We prepare for things we really care about; we anticipate things that are important to us. This was the point of Christ’s parable about ten bridesmaids. (Matthew 25:1-13)
People who really care about hunting make careful preparations for the season and anticipate opening day. Those who care about Green Bay Packers football look forward to game-day, plan for special food to eat, and set aside normal activities to watch them play. And, of course, weddings are events which take lots of preparation because families care about the upcoming marriage. Since I have raised three girls, I can testify first-hand that wedding plans begin in third grade for many females.
Some folks show up to things late and unprepared because they simply do not value the event enough to be ready for it. Casual hunters and fair-weather football fans go home when it gets too cold because they are not adequately prepared for the conditions. Quickie weddings happen in Las Vegas when two people are not prepared to have a marriage for a lifetime. People drop out of impromptu events when there is no fun or gets too hard. However, if they really care about it, they prepare for it, have patience through it, and persevere in it when things get tough.
The true test of authentic commitment comes when things are not easy and it takes blood, sweat, and tears to see something through. A Christian is one who professes Christ as Lord and Savior, and backs the words up with a resolve to live into their baptism; to avail themselves of Holy Communion; to plan and prepare for both personal and public worship; and to make it their aim to love God, one another, and neighbor.
There are few human events more freighted with emotion and preparation than weddings. Parents invest a lot of time, energy, resources, and love to have a meaningful wedding for their kids. There is also the potential for disaster at a wedding. Since I have done my share of weddings, I can tell you that a lot of things go sideways in the preparation process and even at the wedding itself. I have seen bridesmaids pass out, grooms forget the ring, and families fight like cats and dogs in the narthex just as the bride is ready to come down the aisle. All kinds of crazy stuff can happen with a wedding.
At my own wedding, the bridesmaids were literally sown into their dresses by the seamstress just hours before the wedding; one of my groomsman did not show up because, I later found out, he was in jail; and, we were married on the hottest and most humid day of the year – 100 degrees – which did not go so well for a bunch of women trying to have their best ever hair day.
Yet, we got married anyway. The wedding happened because it was important to us. I think it is interesting that Jesus chose to tell a parable using a wedding to tell us what the kingdom of God is like. Weddings in Christ’s day were just as prone to mishap, maybe even more so, than weddings today.
In ancient Israel, a couple would become engaged but not set a wedding date. The groom took the time to busily prepare a home for himself and his bride to live. It might take days, or weeks, or months, even years. It is this imagery that Jesus picked up to communicate his point of being prepared for things we care about.
No one knew when the groom would be finished with preparations. (Note: Jesus the bridegroom is busy making preparations for a great wedding feast at the end of the age when he will come back and take us to be with him forever, John 14:1-4). When the groom was ready, he left the home he had prepared and went to the bride’s house. Then, the two of them, along with their wedding party, would have a grand procession through the streets of the town, almost always after dark, and then back to the home of the groom. So, oil lamps were important to have ready and on standby.
Here is the parable of the bridesmaid’s setting: The groom has left his house and begun his trek through town. He might come right away, and he might not, depending on what route he takes. The bridesmaids (or virgins) have their oil lamps ready. Five of them have plenty of oil, and five of them do not. The groom took a circuitous route, so the virgins fell asleep waiting. At midnight, the groom finally showed up at the bride’s house. Five virgins were ready and five were not ready.
The five bridesmaids without enough oil went to find or buy some more, while the five virgins with plenty of oil joined the celebration. The procession returned to the groom’s house, posthaste, before the five bridesmaids who were not part of the procession finally caught up to them at the house. They knocked on the door and expected to get in. But the door was shut and was not going to be opened. The marriage happened without them.
Bottom line of the story: The five foolish bridesmaids were not ready because they did not care enough to be prepared. This, at face value, might seem harsh. Yet, in Christ’s time, not having the oil needed for the lamps would be akin, in our day, to half the bridesmaids showing up at the wedding at the last minute in jeans and t-shirts without having done their hair and expecting to stand up with the bride. No bride or groom and their family in our culture is going to roll with that kind of behavior because it is deeply offensive.
As in all of Christ’s parables, the characters represent the people listening. The five wise and five foolish bridesmaids point to the various characters who were following Jesus. Those folks consisted of both faithful disciples of Jesus, as well as wedding crashers who were not there because they valued and respected Jesus.
Jesus told us to keep watch, because we do not know the day or the hour when he will return. So, the big question for every professing believer in Jesus is: Are you prepared? We are to maintain constant vigilance, being always alert for Jesus to show up. It is one thing to profess Christ; it is quite another thing to live each day doing God’s will and being prepared for Jesus to return. In short, Jesus wants more than fair-weather Christians.
We cannot assume someone else will give us oil, or simply rely on another person to have everything we need to live the Christian life. Each one of us must listen and learn from God’s Word for ourselves; cultivate a life of prayer; serve the church and the world in ways God has called us to, without relying on someone else to do the work I should be doing.
For those whom Jesus is the most important person in their lives, you will see preparations to serve him every day. It is my personal practice to rise each morning by 5:00am. I light a candle and spend some quiet unhindered time reading Scripture, reflecting on it, and praying. Throughout the day I pause to intentionally connect with God in prayer and worship (Yes, even a Pastor must do this!).
I get up early in the morning regardless of how I feel. I engage in spiritual disciplines even when it does not strike my fancy. I go to work and do what it takes to get myself in a position to be a blessing to others, despite the times when I am less than 100%. I do it because God has called me, and I care about that.
Let us come back to Christ’s message of the parable: We prepare for things we really care about, and we anticipate things that are important to us. For the first three hundred years of the church, believers in Jesus met in cramped places with few resources other than the Holy Spirit of God. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, everything literally changed overnight. Emperor Constantine built St. Peter’s Basilica and instituted state-funded support for bishops. Suddenly, Christianity was cool. At this point, the church began a moral and spiritual slide into worldliness and decadence.
It seems throughout the history of Christianity that the church flourishes most when it is under some sort of persecution or adversity. And when it is not, it flounders and lapses into worldliness. Sometimes, the primary values and goals of Christians are ensuring that we get our way through politicians, as if our hope is ultimately tied to political elections. Instead, our goal must be to live for Jesus, no matter the circumstances. In fact, the church’s faith grows more genuine when it is proven through great trials.
The return of Jesus is a future reality which needs to be constantly on our spiritual radars. Jesus wants us to watch and pray, to be prepared, because it could be today that the bridegroom shows up at our house!