Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Be prepared. Be ready. Don’t be caught with your pants down. A commercial for an insurance company not too long ago (in my adulthood) used the tagline “Life comes at you fast, be ready for it.” A child in a swing suddenly becomes an adult in a swing, barreling into the doting parent who pushed him in the swing only one frame before. Be ready for it.
Is this really what the kingdom of God is like? Is God really playing the game host who calls a random lucky contestant from the audience and offers her a hundred dollars for every stick of gum, hairpin, or geegaw she can find in her purse in the next 30 seconds? Or is this really a parable about death, which can come at any random and unexpected moment when God for some reason pulls the plug? I like this parable less and less as the years go by.
It has been said so much that it is trite and cliche: our kids live in an age of instant gratification. They wait for nothing. How are those who have never known any other age supposed to understand this parable? “Shame on you for not being able to wait: for sex, for the next season of XYZ, for the next edition of your favorite video game, for enough money to be saved….” We can rant all we want, but we might as well try to teach the proverbial pig to sing. We can’t wait to shop Black Friday, to set up Christmas trees and lights, to sing Christmas carols in church, to find out whether it’s a boy or girl, or even to plan our own funeral, estate, or retirement. Don’t deceive yourself: it’s not just the latest generation’s failing. From now until December 21 preachers will engage in the annual rant about Christmas invading Advent, against the culture of instant gratification, commercialization of Christmas, and consumer excess. So how’s that working for you?
It’s unfair to scold the “foolish” bridesmaids for thinking the bridegroom should be on time for his own wedding, don’t you think? It’s unfair to praise the “wise” bridesmaids for hoarding in preparation for the bridegroom’s non-chalant appearance and then refusing to share with those who ran out. Why aren’t we picking on the bridegroom for caring so little about his own wedding and the guests that he shows up to it as a seeming afterthought? I have more respect for the foolish bridesmaids who don’t waste their resources preparing for every possible contingency, including the unbelievable bridegroom who has to take time to either conduct his business or party with friends before coming to the wedding and attending to his guests.
As the millenial year approached, and the overblown threat of the “y2K bug” induced widespread panic, a member of my congregation came to me and asked if the church should be stockpiling essentials just in case. Some churches were even stockpiling guns to prepare for the inevitable social chaos about to happen. I think that is the time when Costco and Sam’s started offering “1 Year Survival Packages”–everything a person might need to sustain one year hunkered down. I preached soon after and asked the congregation, “How many of you have ever had to pump water?” Most of the hands in the congregation went up. “How many of you have ever had to cut wood?” Many hands went up. “How many of you have ever lived without a telephone?” Many hands went up. You have already done harder things in your life than many people can even imagine. Between now and January 1 someone is making money because they can scare you into thinking the end of the world is about to happen. After January 1, money is going to be lost for every second that you do not have electricity and all you are now accustomed to in your life. How fast do you think they are going to be working to get it back? You have already seen far worse in your life, and lived to tell me the stories, than you are possibly going to see on January 1. Don’t let fear win.”
I’m just not so sure those wise bridesmaids are as wise or faithful as we’ve been led to believe.
I struggle mightily with my need to be in control of my life. I’ve been taught good skills that help me manage and control: my money, my time, my goals, education, etc. etc. etc. Do this–and that will happen. Don’t do that, and terrible things happen. Therefore, when terrible things happen, somehow I have lost control or botched up.
But what happens when I do everything any reasonable person would do–like the foolish bridesmaid–and wind up holding a handbasket and wondering why it’s getting so hot in here, or wondering why I’m on this side of the door and the party is happening on the other side? Are these just desserts?
We live in times when we have so much capability to control, manage, plan, cure, train….we live in a lie. We call it “birth control.” That’s a lie. We do not control birth, any more than we control death. We can mitigate it, but even the most effective is only 98% reliable if practiced perfectly. We can control how NOT to get pregnant (abstinence is also pretty reliable, with one certain birth the exception)….but getting pregnant and staying pregnant are infinitely more difficult with much longer odds against us. There are other lies. “If you study hard and get good grades, you will go to college and have a good life.” That might have worked for some, but a lot of really smart kids and who worked very hard and got through college are working minimum wage jobs trying to pay off college debt. A bunch more are postponing growing up or going to college altogether, preferring to wait it out and see if the world changes. We can control so much of our lives, that we believe we ARE in control. And if we’re not?
