Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Silly Virgins

I was reading Matthew 25:1-13 (the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins) this morning and couldn't help thinking about retirement, again:

"Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, "Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!" Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out." But the wise answered, saying, "What if there isn't enough for us and you? You go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves." While they went away to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins also came, saying, "Lord, Lord, open to us." But he answered, "Most certainly I tell you, I don't know you." Watch therefore, for you don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."


Now I know this parable is more eschatological than financial, but I can't help drawing similarities between the virgins and our economic climate here in the States.

For example, a recent survey released by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 54 percent of American workers have saved less than $25,000 for retirement, with half of those people saying they had less than $1,000 saved for retirement. Yet, nearly a third of those who say they have virtually nothing set aside say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident that they will have enough money for a comfortable retirement.

I'm sure the foolish virgins thought they had enough oil. But the fact of the matter is, they didn't. That was the reality of the situation. I'm sure they were thinking in the back of their minds, 'those other virgins will hook us up if we run out,' or 'we'll be fine.' They weren't thinking about the future. The most shocking thing to me, though, is that the wise virgins weren't exactly charitable with their extra oil. They claimed there wasn't enough for the both of them--in the face of dire need, they didn't give.

Now, anything can happen. The wise virgins could have tripped on the way and spilled all their oil reserves. The would still be wise, but also unlucky--the door would have shut on both sets of virgins. Same thing with people's finances. Some people encounter illness, natural disaster, bad stocks, unexpected unemployment, what have you, and lose it all. They may have been saving all their lives and have nothing to show for it through no fault of their own. These people aren't foolish, just unlucky. I'm not talking about these people.

Also, if you're a life-long minimum wage worker, chances are you're not going to be banking six figures for the future. You're barely making ends meet as it is. There are rare exceptions (Oseola McCarty, the Missisissippi washer-woman who donated the $150,000 she had saved washing dirty underpants for 60+ years to the University of Southern Mississippi). But I'm not really talking about these people either.

I'm talking about the truly foolish, the grasshoppers of the world (as in, Aesop's Ant and the Grasshopper) who don't plan for the future but are only concerned about today. The ones who cash out their 401k to buy a boat, wanted a huge house they couldn't afford long-term, or whatever.

Now, the wise virgins brought some extra oil, but its not like they brought barrels full of it. They probably brought enough that they could carry. What if the bridegroom took even longer than both groups anticipated and even their extra oil ran out? Would they be foolish too? Or, again, just unlucky? Retirement is kind of similar...you don't know how long you are going to live, so you do your best to balance your present-day needs with your anticipated future needs.

I really don't know where I'm going with all this, and don't want to come across as self-righteous. But if people are going to continue to not save adequately for their future in this country, there's going to be a lot of need in the days to come--a financial famine, so to speak. I think we're all going to feel the consequences of this lack of planning, some more than others. And those who have been diligent and financially wise are going to be faced with a choice--do you give (assuming people ask for help, that is), or do you let the grasshoppers be shut out? Does that make you an uncharitable person, or, like the virgins, simply holding people responsible for their actions, ie, their lack of planning?

As always, I don't know the answer, just asking the questions...

1 comment:

Michelle's Spell said...

Hi Rob,

Happy new year! Will you email me your adress so I can send you my new book (mbrooks7@juno.com)? Excellent points in this post!