How do we “keep alert”?

These small, ceramic oil lamps are like the ones that the wise and foolish bridesmaids used in the parable. Photo taken at Herod the Great's Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem.
I said at the beginning of our sermon series on Jesus’ parables in Matthew that his parables have a way of stepping on our toes. At times, they make us deeply uncomfortable. They’re filled with good news, to be sure, but there’s also at least a little bad news, too. But even the bad news is good because it motivates us to repent and change.

About last week’s Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14, which includes the troubling part about the underdressed man getting bound and booted out to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” I said the following:

I know that we don’t like to hear these frightening words of judgment, but it seems clear to me that Jesus is aiming these words directly at us—at the church. As a warning… Maybe one reason Jesus puts it so sharply, so severely is because he knows it’s better for us to be judged now—while we still have time to repent and change and, as Jesus says elsewhere, to live a life “worthy of repentance”—than to face eternal consequences later on, at final judgment.

This week’s parable from Matthew 25:1-13, traditionally called the Wise and Foolish Virgins, will step on our toes and judge us as well. The punchline of the parable comes in v. 13: “Therefore keep alert because you don’t know the day or the hour.”

The “day or hour” in the context of the chapter that precedes it may refer to the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of Israel in A.D. 70, which was for Jesus’ fellow Jews a cataclysmic event that vindicated Jesus’ words about God’s kingdom, including his words of judgment in Matthew 23:37-38: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is left to you deserted.”

The church has also interpreted the “day or hour” to mean final judgment (after the Second Coming) or our own deaths. In his own notes on the text, Wesley doesn’t take a stand. And, like him, I hardly think it matters. Jesus’ point is the same, whether Jesus is referring to a specific historical event in the first century, the Second Coming, or our own deaths. The parable’s stern warning is for each of us.

Even if we present-day Christians are no longer in danger of dying at the hands of Roman soldiers, we know that we will die at some point. Even if the end of history doesn’t occur in our lifetimes, our own personal history ends at our deaths. Time is running out for all of us.

How do we live in the meantime?

I’ll explore this question in my sermon on Sunday. But one thing seems clear: We can’t live in a state of constant vigilance—and it’s not because we’re complacent or lazy. As humans, we simply can’t stay alert for very long. 

Doesn’t our nation’s experience in the wake of 9/11 prove that? Remember how vigilant all of us were in the days, weeks, and even months following the attacks? We had color-coded threat levels each day. We were screened before going into football stadiums and concert venues. We were waiting for the next attack. We were fully expecting another attack. And it didn’t happen (at least in our country).

A couple of years later, a country singer scolded us, asking: “Have you forgotten?” He was telling us that something was wrong with us Americans for falling asleep.

I don’t think that’s fair. In a sense, we had forgotten… but in a good way. We can’t live our lives constantly reminding ourselves of that day, constantly feeling anger, indignation, and a sense of loss. I can’t imagine that’s good for our health, physically or spiritually. We have to move on. It’s gracious that God has made us in such a way that we can move on and heal from terrible tragedies.

Don’t get me wrong: I trust and hope that there are plenty of people who are paid to stay alert and on guard for another attack. More importantly, I trust and hope that systems are in place that safeguard against attacks, even when individual humans fail. My point is that most people, most of the time, can’t live their lives on alert. Even in this parable, after all, both the foolish and the wise bridesmaids fall asleep. What matters is that when they were awakened, some of them were ready.

So what do we do with this parable and its warning to keep alert? In a sense (please don’t take this too literally), we have to do on a small scale what our country did on a large scale following 9/11: We have to build a new system into the fabric of our lives that will help us to be ready for our death or the Second Coming or final judgment, even during those times when the end of the world is the furthest thing from our minds.

How do we do this? No secret here. We do what Wesley always said we should do: We “attend to the ordinances of God.” We pray. We gather together weekly for worship. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We read and study scripture. We fast. We serve. We love. In one lovely turn of phrase, N.T Wright calls these activities a means of “keeping short accounts” with God—which is exactly my point above about being judged now so that we’ll avoid judgment later.

We make these mundane and often difficult tasks of spiritual formation a part of our normal routines so that when times aren’t normal—when unexpected, unpredictable, and unforeseen events occur—we’ll be ready. In biblical terms, “being ready” is the essence of wisdom.

Easier said than done, I know… but that’s why we have each other. That’s why we have church.

N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 126.

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