Since preaching about Matthew’s parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids last Sunday, I have had several interesting conversations in which people have wondered (very politely) whether my interpretation played fast and loose with biblical text. Most of the controversy has hinged on my argument that there is a difference between “preparation” and “readiness.” While these terms tend to be synonymous in common parlance, I believe that there is a crucial distinction between the two when it comes to our relationship with God.
On Sunday, I noted that the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids appears in the midst of Matthew’s exhortation to be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom. This section of the gospel begins with the “little apocalypse” in Matthew 24 and concludes with a series of three parables about readiness, namely the parable of the bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. This portion of Matthew’s gospel can be summarized pretty thoroughly with a line from the little apocalypse: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).
The Church has traditionally applied this sentiment essentially by encouraging the faithful to put their affairs in order prior to Christ’s return. The logic behind this mode of thinking is pretty straightforward: we must do everything we can to prepare for our appearance before the judgment seat. In his sermon on the parable of the bridesmaids, a friend of mine suggested the following ways to get ready:
Turn off the TV. Stop the endless hours you spend scrolling through Facebook. If you hate your job, quit it. Ask yourself, at every point in your day, “am I doing this for God’s glory?” And if you’re not doing it for God’s glory, why are you doing it? When you go to bed at night, say, “thank you God for another day.” If you’re squirming in your seat right now, then the Holy Spirit might just be telling you something. The fact that you’re uncomfortable talking about your own death, or about your own spiritual health, might just be a sign from God of what you need to be doing. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to prepare an extra flask of oil to carry with you; practice of prayer, a knowledge of the scriptures, a holy life, and a preparation for death.
In this understanding of the call to “be ready,” Christians are encouraged to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is somewhere in their future. This is what I would consider “preparation.”
The issue with this approach is that it ignores a crucial component of Matthew’s gospel. At the end of this sequence about being ready for God’s kingdom, Jesus describes the judgment of the nations. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will sit on a throne as a king, the nations will be gathered before him, and will be separated like sheep and goats. Those who have cared for the Son of Man (the sheep) will be rewarded with eternal life, while those who have ignored him (the goats) will be punished. The striking thing about this separation is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by their status. Both groups wonder when it was that they provided (or did not provide) for the king. The king’s response is clear: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Caring for the vulnerable in this life is one of the ways we encounter the Son of Man. In other words, we are not only called to live with the knowledge that the kingdom of God is in our future; we are called to live as if the kingdom has already arrived. This is what I would consider “readiness.”
It may be that preparation and readiness look similar in their application. Like preparation, readiness involves renewing our relationship with God and striving to radiate God’s glory. The difference, however, is that readiness involves living in God’s kingdom here and now. Readiness encourages us to experience God’s glory in our everyday lives. Readiness helps us to recognize that God’s reign is not just a future hope, but an integral part of our present.
One of the most well-worn adjectives in Anglican circles is “proleptic.” Simply put, a proleptic vision of life is one that is informed by the understanding that we exist in “the already and the not yet.” We are already experiencing the glory of God’s kingdom, even though that kingdom has not yet been fully revealed to us. In this sense, we are not called to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom accomplishing a list of spiritual tasks; we are called to live lives shaped by a readiness to encounter manifestations of God’s kingdom every single day.