Matthew 25:1-13

Every Tub On Its Own Bottom

By Dr. Mickey Anders

Back in Arkansas, we have many of what my grandmother called “old sayings.” In fact, my grandmother began most of her sentences with the preface, “As the old saying goes, One of my favorites from my Arkansas days was ‘Every tub sits on its own bottom.'” I don’t think I have heard that colorful phrase since I have moved to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, so you may be unfamiliar with it.

Bartlett’s book of quotations attributes the phrase to John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress, but he worded it this way, “Every fat must stand upon his bottom.” A footnote gives playwright Charles Macklin credit for, “Every tub must stand upon its own bottom.”

In an Internet search, I was surprised to find the term “Every Tub on Its Own Bottom” used by the President of Harvard University to describe his philosophy of decentralized management. He used this colorful term to describe his budget and financial system whereby “decisions about resource allocation and management are best made by those most directly involved.”

“Every tub must sit on its own bottom” seems to be obvious. A tub can’t very well sit on another tub’s bottom. The meaning, of course, is that people have to be responsible for themselves. There are certain matters about which we must be independent. There are some things that no one else can do for us. We must take care of our own matters. We must sit on our own bottom.

The phrase popped into my mind as soon as I read our text for today. In it, Jesus tells a story about a large wedding with 10 bridesmaids. According to the customs of the day, there would be dancing and partying all day and into the night. After which, the bride would be escorted by her attendants to a place where the big wedding feast would be held. The ten attendants were to wait for the right moment and then light the way with their torches.

In those days, the wedding did not start until the groom arrived. It was the tradition in that culture for the groom intentionally to delay his arrival to keep the bride and her attendants waiting in suspense and anticipation. The time of his arrival was unknown.

The bridesmaids waited together. They all slept from time to time because they were exhausted from the activities of the day. According to Jesus’ story, five of the bridesmaids brought extra oil with them. They were wise because they had enough fuel to keep their torches burning. The other five were foolish because they were not prepared.

At midnight, a messenger announced the long-awaited arrival of the groom. The five foolish bridesmaids didn’t have enough oil for their lamps. So they asked the five who had come prepared to share their oil. But the prepared bridesmaids could not share their oil without running out of oil themselves. So the foolish five had to go back to town to buy more oil for their torches. Meanwhile, the five with torches burning went in with the groom to the great celebration. The door was shut behind them. When the other five returned, the groom didn’t recognize them. They are too late to be admitted.

This parable opens itself for many interpretations, but we must be careful which ones we choose. Back in the days when only young men prepared for pastoral ministry, a certain Dr. Eislen, president of Garrett Seminary, preached on this parable in chapel. When he reached the climax of his message, he yelled at his seminarians, “Young men, tell me, would you rather be in the light with the wise virgins, or out in the dark with the foolish virgins?” Such laughter arose that chapel was dismissed early that day!

Some people are disturbed by this parable because it is not like Jesus’ other parables. Many scholars dismiss this parable as not being an authentic teaching of Jesus, or suggest that it has been modified and has a new ending added. If you press the details, it presents many problems. In spite of its problems, I think we can find a meaning for us today.

The primary meaning of the parable centers around the importance of waiting. In the traditional allegorical interpretation of the parable, the bridegroom is Jesus, and the church is represented by the waiting maidens who are invited into the wedding feast. Since Matthew may have been written 50 years after the resurrection of Christ, the church was struggling with the extended time interval between the first coming and the second coming of Christ. Perhaps some were losing hope. Some suggest that Matthew uses this parable to remind the church that the end will come and it will come suddenly, but it may not necessarily come soon.

While verse 13 offers a concluding warning to “keep awake,” it is interesting to note that sleepiness is not the significant issue in this parable. All the bridesmaids fell asleep, but not all of them were prepared. The parable may be about having enough of what it takes to “hang in there” long enough to be ready to greet Jesus when he comes.

Waiting seems to be one of the central themes of the Christian life. After 2,000 years of waiting for the second coming of Christ, Christians should be experts at it. Just as we have to wait until that final denouement, we have to wait day by day for the presence of the Lord. Isaiah 40 reminds us,

“Those who wait for Yahweh will renew their strength.
They will mount up with wings like eagles.
They will run, and not be weary.
They will walk, and not faint.”

This emphasis on waiting reminds us that we are not always in control. Sometimes we want what we want, and we want it right now. But our relationship with God doesn’t always work that way. Jesus more often used agricultural metaphors for the kingdom than he did building metaphors. We can go out and build a house if we want, regardless of the weather or the time of year. But we can’t harvest corn any month we want. In agriculture, there is a time to plow and plant, but then we must wait until the harvest.

For some of us, waiting is very difficult. Perhaps it is especially difficult for us in a generation like ours with instant gratification and instant access. We are not used to waiting. We don’t like to wait in line, wait for the news, wait for the mail, wait for our food. But the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life emphasize waiting. We are to pray and meditate and wait. For those who “wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Perhaps you have seen people who are good at such waiting. They have amazing strength. People ask, “How did you do it?” “Where did you get all that strength?” “Why don’t you ever get discouraged?” “Why are you so hopeful about the future?” These are the people who know how to wait on God.

