Checking your Oil

Searching Scripture can bring up more than one result.

by the Rev. Dr. John Lewis

Robert was beyond exhausted. This job had pushed everyone to the limit. He and his construction crews had worked very long days for more than four straight weeks without even so much as a day off so the new bank could open on time. Late this afternoon, the work was finally finished. Robert was hastily packing his things trying to get away. If he really hurried, and didn’t get caught in traffic, he had a chance to get home in time to eat dinner with his family for the first time in well over a month.  

As Robert was putting his gear in the truck, Jim walked up with a sad look on his face. This project had been especially hard on Jim, the foreman of Robert’s best crew. Jim and his wife Janie had been struggling in their marriage for at least a year. The last month had only made things worse. “Can I talk to you for just a minute?” asked Jim. “Janie left a message on my phone today telling me she moved out of the house.” Robert paused before responding, wondering whether he really had the energy and time to start what would no doubt be a long conversation.

Sound familiar? In one way or another the story describes a situation most of us face regularly in our daily lives. Do I sacrifice my own needs and those of my family to help an employee or friend? Or, do I for once say “no” and schedule a time to meet tomorrow? What does faithfulness look like in this particular situation?

Fortunately, Robert is a practicing Christian and spends time in the early morning each day reading his Bible. He knows from his daily discipline and from experience that scripture provides several possible alternatives for how he might respond faithfully to Jim.

One is a story from the Gospel of Mark: 

Mark 6b Then Jesus went about among the villages teaching. 7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits….13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them….30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Robert has reflected on this story a lot, usually putting himself in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples. The nerve of this guy! Here we are, tired and hungry after following his directions. Finally, we have a chance to break away to eat, rest, and have some down time with Jesus. And what does he do? He has compassion on yet another crowd. At our expense! Doesn’t Jesus care about us, the people who are like family to him?

But today Robert stands in the shoes of Jesus. What would Jesus do? From this story it would seem that faithfulness means putting aside his own concerns and the needs of his   family to have compassion for Jim and to talk with him.

Or, does it? Robert also knows the passage from the Gospel of Matthew 25:1-13.

Matthew 25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 1But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 

Robert has only recently begun to process what this passage might mean in the context of his own life. Unlike Mark 6, this story seems to suggest that, sometimes, faithfulness in the kingdom means saying “no” to those who are in need. When I am tired, pushed beyond my limits by the challenges of daily life, it is time to be wise and circumspect  before making new commitments. Will this latest demand on my time and energy just consume even more of my precious fuel oil, maybe even causing my own light of Christ to go out altogether? If so, faithfulness may require me to say “no” to Jim. I can set a time to meet with him tomorrow morning, when we’re both fresh after a good night’s sleep and have plenty of time to talk through the whole situation.

Scripture offers us direction for faithfulness in daily life. There is seldom just one “right” response to any situation. Knowing and living the stories gives us the confidence to act in faith. This is especially true when it comes to trying to break away. The needs of the world are great. So are ours. If you were Robert, what would you do? 

The Rev. Dr. John G. Lewis is Co-Director of The Work+Shop inSan Antonio, Texas. Reach him at jlewis@theworkshop-sa.org

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From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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