He was not quite the Karate Kid:
no Jaden Smith
no Ralph Macchio
no budding movie star … after all, he only had one arm
having lost his left one in a devastating car accident.
To build up his confidence his family encouraged him
to study judo with a seasoned Master.
The boy did surprising well,
but after three months of training
had only been taught one move.
“Sensei,” he asked, “shouldn’t I be learning more moves?”
The Master replied, “this is the only move
you will ever need to know.”
Trusting this wisdom, he continued training.
Eventually the Master enrolled him in a tournament.
He did amazingly well, winning match after match
until, surprisingly, he ended up in the finals.
His last opponent was not only older and more experienced
but considerably larger, towering above him.
Concerned that the one-armed boy might get hurt
the referee moved to call off the match
but Sensei insisted that it go on.
A grueling struggle ensued
but when the overconfident opponent dropped his guard
the boy used his one move to pin his opponent,
winning the match and tournament.
On the way home, the young champion asked his Master,
“Sensei, how did I win the tournament with only 1 move?”
Sensei replied, “You won for two reasons:
first, you mastered one of the most difficult throws
in all of Judo,
and second, the only known defense for that move
is for your opponent to grab your left arm.”
There it is: a baptized equivalent of a Sheldon Cooper “bazinga”–
the unexpected twist that catches us off guard,
ambushes us with wisdom
undercuts our expectations, and
delivers a considerable dose of humility
to those who think they understand.
It’s called a parable!
Jesus was a parabolic master–
his most characteristic form of instruction.
Like other teaching strategies,
parables have multiple dynamics,
which is why they are so effective.
One obvious dynamic
— like in the right handed karate kid story
— is the element of surprise
that knocks the listener off balance.
In the process the parable dismantles our presuppositions,
disrupts our usual line of thinking,
and proposes unexpected, even uncomfortable, new truths.
A superficial reading of today’s parable
could give the impression that God’s reign is binary;
that there are only wise and foolish
saints and sinners,
Christians and non-Christians
Yalies and those who want to be:
one good … the other highly questionable.
We are wired for this instinctive and problematic kind of thinking:
a source of much critique and humor.
Likewise, Mark Twain proposed: “There are basically 2 types of people:
those who accomplish things
and those who claim to have accomplished things,”
concluding: “The first group is less crowded.”
Dear Abby suggested that the two kinds of people
are those who walk into a room and say, “There you are!”
and those who walk into a room and say, “Here I am!”
Finally, Robert Benchley summarizes:
“There are two kinds of people in the world,
those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world
and those who don’t.
Jesus is clearly in the second category,
for he did not divide folk up into redeemable and irredeemable,
worthy and unworthy, lovable and despicable.
Rather, his ministry was nothing less than an extended parable
that continuously scrambled traditional thinking,
upended well-established categories
and redefined the very reign of God.
That disruption is clearly operative in today’s parable
that typically raises more questions than it answers.
It is my first instinct, maybe yours,
to side with the so-called wise virgins.
Since I am more than a tad OCD,
I applaud the prepared,
embrace the forward-thinking,
and recognize their ancient affinity with the Coast Guard
whose motto is semper paratus.
The problem with being a cheerleader for the wise virgins–
prophetic souls with eyes on what’s ahead–
is that they also appear to be greedy.
Furthermore, if they were so wise why couldn’t the five of them
combine their collective wisdom
and find a solution
that would enable all ten virgins to meet the bridegroom?
That certainly would have created a more impressive display:
all ten of them in the dark,
with their dancing lights.
But instead, their wisdom turned inward,
maybe to curry more favor from the bridegroom,
insuring choice victuals and spirits at the festal banquet.
And what do we know about the so-called “foolish”?
Maybe it was their first time at this ritual rodeo–
junior bridesmaids whose frontal cortexs were underdeveloped
or distant cousins who didn’t know the Bridegroom’s reputation
for being late for everything, including his own wedding.
What does it mean to be wise?
A seldom explored aspect of this
share or not to share parable
is its central commodity: oil[i] …
an asset that’s been in the news for millennia.
