We must not think that our love has to be extraordinary. But we do need to love without getting tired. How does a lamp burn? Through the continuous input of small drops of oil. These drops are the small things of daily life: faithfulness, small words of kindness, a thought for others, our way of being quiet, of looking, of speaking, and of acting. They are the true drops of love that keep our lives and relationships burning like a living flame.
—St. Teresa of Calcutta
In today’s Gospel, Jesus recounts the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I’ve written before on what this passage teaches us about waiting, but today I noticed another aspect of the story. It seems at first that the wise virgins, those who were well prepared with oil, act selfishly in refusing to share their oil with the others. But actually, this speaks to the symbolism of what the oil represents. St. Augustine, preaching on this passage, reflected that the oil represents our charity and good works:
I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I have become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. Pour in oil, pour in water upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falls.”…
There is the oil, the precious oil; this oil is of the gift of God. Men can put oil into their vessels, but they cannot create the olive. See, I have oil; but did you create the oil? It is of the gift of God. You have oil. Carry it with you….
For he who walks to gain the testimony of another, does not carry oil with him. If you abstain from things unlawful, and do good works to be praised of men; there is no oil within. And so when men begin to leave off their praises, the lamps fail. Observe then, Beloved, before those virgins slept, it is not said that their lamps were extinguished. The lamps of the wise virgins burned with an inward oil, with the assurance of a good conscience, with an inner glory, with an inmost charity.
—St. Augustine, “Sermon 43 on the New Testament”
The oil, symbolizing the charity in our hearts, cannot be transferred from one to another, just as our own good works cannot be distributed out to other souls at the time of judgment. The oil of charity is a gift from God; it cannot be manufactured. The graces that come from a life spent in service to others, in prayer, and in righteousness cannot simply be handed over to another. No one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. A holy person might draw others toward Christ and inspire them to follow God by sharing their story, but they can’t transfer some of their own holiness to “even the scales.” True holiness can only be achieved through a personal encounter with God, not by proxy.
Why did the foolish virgins neglect to bring enough oil? Perhaps they were focused more on the feast—where surely there would be abundant light—than on meeting the bridegroom. If they had been joyfully anticipating that encounter more than the party afterward, then maybe they would have remembered to ensure they brought enough oil to be able to see him clearly when he arrived.
As we wait in expectant hope for the bridegroom’s arrival, may we remember to oil our hearts with acts of faith, hope, and charity, feeding the flame of God’s grace within us.
Image: Friedrich Wilhelm von Schadow, The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins / PD-US