“Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” is a spiritual based on Matthew 25:1-13. Like most spirituals, it has an uncertain history; but it certainly can be traced back through various blues singers and recordings into the slave experience where is was used as a work song, but also a way of hoping for something better. It was a flame around which an oppressed community gathered to keep their spirits warm and have a sense of place in a dark and scary world of pain and suffering. It was a simple song, sung by workers able to keep their minds on their tasks and yet be transported into another reality, another kingdom.
Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / keep your lamps trimmed and burning / See what the Lord has done.
Actually, there is some divergence on that last line. The oldest recording of the song ends with “See what the Lord has done.” It was sung by Blind Willie Johnson, a popular blues singer of the early twentieth century. His plaintive tenor voice seemed to be calling us to pay attention to what God is doing among us every moment of the day. It was a call to keep awake, as Jesus tells us. But the call was not simply for what is not yet here, but what surrounds us already.
A few years later, the Rev. Gary Davis, another blues singer and preacher, recorded the song and changed the last line to “for the world’s about to end.” Rev. Gary was singing a warning about the coming kingdom, that the promised return of our Lord is on the horizon. He wanted to remind us that what we see and what we experience, for good or for ill, is not all there is. There is more, something more, another world, another reality into which we lean, even as we live and work in this reality. There is a destination to our history, a culmination of all that we are becoming. It doesn’t have to be a threat; it could be a promise, a hope. One can imagine a slave singing of another world, knowing that the scars he bore did not define him; the chains he wore did not determine the shape of his life; the name he was given to live in the white man’s world wasn’t the name written in the book of life for him. And one day, one blessed day, the tears would end and life, promised abundant life, would begin.
Some of the oldest reports of this song being sung in the fields have yet another ending to the verse. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning / for the work is almost done. The work. Or sometimes your work. Your work is almost done. Soon I can lay down this hoe; soon I can set aside this shovel, lay down my pen, and enter into the blessed rest of the savior. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.
Sometimes it seems Jesus tells a story just to confuse us. It’s like he wants us to work on something, to work out something. We’d rather he would just hand it out on a silver platter, wrapped up in an easily opened package that makes things easy for us. But no, a story, about . . . what? Weddings and lamps and oil and an odd celebration of selfishness? Something is not right here.
Of all the images Jesus uses to help us grab hold of the kin-dom of God or of the kin-dom of heaven, which is Matthew’s preference, this is the only one where the future tense is used. The kin-dom will be like this. Why is that? Aren’t the others future-oriented too? Well, yes and no. There is something unique about this one. Perhaps if we heard entering the kin-dom of heaven will be like this, we might understand the whole story a little bit better. The approach of the kin-dom of Heaven will be like this.
Jesus loved weddings. He used the image for talking about the kin-dom often. Jesus often spoke about parties and feasts and especially weddings. Because something special is happening there— a binding, a connecting, a covenant, and a vow. And a whopping great party. What better description is there for this new world, this new life? A party of inclusion and invitation. Y’all come. Right?
Why then the lamps? Why then wise and foolish? And aren’t we supposed to share, even when we don’t have enough ourselves? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Why do we call the ones who won’t share wise? OK, every metaphor has its limits. Or rather we’re victims of crashing metaphors in this story. Go back to the Sermon on the Mount, on the other end of Matthew’s Gospel. “You are the light of the world . . . let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your light and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14-16). Remember? The light, the lamp, is not just an object of illumination; it represents a life of service and sacrifice. It represents a life transformed by faith in Jesus, by the grace of God. The wise bridesmaids lived a life of preparing for the Bridegroom; the foolish ones thought it didn’t matter until the last minute. When he finally arrives, they have nothing to show that they belong to him, nothing to shine as a way of living and giving and caring and hoping. He says, “I don’t know you.”
Remember, unlike the Sermon on the Mount, which is for everyone, this is insider talk in chapter 25. This is the sign that you’ve been paying attention. This is for those who said yes some time ago and now they need to show a “yes-worthy” life. The wise bridesmaids didn’t share their oil because they couldn’t. You can’t share acts of love. Each has to do her own. Each has to participate according to the grace given her, to use the gifts received. I can’t ride your coattails into the kin-dom; you can’t let my lamp light your way. That’s just not how it works. Certainly, we can share; certainly, we can teach and mentor; and certainly, we are better together than any of us is alone. But in the end, we have to trim our own lamps; we have to burn our own oil. That is the work — the work that is almost done. We listen for the shout at midnight that will recognize Christ among us. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning; the work is almost done. Thanks be to God.