I was a Boy Scout for a while…until I realized that none of the cool kids were Boy Scouts. As soon as I figured out that it wasn’t “cool” to be in the Boy Scouts, I quit to try to jump start my social life. It turned out, of course, that my social problems weren’t the Boy Scouts’ fault. It had more to do with the glasses and the braces and the paralyzing fear of talking to…well, pretty much anyone. Despite my de-connection with the Boy Scouts, the motto pops into my head all the time: “Be prepared.” Recently, I was reminded of this motto while reading the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13).
You know the story: It’s about bridesmaids who aren’t prepared—who let their lamps run out of oil—and who are therefore denied entry into the wedding feast. The groom says to them as they knock on the door, imploring to be let in to the party, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Then we get Jesus’ admonishing words: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This should be the official Boy Scout parable, right? “Don’t be foolish…be prepared!” This exhortation to a “baptized preparedness” is a little scarier than the Boy Scout version, because when a Christian says “Be prepared,” he or she usually means “Be good,” right? Get your affairs—your life—in order so that when Jesus comes back, you’re ready. “Don’t be lost when the time comes!” preaches James Brown in The Blues Brothers. “Don’t be lost when the time comes! For the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night!” Get ready! Fix yourself so that when Jesus arrives, he looks at you and is pleased to invite you into his party!
This kind of story naturally appeals to us. It makes sense. The bridesmaids who were prepared get rewarded, and the bridesmaids who were unprepared get punished. I can hear my Christian friends now: “How is your walk with Christ going?” Are you on the path that God has prepared for you? Are you a wise bridesmaid? Are you going to be ready to welcome Christ when he returns? Or are you a foolish bridesmaid, about to get caught out as unprepared, unrighteous—unworthy—and risking being left out of the party for all eternity?
You know who the wise bridesmaids are. They’re the children who remember to call their parents on their anniversary. The woman in your Bible study who always asks the deep questions. The siblings who have successful and mutually supportive relationships with each other. The man who says that he needs to pray about an important decision and actually seems to mean it. The parents who seem to be able to balance the needs of their children and their need to have a well-rounded social life. You know, all the people we hate.
We hate these people—the people who seem to have it all together—because they are making it obvious that we are the foolish bridesmaids. Their goodness serves to highlight our badness.
And, annoyingly, this parable seems to be on the side of the hated good Christians! It’s on the side of the goody-two-shoes kids who seem to have great relationships with their parents and their siblings, and who get voted class president. It’s on the side of the people who seem to be really good at their jobs and live a relatively stress-free life. It’s on the side of the Bible-readers, the quiet-time-havers, and the prayer warriors. They get in to the party!
But what about me? And you? What about us foolish bridesmaids?
There’s good news for us. See, we assume that this parable is about getting Christians to ask themselves, “How can I make sure that I always have enough oil?” when the parable is really about a different question altogether. It’s about Christians asking themselves, “What do I do when I realize my lamp is empty?”
If someone came running into my room right now shouting that Jesus was arriving, riding on the clouds, the thoughts that would run through my mind would not be thoughts of joy at the coming of my Lord, but thoughts of panic at my unpreparedness. “Oh no! I haven’t had time to reconcile that broken relationship! Not now! I’m still a failure at the office and a poor provider for my family! Can I have some more time to memorize the Psalms?” It’s like Tenessee Ernie Ford says, “You load sixteen tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt / Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”
Jesus, don’t come back now, I still owe my soul to the company store! When the foolish bridesmaids hear that the bridegroom is returning, they flip out, and try desperately to get ready.
To illustrate this desperation, here’s a short excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s amazing book The Right Stuff, which tells the story of the American space program, which started as an outgrowth of the Air Force test pilot program at Edwards Air Base in the deserts of California in the early 1950s. These pilots would test new planes, some of which worked well, and some of which didn’t. For a sobering frame of reference, in 1952 alone, 62 Air Force pilots were killed in 36 weeks of training. Here’s Wolfe:
In those planes, which were like chimneys with little razor-blade wings on them, you had to be “afraid to panic,” and that phrase was no joke. In the skids, the tumbles, the spins, there was, truly, only one thing you could let yourself think about: What do I do next? Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, with all the aerodynamics long gone, and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff.
This is the foolish bridesmaids, and this is us. “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” “Where can I find some oil!” “What else can I do to become the kind of person who is worthy of entry into the wedding feast?” And just like those early test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, we’re screaming into that microphone right up until we plow into the ground. We miss the bridegroom’s arrival because we had our heads buried in our control panel, trying to save ourselves.
The other pilots thought it was a sign of “the right stuff” that the dying pilot never cried out for Mother or for God. But make no mistake: that’s the wrong stuff. That kind of stuff only ever ends with smoking craters in the ground. Self-salvation projects always end in death.
Here’s the bad news: We are the unprepared bridesmaids, rushing out to try to make everything right as the bridegroom approaches. We are the test pilots, screaming into the microphone, desperately begging for one more thing to try. This, really, is the essence of so much of our lives as Christians, isn’t it? More accurately, this is how all people live their lives. Pressure comes from somewhere, and we freak out, and try to make it right. We try to save ourselves. And that tendency toward self-salvation, that need we find in ourselves to make things right, is what Jesus is talking about in this parable. It’s not about the forethought of the wise bridesmaids, or even about that laissez-faire attitude of the foolish bridesmaids. What it’s really about is how we act when we get caught out. When we’re unprepared and the moment comes.
When that test pilot is plummeting back to earth, he shouldn’t be calling out to ground control, he should call out to God! What if, when the bridegroom arrived, the bridesmaids had simply said, “Master, we love you, and we waited for you. We’re unprepared, we’re foolish, and we’re sorry.” This bridegroom, our bridegroom, Jesus Christ the righteous, has a ready answer for that. He said it to the thief on the cross, and it is the Good News: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Or in other words, “I forgive you. Come inside to the party.” So instead of crying out “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” we cry out “Jesus! Remember me when you come into your kingdom!” The tragedy of the parable Jesus tells is that when the bridegroom arrives, the foolish bridesmaids aren’t even there. And that is their true foolishness. They didn’t trust in the goodness of the bridegroom. They were so worried about their unpreparedness and so busy trying to save themselves that they missed his coming entirely.
When God comes—whether in the flesh at the end of days or in spirit into your heart during lunch—you’ll want to freak out. You’ll feel unprepared and foolish. But don’t worry about making things right. That’s his job. And he has done it. Just confess, “I’m a foolish bridesmaid,” and do nothing. He’ll say what he always says, what he said on the cross 2,000 years ago and what he said before the foundation of the world: “It is finished. Today you are with me in paradise.”