We should have some sympathy for the foolish brides because their story symbolises so much human failure. I am sure we could all identify ways in which we are not prepared for an eventuality that is bound to happen at some point. It’s been described by French psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni as ‘I know very well, but...’ syndrome. People buying stuff on credit cards which they will not be able to pay off is an example of this. Indeed a case can be made for saying that the global economic crash of 2008 was caused by the same attitude. Many people knew that some forms of lending and trading were not sustainable but they pursued them all the same because the consequences could be deferred to a later date.
It has been described another way by the author Margaret Heffeman as wilful blindness: a cussed determination to ignore unpalatable truths in favour of winsome illusions. All such failings are but shadows of the tangible reality we would all rather forget: that we shall all die one day. This makes for a difficult topic between people, but endlessly deferring talk about death means we are often entirely unprepared for one of the few things we can be certain about in life. Perhaps God will forgive us for any failure to be ready for him, but we can’t ignore the message of a parable like this: that some people won’t be ready and will pay a heavy price for it. Yet the kind of preparedness we are called to is daunting. It feels rather like a slip fielder who has been crouching next to the wicketkeeper for five hours without a hint of an edge coming their way. The sun is hot, the day is nearly over, the batsmen are well set and his mind is on the cold pint waiting for him at the bar later. Yet if he misses the one edge which then flies his way he will have wasted his entire day fielding at slip. The wise and foolish slip fielders.
Christian waiting requires its own concentration and attention to detail and as time passes this should become more so. Writing to the Romans, St. Paul made the self-evident yet compelling point that ‘our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’. Whenever the kingdom may come, we know our own encounter with God is a matter of years away when looked at from a human perspective. An honest and prayerful life should be at the heart of our preparation for this moment. We are to wait on God for his salvation.
The desire to do this is dented by our understanding of the nature of waiting in the modern world. To wait conjures up images of aimless, drab and boring events. We wait in sullen queues at the exchange counter in Marks and Spencer’s. We wait in poorly procession at the doctor’s surgery. We wait in polluted queues on the M25. Delays make us fractious and we resent every lost minute. Time is a precise and measurable commodity in a world which has put a price tag on most things. The process of waiting is filled with the sense that we could be doing something better and that hanging around is abusive of us. This kind of passive waiting is a pole apart from the active waiting compelled by faith.
God does not respond to us like a parking machine where we insert money at the top and take a ticket from the bottom. To allow this would encourage instrumentalism, where we become some kind of service user of the Almighty. To wait for God and his deliverance requires persistence, humility and self-sacrifice. It also exposes us to pain, frustration and bewilderment because God’s salvation often feels inscrutable and slow. But it is never a passive, disinterested state. Like Jacob, the long hours waiting for God to deliver are spent wrestling with him until he blesses us and those we intercede for.
Christian waiting also demands solidarity with those who suffer. The fruit of patience the foolish brides lacked is not developed by stoically waiting our turn in the queue. Around us lies a fractured world. Some parts of it suffer great pain and anguish. Many other parts lack justice and fairness. Altogether too many people do not understand the Gospel. To wait merely for our own salvation lacks the true marks of our citizenship in heaven. True preparedness means joining hands in Christian fellowship and intercessory prayer with those who lack all we take for granted. Readying ourselves for the kingdom to come compels us to shape the world around us in ways which please God and which herald his arrival. Until the last in the queue are first and the first in the queue last..