all buttoned up in his tailored suit and tie and I asked if I could use his pen when he was done. He said, “You didn’t bring a pen? Next time you should come more prepared.”
The thing is, I was prepared. I had all my documents, I arranged for my neighbor to take the kids to school so that I could leave extra early to get in line. And, after two hours of waiting, I get to the table to discover that no one would give up an ink pen. Just another day at the DMV, I guess.
I suppose I was “foolish” for leaving my pen in the car. Probably the man next to me was “wise,” though that doesn’t feel very accurate to me because we were all trying to do the same thing: get in and out as quickly as possible. To ascribe adjectives like “foolish” and “wise” make immediate value judgments about people when the problem really was about resources.
In the parable, we never learn why some bridesmaids don’t have enough oil. It could be that they took all the oil they had and didn’t have more to bring. Maybe they had it but left it at home because others in the home would need it. Their failure to have the oil doesn’t make them “foolish.” They only lack a resource.
There were a lot of solutions to the lack of oil. There’s the obvious one: the five bridesmaids could have shared theirs (how much longer would they need these lights after the bridegroom came, anyway?). They could have asked ahead of time if everyone remembered to bring oil, sharing their “wisdom.” They also could have taken turns keeping watch while everyone else slept. That way they wouldn’t need to burn all the lamps at once.
In the end, only the “wise” bridesmaids get into the party, but it didn’t have to be that way. Adjectives like “wise” and “foolish” are words used to put people in categories to assess their worthiness. If these words become a regular part of our vocabulary we become drowsy to the way they are shorthand for treating some people like second-class citizens. Before long, the words have become part of the air we breathe and we are comatose to the way that our words have created an unfair, unjust world. “Foolish” is not a synonym for “lack of resources.”
The punch line of the parable is “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the parable, all the bridesmaids fall asleep. I wonder if the parable is less about preparation or wisdom vs. foolishness and more about being “awake” to everyone around us and their circumstances. Even the “wise” bridesmaids were not “woke” to the possibility of including everyone.
I did eventually find someone willing to share a pen, and when I finally sat down I had a minute to observe how others were treated. As miffed as I was about the pen, I noticed that my treatment was far better than how others fared. A woman who came with a friend was immediately questioned by a police officer about whether her friend had business at the DMV and why couldn’t he wait in the car? Her friend explained to the armed officer that she could not speak English and he came to translate for her. I hoped she remembered a pen.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is room enough for everyone in the kingdom of God. We just need to wake up.