Oil is a coveted and all too weaponized resource.
It’s not just US carpoolers and German truck drivers
who suffer from the greed of OPEC
when deciding to reduce their production quotas,
but also family farmers across the globe
who struggle to produce enough to live, much less thrive.
Even though those bananas were harvested by hand,
you can’t get them to global markets
without the oil guzzling barges and seafaring cargo ships
whose increased costs are also passed on to consumers.
Oil greed increases the price of food globally.[ii
And then there is the current fuel embargo in Palestine …
where the weaponization of oil
shuts down hospitals, relief agencies and bakeries
increasing mortality in an already devastated population.
Interestingly enough, the Jesus instruction
delivered in the gospel envelope we call parable
is not grounded
in the unreplenishable oil derived from fossils,
which some predicted could be depleted by the year 2070.
Rather, the oil of the so called foolish and wise
came from fish oil, animal oil, and animal fat,
but especially from olives.[iii]
This was not extracted from fracking,
deep sea drilling,
or artic explorations,
but from the eminently replenishable
animals and trees in the back yard:
what we literally name as
fruit of the earth and work of human hands
during the preparation of the gifts.
This wisdom of this replenishable oil
is a harbinger of the inexhaustible Christ–
the divine chrīstós … the anointed one
whose kingdom vision of a world without rivalry,
a society without the haves and the have-nots,
a community devoid of greed,
is a peaceable kingdom
where wisdom is shared,
resources support the common good,
and the lavish graces of an eternal Abba
never run dry.
In baptism, each Roman Catholic is chrismated
not with petrol extracted from miles down in the earth’s crust,
but from oil extracted from groves of olives,
like the ones on that famous mount
that witnessed the ascension of the Christ
into the kingdom he foretold (Acts 1:11).
We are anointed in the Christ vision
To collaborate in building a holy kingdom of new wisdom:
devoid of rivalry, greed and exclusion,
especially of the marginalized, rejected, and lost.
Journalist Leslie Guttman was visiting a packed bookstore one day. [i] Guttman describes:
A woman with long, black hair about five feet away was leafing [through a book]. I saw her slip a book into her satchel and walk off. Hesitating, I walked after her and pointed at the satchel. She was about thirty, filthy khaki parka, hair matted. The satchel was bursting with belongings. She gave me a sorrowful look, handed me the book and ran off.
It was a journal designed for someone who was grieving. Someone like me. “She’s been wanting that book,” said the manager “She comes in all the time and looks at it. Sometimes, putting it on hold, but never gets it.”
Dammit! [I said to myself]. I ran out of the store and caught up with her. “Did you just lose someone?” I asked.
“My grandmother,” she replied… “I miss her so much I can’t stand it.” I mentioned my stepdad, who just died. His kindness knit our family together for decades.
I handed her the book, we both stood on the curb and wept.
For the first time since my stepdad died, I felt understood. Until then, I felt alone in my grief. But because the grieving thief and I didn’t know each other, I had no expectations of being understood and no fear of being disappointed.
Guttman concludes: This encounter made me want to stay open to chance meetings of important strangers, the possibility of unplanned symmetry that is luminous and magical.
So who is wise?
I’ve experienced enough Ph.D.’s in my life to know
that doctorandus is not synonymous with wisdom.
Nor is ordination, or election, or even the odd lecture invitation
to the disruptive outsider.
The Jesus of the gospels acquired wisdom
not only from direct infusions from blessed Sophia
but from Syrophoenician women,
the company of lepers and the lame, and
interactions with the adulterous and tax collectors.
Jesus was a wisdom fount because he was a wisdom collector,
anointed by those he encountered
and anointing them in return.
In baptism, we were infused with wisdom
from the eternally anointed one
sealed with the oil of healing,
the oil of acceptance,
the oil of gladness.
This is our baptismal birthright and mission:
not only to revel in this immeasurable gift,
but, more importantly,
to recognize it in those the world considers foolish
and thus promote its flourishing
through Christ our Lord.
[i] I am grateful to my colleague the Rev. Dr. Patrick Shebeck for this insight