Isn’t that the Boy Scout motto? When I was a kid, I never quite understood the Boy Scouts. In fact, I never saw that many of them. When you live in the country, there is no need to get all excited about going to the country to spend a night in a tent. Camping trips and learning how to start a fire and those other supposed skills that Scouts were taught were not a big deal when you lived a life of making do all the time with what you had. The only school activity we had was 4-H, part of the Agricultural Extension Service. It taught country kids how to be better country kids. If you had gone to the south side of my county, there would have been competition with the FFH, Future Farmers of America. Outside of that, nada. As a result, I altogether missed Boy Scouting.
Be prepared puts up some high barriers. It means making nothing less than very good decisions in advance, which is not how most of us live our lives. It just might not be attainable. Not recognizing the realities of life is the common currency for most of us. We tend to reflect on what we should have done, not what we might do. Car accidents are a good example. It is only in hindsight that we can rationally determine what we should have done.
With that understanding in mind, I want us to take a fresh look at today’s gospel lesson. The parable of the ten bridesmaids has long been used, I think, to encourage perfectionism, to turn that secular motto of “Be prepared” into a religious admonition. The assumed moral from such a traditional interpretation? Make certain we are prepared, do everything right, and if we do so, then God will bless us. It has certainly made for many a sermon in the history of Christianity.
But let’s dig into the parable a bit more. The kingdom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids. Five bridesmaids may be foolish and five may be wise, but not for the reasons we expect from our human point of view. First, there is no big difference in who they are as people; Jesus says that the kingdom is like all ten of them, and the common denominators among all of them is that they show up for the party and every last one of them falls asleep as they wait for the bridegroom. From either an earlier lack of sleep or from drinking too much, we do not know. The ending of the parable, that we are to keep awake, reinforces the idea that when it comes to virtue, all these women are on the losing side. That is strike one against preparation and perfection as prerequisites to getting into the kingdom. None of those ten bridesmaids meets Jesus’ test.
Strike two is the fact that, cultural assumptions aside about wedding banquets in first century Palestine, nowhere in the parable does it state that any of the bridesmaids are initially denied entrance because their lamps are not brightly burning and filled with oil. Looking good at what you do only starts to happen when the TV cameras come on, so to speak. The foolish bridesmaids are concerned with appearances. When those cameras start rolling, they apparently will settle for nothing other than perfection, perhaps because they want to be the light of or the life of the party. They do not want to look foolish, as in, “I can’t be seen in public like this,” so off they traipse to find oil just as the party is starting. Did you hear that accurately? Just as the party is starting, they decide to leave because they are so concerned about appearances.
And then strike three; the five wise bridesmaids, who are not held up at all by Jesus as models of virtue. As I mentioned earlier, they fall asleep when the concluding injunction is to stay awake. And to top it off, we learn that they are selfish, unloving people who will not share, the sort of people that most of our mothers taught us not to be like. Let’s just say that they don’t have the habits that we would want a Boy Scout to have. That is a definite strike three, but they get to party anyway.
And here is why: they did not run away like those foolish bridesmaids who were ashamed of their lack of preparation. The good news is in discovering that we are in the kingdom if we but show up, whether we are perfect or not. God loves us without limits. It is the limits we set on ourselves that keep us from participating in the party that is ongoing, that keep us from participating in the kingdom of heaven here and now.
In the minds of way too many people, the church often seems to be the club for the perfect, the virtuous, the ones who have no black marks against them. The imperfect need not apply, at least in the opinion of many of our popular religious leaders. What keeps many of us out of a fuller life in the church is the fear that we are not good enough or the fear of others that we are not good enough. We are like those foolish bridesmaids who make up their own minds that the assets they have brought are not good enough.
Meanwhile, the love-filled reality of the church, the reality of the church that goes far beyond the institution that our culture worships, is that the drowsing and selfish find themselves in the midst of the party because they are not so worried about what it takes to make a good impression. That may be the marker of wisdom, after all. And it is the realization that such is the case that begins to be transformative in the life of the not so virtuous. After all, in other places in scripture Jesus talks about tax collectors and prostitutes getting in the kingdom sooner than the Pharisees, which is another way to look at today’s wise bridesmaids versus foolish bridesmaids, the ones who have nothing to lose versus the ones who are afraid of losing face. The radical change for us is to realize that God can use what we have; we do not have to run away and sit in isolation.
At the end of the day I have to face it: my own desire for perfection has often left me out in the cold, left me standing outside the party when something fun and unexpected was going on elsewhere. Call me a foolish bridesmaid. Call any of us foolish bridesmaids when we are so afraid of losing face, of appearing less than perfect, that we miss the kingdom of God in our midst. But the person who knows that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by being present—perfect or not, drowsy or awake, doubt-full or doubt-less—call that person wise, a child of the kingdom. He or she has found the good news, and today Jesus is telling us that the gift is ours as well if we but hang around, and not run away.