I remember from my days as a Queen’s Scout that our primary motto was: be prepared! A preoccupation with being prepared, being ready for whatever life might throw is a necessary prerequisite for the autonomous, self-sufficient person in our highly individualized society. I recognise the importance of anticipation in my own life experience.
Of course, no one knows what to expect of the future. We develop a tendency to anticipate events based on what we already know about life. Sometimes experience is an accurate guide, yet, often it is misleading. Facing the uncertainties of the future armed only with the incomplete recollection of past experience, feeds the wellsprings of anxiety in most of us. This is where the scouting motto: be prepared, is a comfort. It’s a comfort because it insulates us within the illusion that we can be ready for what-ever lies around the corner.
The illusion of being prepared is to some extent a comfort. Being prepared is an important element in my own life narrative, i.e. the story I tell myself about who I am and why I am the way I am. The problem with anticipation as an expression of needing to be prepared is that it encourages risk adversion in life. Life lived too safely, is a very unsatisfying experience!
Our preoccupation with being prepared makes us vulnerable to judgment. Here I am referring to our need to judge others as a way of putting clear blue water between us and them. In our society we reserve our harshest judgments for those who fail the be prepared test. How easily the phrases: well it’s his own fault, or she has no one to blame but herself, or its time they really took responsibility for themselves, trip lightly off my tongue. In fact, one of my favourite comments to friends of either gender is: oh, what a foolish virgin you’ve been!
Referring to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is my tongue-in-cheek, way of being ironic. Irony is one of the higher achievements of British culture. Irony does not always translate well in the American ear. I am attempting through reference to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, to attribute another’s misfortune to their own fecklessness, or carelessness, or maybe even their negligence. This safely distances me from my own anxiety that: there but for my vigilant preparation, go I.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins so easily lends itself in support of a very unattractive quality of smugness or complacency. I remember a popular aphorism growing up: I’m alright Jack! This expresses a complacency in thinking that because I am in a good place, that’s all that matters.
Matthew’s parables of the Kingdom are a reworking within the priorities of his own context the powerful and often disturbing images that Jesus employed to communicate the radical nature of God and the expectation of the Kingdom. Matthew’s context is one of bitter controversy. Acrimony between Jew and Jewish followers of Jesus, and between the gentile authority of Rome and the growing number of gentile followers of Jesus. These external tensions are played-out between the various elements that are coming together to form the fledgling Christian community. The tensions in the Matthean community around inclusion and exclusion were very real. Communal survival is all. Individual survival is linked to communal survival. Matthew emphasizes the consequences of failure as in being unprepared. The denouement with which he brings each of his parables of the Kingdom to a close offers a threat of terrible exclusion as the punishment for being unprepared.
The early Church was gripped by the expectation of the imminent return of the Lord. Yet, as they waited day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year, they experienced the inexplicable fact of the Lord’s delay. The picture of the virgins, waiting for the return of the bridegroom is a powerful metaphor for the experience of the early Christians. They found themselves waiting. Waiting is difficult because it involves being caught between the expectation and its delayed fulfillment. Waiting is the most difficult of all the experiences that we face as human beings.
Be prepared!, is a warning from Matthew to his readers lest they succumb to the anxieties of waiting and fall away. Afterall, how were the early Christians to endure their suffering without the expectation that the coming of their reward was immanent? A reward they would enjoy only if they remained prepared. Being prepared is nothing short of the discipline that ensures survival.
A deep uncertainty plagued Matthew and his community. This same uncertainty dogged the lives of all the early Christain communities. A deep uncertainty plagues our own communities today, but the nature of the uncertainty calls for quite a different response.
For us the sources of anxiety in waiting are different from those of the early Christians. Episcopalians, at least, do not seriously anticipate the imminent return of the Lord. For us, the need to be prepared is the way we defend against the vagaries of everyday experience. A different kind of judgement is reserved for the unprepared in our own day. Being cast into outer darkness where there is much gnashing of teeth has been replaced with a need to attribute moral failure to those who are less prepared than we might be. Through this attribution we distinguish ourselves from others less fortunate than us. We comfort ourselves with the belief that their experience is different from ours. The unprepared are not those who will fail to get into the Kingdom. For us, those who seem to be unprepared for life’s vicissitudes are the spectre of what we most fear in modern life, i.e. loss of control.
