The film Vertical Limit opens with a father, son and daughter climbing an escarpment in the American wilderness somewhere. The scenery is breathtaking and edgy as we—through the eyes of the camera—close in on their escapade.
As the trio pick their way up the vertical face of the cliff, it all goes horribly wrong. The father falls and his weight threatens to drag his children down with him to certain death on rocks below. In an agonistic, gut-wrenching confrontation, the son has to decide whether to die with his father or do as his father wants—to cut him loose to his death so his children may live.
In a few tense seconds that seem like eternity, the son cuts the rope that decides both fates.
The guilt he lives with is central to the rest of the drama of the film and its resolution.
Another recent movie, Poseidon, revisits the disaster movie genre of the 1970s, and this time we find a small group of passengers working through the capsized ship in search of an exit to the ocean above and, hopefully, rescue.
The group comprises a mother and son, a father and daughter and her fiancÈ, a gambler, a gay man, a ship steward and his stowaway girlfriend. In their escape attempt this motley group reaches a precipitous shaft that they bridge by makeshift means. As they are crossing from danger to safety, the ship rolls. The steward falls and grips the ankle of the gay man who in turn is held by the arm of the gambler.
Realising that not all of them can make it, the gambler advises the gay man to kick free from the steward in order to save himself or they will both be lost. In a split second, the gay man must decide whether to listen to the gambler or keep trying to save both he and the steward. In the end, he kicks the steward away, sending him hurtling to a horrible death, just as the ship rolls more and sends debris hurtling down the shaft where the gambler and the gay man would otherwise have been.
The uncomfortable moral dilemma of Sophie’s Choice is well played out in these and many other recent dramas like them.
It also receives a hearing, but often without comment or murmur in the well-known story— or parable—told by Jesus, commonly called the “Ten Virgins.” As told in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), 10 virgins were waiting to serve as maids of honour for a bridegroom at a wedding banquet. Five of the maids carried torches with an extra supply of oil; five carried just their torches. As the bridegroom appeared, the five torch-bearing virgins without the extra oil asked the other five (with oil) to share their supply.
The response from the five with extras is interesting because they refuse the request and instead rebuke the five with the shortfall; they tell them to go and buy their own oil supplies.
In sum, instead of doing “the Christian thing” and sharing what little they have with the have-nots, or doing “the Christian thing” and sacrificing themthemselves in the interests of serving their deficient half of the group, they don’t. In terms of the film choices noted above, they cut the rope, they kick themselves free without so much as an apology.
So is there a time and place for selfishness or self-interest? Does the instinct for self-survival ethically and ultimately transcend the ideology of sharing and caring about others? Jesus did not tell the story to rebuke the five with extra oil for not being prepared to martyr themselves—“in the hope that I might save some” (as Paul puts it elsewhere). On the contrary, Jesus related the parable to rebuke and warn those who may come up short for His kingdom because, like the foolish five, they are ill-prepared.
His parable could be seen to justify an ethic of me-first-too-bad-about-you when it comes to readiness for salvation.
Perhaps Jesus was emphasising Paul’s comment about the importance of “working out your own salvation”— because you practically cannot work out someone else’s for them. And, in trying to save others, you may come up short yourself.
Whichever way one looks at it, it is a hard parable to reconcile with Jesus’ advice about laying down one’s life for friend and enemy alike as being true tests of discipleship. When is it acceptable for a Christian to not share her oil? The interpretation we give to the meaning of the parabolic oil is therefore tremendously important. What is meant by “oil” in this parable of Jesus? And whatever it is, does possession of it justify selfishness and the authority to reproach others concerning it? In understanding the parable, the meaning given to the oil is therefore critical. Is it something that can be given to others in a shared portion? The behaviour of the wise virgins suggests the answer is no. The wise virgins and Jesus rebuke the foolish ones because they are asking for something not theirs to give.
The oil is actually something that cannot be given away or shared—it is one’s own infilling of the salvation-bringing Holy Spirit. That quotient of eternal life corresponds to the faith and obedience of the Christian believer individually.
It is up to each to find and secure their own supply, to take unto themselves the degree and quality of authentic spirituality that only they can hold and no-one else. A relationship with God requires our purposeful presence.
Jesus isn’t teaching selfishness in this parable; He’s just stating a fact—spiritual “oil” is something that can only be acquired personally. I can’t give you the Holy Spirit, just as my death in your place—while perhaps prolonging your life in some circumstances—could not attain eternal life for you.
Jesus alone gives eternal life—personally.
The Holy Spirit alone gives eternal light—personally. That light is life.
Without it there is no spiritual life in us.
Having accepted Jesus’ death for us on the cross, we must then be presently and purposefully filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit. We are marked and made through this indwelling presence.