A month or so ago I sat in church Sunday morning listening to my pastor give a sermon on Matthew 25. In this chapter, there are two parables that explain what it will be like when Jesus returns and what the kingdom of heaven is like. The two parables are the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.
I knew these parables. I read them before. I knew where he was going, or so I thought. When you’ve gone to church for a long time and have read your Bible, sometimes you begin formulating in your mind what the preacher will say. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. You’re at church. For me, there’s always a blessing in attending. I’ll hear something that I know is right for me at the right time. Or maybe it’s having a conversation with someone over lunch and being more of a listener than a talker. On this morning, it was the Parable of the Ten Virgins that I reflected on the most because I saw in it something I felt I could not do.
In verse 1, the parable starts with the words, “Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto.” This is an extended simile; a simile is a comparison of two unlike things using the words “like” or “as.” Moreover, as a parable, it is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. As the parable continues, the coming of the kingdom of heaven is compared to the actions of ten virgins – five wise and five foolish ones.
The ten virgins go forth to meet the bridegroom. The bridegroom is symbolic for Jesus. The parable does not detail how far they will travel or how long it will take. Nevertheless, they go forth. All ten of the virgins take a lamp with them, presumably so they are able to light their path as they also travel by night to meet the bridegroom.
Again, there is a distinction between the virgins. The wise virgins are characterized as such because they took oil with them to light their lamps at night. Those that were foolish did not take any oil with them; consequently, they would not be able to light their lamps to see at night.
Matthew 25:5 begins with the phrase, “While the bridegroom tarried.” “Tarried” is the past tense of the word “tarry” which means to stay longer than intended, to delay in leaving. As he delays, the virgins rest; the verse reads, “they all slumbered and slept.” Then, there is a cry at midnight, proclaiming, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him” (v.6). The virgins rise and trim their lamps (v. 7). Verse 8 explains that “the foolish said unto the wise, ‘Give us your oil; for our lamps are gone out.’” The wise virgins, however, refuse to give away any of their oil away “lest there be not enough for us and you” (v.9). They instruct the foolish to go and buy some oil for themselves. While the foolish virgins went away to buy oil, “the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut” (v.10).
When the other virgins return, the foolish ones, they say, “Lord, Lord, open to us” (v.11). But he answers, saying, “Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (v.12). Jesus ends this parable by saying, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (v.13).
As I listened to the preaching, I understood it to be a parable that speaks to our responsibility to watch and to be prepared for the Lord’s return. We’re to be like the diligent wise virgins, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I understand that this is a good thing. I understand the perils of not being ready, of being foolish with my time and attention and the importance of watching. But sometimes I just can’t watch.
I cry easily. My kids know I’m a sobber when it comes to movies. At the end of Big Hero 6 when Baymax sacrifices himself, I cry. I cry at baptisms. I cry in the original Ben Hur when Jesus gives Judah Ben Hur water. Most representations of sacrifice remind me of Jesus and thus, I cry. I cried the night before the Matthew 25 sermon. It didn’t last long, a few seconds, and it came out of nowhere like a speed bump you didn’t see. But this had nothing to do with sacrifice. It was due to something I read. Now, I love reading and writing. In my Creative Writing classes, we’ve talked about moments in books that have stopped us in our tracks, moments where we mark the page number, where we might circle a passage and say, “I know what that’s like.” It was this kind of moment for me. I was reading Jordan Peterson’s book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life; Peterson, a clinical psychologist, writes that before he decides to work with new clients, he first has a series of questions for them. He shares eight of them in the book. Four of them include: “Do they have friends and a social life? A stable and satisfying intimate partnership? Close and functional familial relationships? A career – or, at least a job – that is financially sufficient, stable and, if possible, a source of satisfaction and opportunity” (5)? Then he explains, “If the answer to any three or more of these  questions is no, I consider that my new client is insufficiently embedded in the interpersonal world and is in danger of spiraling downward psychologically because of that” (5). “Huh,” I thought to myself, braiding on my beard. I answered no to three of the questions. If what Peterson concludes is true, I sensed myself dangerously close to somewhere I did not want to be. Spiraling downward psychologically. And that’s what got me; and when I say that, I’m referring to acknowledging that being in this position is serious, concerning, no bueno. I compare it to any other diagnosis, you have cancer, your transmission is blown, you need a new roof. None of this is good. Knowing things, even uncomfortable and scary things, is necessary. It’s important to know you are lost when you do not know you are lost. It reminds me of the popular bumper sticker quote, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost;” this is a line from a poem from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although the sentiment in the quote is true, it is also true that some who wander are lost.
My responses were not surprising. Storms in life tend to leave a wake of destruction, unsettledness and feeling lost. They put us in survival mode, left to run on autopilot. On autopilot, many times we don’t notice other areas of importance. I saw a billboard this week that read, “My brain has too many tabs open.” Touché. I’m aware that at least three of those tabs represent my need to have stronger family relationships, a tight friend group and a caring and stable significant other. But in light of the other tabs that I have open, mostly representing responsibilities with my children, work, managing a home and general adulting, these tabs go somewhat ignored. I know they’re there but sometimes I forget. It’s like walking around with your shoe untied or with a piece of food stuck in your teeth. Many times we need a compassionate and attentive person to point these things out for us. A few weeks ago, one of my headlights went out. I stopped to put gas. As I pumped my gas, a man next to me told me my light was out. I checked. He was right. I thanked him and then wondered, “How long has this light been out?” I didn’t know. Then again, the assumption is there are people close enough to one to make these observations.
However, once we are aware of those important things in life that are falling through the cracks, it will not do to dwell and to get stuck there. One of my unfortunate tendencies. But I also know healthy strategies. One of them is “Don’t live there long and have a short memory.” A few weeks ago, I was watching my son’s basketball game. He drove down the lane aggressively for a layup. As he got to the hoop, one of the defenders completely blocked his shot. The defender celebrated. The opposing side cheered. Disappointment shot across my son’s face but then suddenly, his face shifted to one of purpose. His teammates celebrated his aggressive drive. His head was still in the game. Moments later, he scored on a fast break and minutes later, they won a very close game. He got blocked but he didn’t live long in that moment and he had a short memory because there was still a game to play. In the same way, when you have today, there’s still a life to live. Regardless of what may be missing or what may be off in your life, you can always do something. For me, step one has always been reminding myself of Jesus. It’s that simple. I walk myself through the reality of who he was, and what he did, and how he lived and what he said and who I am in light of Him. These reminders alone bring great hope. Consequently, in light of the the three questions I answered no to, maybe I need to be more generous with myself. My children have more stability in their lives than they’ve had in a long time. It may look different than what is ideal but it’s a good place . I actually do have a friend group and people who appreciate me and who I appreciate. In terms of an intimate partner, well, two out of three isn’t bad.
Corrie Ten Boom once said, “If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. If you look at God, you’ll be at rest.” Isaiah 26:3 reads, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” I’m thankful for these reminders of where my focus should be. They strengthen and encourage and guide me, reminding me that I can indeed watch, in spite of anything.