But I want to focus on another important lesson from our text. This parable reminds us that there are some things we can’t borrow. The maidens wanted to borrow oil, but could not. We can go next door and borrow an egg or a cup of sugar. We can borrow a drill or a saw. We can borrow a car or a tractor. But we can not borrow character or integrity. We can not borrow wisdom or selfless service. And we can not borrow a relationship with God.

Many people get bogged down at this point of the parable. They can’t help but focus on the fact that the wise virgins refused to share with the foolish virgins. This apparent lack of charity is offensive to those who remember that Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Jesus is normally the one who recommends sharing. If someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well. But in this story the bridegroom rewards those who refuse to share their oil. The unprepared virgins are left to fend for themselves.

We must remember that this is a parable, and we can’t press all the details of a parable. We must find the major lessons and move on. We have to see beyond the contradictions to the deeper meaning, and we all know that there are certain things which cannot be borrowed.

There are some things others can do for us. They can care. They can share some of their resources. They can encourage us and offer support and inspiration. But they cannot answer to God for us.

And we have the same limits on what we can do for others. We can’t make their spiritual choices. We can’t answer to God for them. We can’t do their spiritual maturing for them. Others have to work with God to cultivate and produce their own spiritual fruit.

I like William Barclay’s applications. He says,

“The foolish virgins found it impossible to borrow oil,
when they discovered they needed it.
A man cannot borrow a relationship with God;
he must possess it for himself.
A man cannot borrow a character;
he must be clothed with it.
We cannot always be living on the spiritual capital
which others have amassed.
There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves,
for we cannot borrow them from others.”

What William Barclay was saying was that every tub must sit on its own bottom! There are some things that no one else can do for us.

Every tub must sit on its own bottom regarding character. We build character over a life-time of decision-making. We have a choice of being narrow, negative, and nasty. Or we can be broad-minded, big-hearted, and brave. Day by day we build our own reputations and our character.

The two recently captured snipers have proven by their actions that they are ruthless killers. When they appear in a court of law, they may want to impress the jury. But they can’t suddenly borrow someone else’s kind reputation. Neither can we borrow character. Every tub must sit on its own bottom.

Every tub must sit on its own bottom regarding salvation. While it is a worthy thing for parents to bring their babies before the church for an infant dedication, the parents can’t make spiritual decisions for the child. No one can accept Christ for someone else’s salvation. Every tub must sit on its own bottom.

Some people may think they can get into heaven riding the coattails of another’s faith. Some think they are right with God because they were born into a Christian family. Some think because their parents are deacons, elders or ministers in the church, then they too will be all right. Some people say, “Well, I was born into the Disciples of Christ.” One might well retort, “If you were born in the back seat of a car, would that make you a Chevrolet?”

The Christian faith is more individual than that. Americans may have gone overboard on our emphasis on rugged individualism, but I believe the individual stands before God alone.

Today we have witnessed such an individual decision. When we baptized Taylor Chaney this morning, we baptized him because of his own decision. He was not baptized because his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were Christians. This was a decision he had to make for himself. He was baptized because he came before this congregation and proclaimed with his own lips, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Every tub must sit on its own bottom regarding salvation.

Every tub must sit on its own bottom regarding spiritual growth. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own spiritual growth. It’s not something God or other people can do for us. Not any of us can make another person grow spiritually.

I wish I could make others grow spiritually. Some people want to be spoon-fed their spiritual growth. I wish it was as simple as changing the oil in my automobile. Drain out the old contaminated oil, and pour in the new. Drain out the old sinful self, and pour in a loving, kind, gentle spirit just like that of Jesus. If it were that simple, church work would be the most rewarding of professions.

But in fact, no one can do it for another. The reason church work can be so frustrating is that one can preach and pray and work a lifetime and never see some people changed. That’s why preachers often have hobbies like carpentry. They are amazed when they can work one day and see a pile of wood change into a cabinet. They are not used to seeing change happen so quickly and easily.

In the spiritual life, change must come from within. And even when one finally decides they want to change, it doesn’t happen overnight. There are no shortcuts in the Christian life.

Spiritual growth requires exercising the disciplines of the Christian life. The Bible has a great power to change us, but only if we read it and study it and apply it to our lives. Prayer can bring a grace-filled life, but only if we dedicate the time and energy into it. Service to others has a transforming power, but only if we can look beyond our own selfishness long enough.

As we sat down for dinner here at church last Wednesday night, one of our members could not eat the pizza because of her new diet. She said, “I love that pizza so much, but now I can’t have any. I want you to eat a piece for me.” Well, I gladly obliged and ate two pieces just for her.

But we all laughed about the joke, because everyone knows no one can eat for another person. And no one can grow spiritually for another person either. Every tub must sit on its own bottom.

Jesus’ parable has a wonderful immediacy about it. Some of the women were wise and some were foolish. The story forces us to examine ourselves. Are we with the wise or the foolish? And remember, every tub must sit on its own bottom.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2002 Dr. Mickey Anders.  Used by permission.