Control is a myth. The foolish bridesmaids were no more in control of the oil supply than the wise ones thought they were. What would have happened to those wise bridesmaids if the groom had been a responsible kind of chap and showed up on time? How much of their resources had they spent to hoard all that oil, and wouldn’t they just be broke and unable to buy groceries the week after the party? How smart is that? Add to that the consequences of treating the five needy bridesmaids so badly that generations of enmity would persist with the memory of the ordeal?
This parable takes me to all kinds of dark rabbit holes, none leading to more light and even less hope. I do not know how to be prepared for every possible turn and twist in the road. I can turn the headlights on, but I can’t account for the random deer, possum or raccoon jumping in front of me. I can drive the speed limit and avoid distracting behaviors, but I can’t account for the driver who doesn’t, who crosses the yellow line, or brakes suddenly in front of me. The amount of anxiety required to live in a state of perpetual “readiness” is self-destructive. The only behavior I can control is my own, and I’m not always reliable doing even that. (St. Paul had this problem too. “The good I wish to do, I do not do; the evil I despise, I do.”) I can honestly say that at this point in my life, this parable standing alone isn’t working very well for me. How’s it working for you?
I’ve given up the Advent rant in which preachers indulge themselves this time of year. It comes across as self-righteousness and hypocrisy, as though WE can stand apart and aloof from all these things. Even though I won’t be caught putting my Christmas tree up for Thanksgiving, Christmas music is leaking from my computer at this very moment. When people start asking, “Are you ready for Christmas yet?” I will jump into the pity party and ain’t it awful pool with the rest of them. There is even a Wikipedia article titles” How to Get Ready for Christmas” (http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Ready-for-Christmas) Am I ready? Prepared? Even if the bridegroom shows himself to be a jerk? No. I’m not. While I might seem pious with starting my family’s Christmas celebration ON Christmas day, it might really just be a case of not being able to get it together any sooner than Christmas day!
How can a person possibly by ready for what they don’t know to expect? For what they don’t know could happen to them? (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! –Monty Python) Who plans to have breast cancer? to lose a son to suicide? to deal with mental illness? to lose everything in an economic turndown? Truthfully? No one.
So this is where we just have to pick up Matthew and keep reading. In just a few verses more, (Matthew 25:31-45) Jesus will pull together all the weeping and gnashing of teeth and eternal punishments. “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” And then Jesus tells the opposite tale, of those who did not give to the least of these, and consigns them to the eternal punishments.
HA! So maybe those wise bridesmaids are only wise as the world believes, just as I thought! Maybe Jesus is the fool, the crazy, irrationally in love fool who is about to hand himself over for the sake of the world. Maybe wisdom, in the kingdom of God, looks more like foolishness! Maybe wisdom, in the ways of the world, fails in the last judgment when we ask Jesus “So when did we see you hungry, thirsty, in prison, out of oil? When did we fall asleep on our watch, while you prayed your heart out in the terror of impending death? When did we, Jesus?”
Don’t buy the lie. We can’t be ready and prepared for every possibility. We can’t know every future. First commandment alert: The Job of God is Already Taken, and it’s NOT yours. Don’t buy the lie. If your life seems to flap like a sheet in the wind, barely anchored, hoarding and consuming and planning and fretting will not anchor it more. The job of God is Already Taken, and it’s NOT yours.
The truth is, the only faithful way to wait is feeding the hungry, giving a cup of cold water to the thirsty one who asks, visiting the prisoner, sharing our abundance, and loving one another with compassion as though each were Christ. Doing that could cost you everything in terms of the world’s wisdom, but be a real taste of heaven in Jesus’ terms. Like this guy, my hero in a week of few heroes: