Be prepared

It's easy to read the parable of the ten virgins as a tribute to two core American values: individualism and meritocracy.

imagines the kingdom of heaven like this: "I got mine," the five wise
virgins say to the foolish ones, "so you get your own." That sounds like
our culture, which encourages us to "look out for number one." Hearing
the parable this way affirms a selfish individualism, rather than the
mind of Christ—who came to seek the lost, to serve the neighbor, to lay
down his life for his friends.

Meritocracy imagines the kingdom
of heaven like this: "Everybody finally gets what they deserve. The wise
virgins looked out for number one and earned their delight by being
prepared. The foolish virgins, who played when they should have been
working, deserved their despair." That sounds like our culture's
approbation of ingenuity and effort, but it doesn't sound like the
kingdom of God. The password for entrance into the kingdom has never
been "try harder," and the kingdom's economy has never been one of
scarcity ("If I share with you, I won't have enough"). Instead, the
kingdom of heaven is about an abundance, given to all.

So how
might we read the parable as Christians called to serve, love and give?
First, as a warning against distraction and a call to attentiveness.
"Keep awake" is the repeated refrain of Matthew 24, as well as the
parable's exclamation point in chapter 25. "Keep awake"—be prepared.
Don't lose focus or lose heart. This points in the direction not of
scarcity but rather of receiving the urgent call of the kingdom, of living in the now and the not yet.

is a warning and an exhortation made necessary by waiting. The
bridegroom was delayed, is delayed still. We've been waiting a long time
for the coming of the kingdom and the return of our king. Sustaining
hope for the long haul is difficult in a culture saturated with sound
bites, permeated with possibilities, awash in advertising. The real
enemy of our hope in Christ isn't despair or disappointment but
dissipation, distraction and drowsiness. Keep awake! For it is only in
wakefulness that we receive God's good gifts in the now and prepare for
the not yet.

This is what we seek to hear, time after time. Not a
new word from God, but Christ's consistent word of warning: Stay awake!
Don't lose heart; don't lose faith; don't lose hope. Stay awake,
because the best is yet to come.

Biblical warnings are
consistently tied to promises, and here the promise is simple: Christ
will come. We know neither the day nor the hour, but the promise's
emphasis is not on knowing. Nor is it on scarcity or individualism or
merit. The emphasis is on preparation. The oil in this story is akin to the oil placed on the forehead of the priests, the oil with which we anoint one another, preparing one another for our priestly call. This oil is a gift, given to each, and represents the abundant promises of God.

so we don't sleep. We pay attention. We live, love and serve in the
expectation that Christ will come. Later in Matthew 25, Jesus tells us
exactly what this paying attention looks like. It is feeding the hungry,
clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and those
in prison. And the kingdom of heaven will be like this: a wedding
banquet, a feast with our Lord, the entrance into eternal life. Who
could sleep through that? Thanks be to God.

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