Are you awake?
That’s the question I asked you almost a year ago, on the first Sunday of Advent.
During this past church year, we have been reading through Matthew’s gospel (a little out of order). Our very first Matthew reading came from the end of chapter 24, and now, today on this third-to-last Sunday in the church year, we hear the continuation of that reading in Matthew 25. That reading and this one are part of a long speech Jesus delivers about his second coming.
In this reading Jesus tells us a parable about 10 bridesmaids who are preparing to meet a bridegroom before a wedding feast. We are told that five are wise and five are foolish. They all grab their lanterns and walk out into the dark to wait for the bridegroom to arrive. Time passes and it grows later and later. Before long, all of the women have fallen asleep. Soon, however, they awake to the sound of a voice shouting, “The bridegroom is coming!” The women look at their lamps and see that they have run low. The wise bridegrooms have thought ahead, bringing extra oil along with them. The other five, however, did not. Apparently, it never occurred to them that the bridegroom could be delayed.
The five foolish bridesmaids ask the five wise for some of their oil, but the five wise say there would not be enough to share. So the five foolish run out to their local 24-hour convenience store and get more oil. However, by the time they fill their lamps and rush back to the wedding feast, the groom and the other five bridesmaids have already entered the house. The bridesmaids knock on the door and the groom answers. “Lord, we’re here now!” They say, a little exasperated but relieved to have made it.
But then the groom replies, “I’m sorry. I don’t know you.” And he closes the door.
Jesus sums up his parable with his famous line: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In light of the events of the parable, “keep awake” seems like the wrong moral to the parable, doesn’t it? You will note, if you go back to verse 5, that Jesus says the bridegroom was delayed, and all of the bridesmaids became drowsy and slept. All of them. Not just the foolish ones. All of them. How can the whole point of the parable be “keep awake” if even the wise ones fall asleep?
The Greek word for “awake” here can also sometimes be translated as “prepared” and that makes more sense here. The problem is not that the bridesmaids fell asleep; it’s that some of them weren’t prepared for the bridegroom to be delayed. They ran out of oil and had to go get more; and in doing so they missed the arrival of the bridegroom. So perhaps the question we should be asking is not “are you awake?” but “are you prepared?” or better yet, “are you ready?”
Whenever I read passages like this one my mind immediately jumps ahead to Jesus’ second coming and the end of this age as we know it. I start thinking about divine judgment, who’s in and who’s out, what Jesus’ second coming will be like, what life in the resurrection will be like. In short, I start thinking about the future.
But when I think that way, I fall into the same trap that the foolish bridesmaids fall into. Yes, Jesus is talking about the future, about his eventual return, but he does so in order to have an effect on us here in the present. Unlike the wise bridesmaids, the foolish bridesmaids were so focused on the future arrival of the bridegroom that they didn’t do anything in the present to prepare for his arrival. They thought the bridegroom was right around the corner, but when the bridegroom was delayed, they got into trouble. Jesus tells us this parable not so that we will start daydreaming about our lives after he returns, but so that we will take a good hard look at our lives here and now in the present.
The problem of this parable is preparedness. So how exactly do we prepare here and now for Jesus’ second coming? The simple answer, it seems, is: be wise and not foolish.
But what exactly does it mean to be wise or foolish? This is not the first time those words show up in Matthew’s gospel. The last thing that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is that the wise will obey his teachings and the foolish will ignore them (Matt. 7:24-26). So if we desire Matthew’s definition of wisdom, we need only read through the Sermon on the Mount.
Wisdom, for Jesus, is loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself; it’s giving money to the poor, caring for the widow, and tending to the orphan; it’s loving your enemy and praying for your persecutors; it’s turning the other cheek and going the extra mile; it’s remaining faithful to the commitments you make; it’s telling the truth; it’s refusing to fall victim to the corrupting power of wealth; it’s praying to God; it’s trusting in God; it’s bearing good fruit; in short—it’s living as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
When we read passages like this one it’s really easy to starting thinking ahead to some future when Jesus returns. But that’s not what Jesus wants us to do. Instead of thinking about the future, Jesus wants us to think about the present. We look forward to the day when the Kingdom of God will come, but we do that by living as though the Kingdom of God were already here. It’s good to look forward in hope to the day when the world will be at peace and evil will be no more; but we’re not called just to daydream about that day. We’re called to live as though it were already here by working toward peace and goodness.
The problem with the foolish bridesmaids is that they weren’t in it for the long haul. In their excitement they thought for sure the bridegroom would arrive soon. Here we are almost 2000 years after Jesus’ ascension into the heaven, and he still hasn’t come back. We are in this for the long haul, too. Maybe Jesus will come in your lifetime, maybe he won’t. But actually, whenever he comes is beside the point. The point is that we should be living each and every day as though Jesus were coming now, as though the Kingdom were already here.
To be prepared for Jesus’ second coming is simply to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. Faithful disciples of Jesus do not worry about when Jesus will come back; instead they live like Jesus has already returned, like the Kingdom has already come. So let’s stop daydreaming about the future, and let’s live the Kingdom here and now. Let’s be like those wise bridesmaids, and bring a little extra oil for the road.
Are you ready?