The troubling question
I know how Matthew uses this parable but I still wonder how Jesus might have used this parable? My guess is that it formed part of a more extensive teaching about the need to make a choice. Will you choose to be aligned with the coming of God’s Kingdom, or not.
We have something in common with the early Christians. We too struggle to survive the experience of waiting. In a time of waiting, the delay in the fulfillment of our expectation plays havoc with our sense of certainty. We crave the certainty of being able to predict what to expect and when to expect it. Otherwise, we ask, how else can we safely know what is reliable and what it not?
Bringing the parable home
The context in which I reflect on this parable is one in which my community, St Martin’s on Providence’s East Side, is engaged in its Annual Renewal Campaign. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is timely, as well as troubling. This is a parable that reinforces notions that we live in a world of scarcity. In a culture of scarcity, you keep what you have by not sharing it with others. Within a worldview that sees resources as limited, the pie is only so big. People of necessity are divided into the haves and the have-nots. At St Martin’s there is no mistaking that we are among the haves when the world is viewed from the perspective of scarcity.
I am finding that my invitation for us to come together and share stories of gratitude to God, as a way of encouraging one another in generosity of spirit, is receiving a mixed reception. Some people get the message about gratitude and generosity immediately and respond with enthusiasm. Others, are clearly bamboozled by the message and respond with caution or resistance. Others still, see the message as a cleaver and devious ploy to get them to open their pocketbooks. The question in these people’s minds might be: if he’s really talking about money then why not come straight-out with it?
Buried within the invitation to celebrate gratitude and generosity lies a different question. This is: what is our attitude towards money and our practice of using our money? Do we hoard it in fear of not having enough, or do we share it, letting it flow from our experience of abundance as a force for the greater good?
Celebrating gratitude and generosity is celebrating our actual experience rather than focusing on our fears. Our actual experience is one of abundance through which we expose as a lie, our fearful assumptions of scarcity!
What I invite the members of my community to consider is simple. How can we reconnect our giving with our experience of gratitude and generosity – our experience of God’s gifts of abundance to us? It is only when our giving flows generously from our encounter with the sources of our gratitude to God, that it is capable of being an experience of fruitfulness for us. I believe the experience of being fruitful is something we are all so longing for. This quality of fruitfulness has nothing to do with how much or now little we have.
Back to the parable of the virgins. One question keeps nagging at me. Why didn’t all the virgins just go into the wedding breakfast upon the bridegroom’s arrival? They all went to sleep while waiting. So, unlike in other parables falling asleep is not the offence. During the time they were asleep they continued to burn oil and so why didn’t the virgins who were running short simply exclaim their delight at the bridegroom’s arrival and dance into the wedding breakfast behind him? Afterall it’s not their fault the bridegroom is delayed. Instead, they panicked and went rushing off to buy oil from shops already long closed for the night.
Why did they panic? The bridegroom is clearly a metaphor for Christ, who is more likely to have rejoiced in their having waited for his arrival. The reaction of these women to the bridegroom’s arrival has the whiff of shame about it. What is their shame? It smells to me to be their failure to be self-sufficient. We all know that failure to be self-sufficient leaves us feeling foolish. They feel foolish and even in olden times, feeling foolish seems as frightening a prospect as it remains today. Their foolishness lies in their lack of self-sufficiency, they are the losers in the: I’ve got enough, I’m alright Jack, game.
Isn’t self-sufficiency the enemy of gratitude?
I found your sermon especially pertinent to this country which prides itself on the individualistic, self-made man ideal. And as we pass from democracy to oligarchy, we have more and more of those that have and those who do not. The egotistical ” I worked hard for mine, if you don’t have anything, it is your own fault” thinking is directly opposed to what God asks from us. This I believe, stems from a feeling many have that I only need God when I am in trouble. If life is good to me, it is because I have earned it. If things turn sour, I yell “Help” to God. I have found most of us(self included) spend less time in gratitude and more in being prideful about how successful we are. Security and control are illusions on this earth. Truly trusting in God gives us hope, and patience in knowing that life is ambiguous and all we can do is accept and deal with whatever happens through our faith. Otherwise we just live a reactionary life and fall back on ourselves to handle it. It is another way we block ourselves off to the grace and love of God.
So true John.