I moved to the middle of Missouri for a church job a few years ago. While I initially hesitated to take the position, the pastor I was going to work with was in his 30s, led a church with over 1500 members, and was one of the humblest people I have ever met. He intrigued me. So I took the job, packed everything I owned in my car and moved to the Midwest.
The next couple of years left me with a completely different understanding of what it meant to be a pastor. Sometimes this pastor would joke about how much pastors liked to talk about themselves. Later, when it was just the two of us, he explained that he likes to keep conversation at a ratio of 3 to 1—for every three questions he asked a person, he was allowed to share one thing about himself. I doubt he literally counted while conversing, but the idea stuck with me.
I moved again, but this time to Washington D.C. to attend seminary (for, you know, pastoral training). Lord knows, seminarians love to talk about themselves, their ideas, their grades and their problems with the Church. I am no exception. But a few months after moving, I caught up with another friend of mine over the phone. We spoke for over an hour, but somehow we never got around to catching up with my side of things. I tried sharing, but it was met with indifference. Have you ever had a conversation with someone that really wasn’t a conversation at all? It happens to me occasionally, but I don’t particularly mind it most of the time because we’re all guilty of this. (Also, I’m trying to become a pastor. Isn’t listening part of the gig?)
Every once in a while, I meet a person who operates as if he is the center of his own little solar system. It’s innovative, really, how these people manage to draw attention back into orbit around their lives, their concerns and their problems. Know the type?
I think Jesus did. In Matthew 25, he told a parable about some bridesmaids who were waiting with the bride for the groom to arrive. Well, the groom took longer than anticipated, and half the bridesmaids were unprepared and didn’t have enough oil to keep their lamps going into the night. So they left for supplies. By the time they returned, the groom had arrived and the wedding had continued on. They tried to get back in, but the groom was deeply insulted—to the point where he claimed he never knew them.
We might initially feel bad for these bridesmaids. They forgot one little detail: oil. Come on, man! The groom needs to relax, drink a little more water-into-wine.
But there’s more to this story than some careless friends. These aren’t just some random guests—these are the bridesmaids. They’re responsible for caring and supporting the bride. They’re the dearest people the bride can have around her. Can you imagine if your closest friends gathered together for your wedding and partied with you but were unprepared for their duties as bridesmaids/groomsmen and left the wedding … missing your ceremony in the process? What are their priorities?
This isn’t a story about forgetfulness. It’s a story about selﬁshness.
We’re part of an individualist society. It is what it is. We care about our image, what people think and what we accomplish. But even in a society like ours, most of us still have relationships where we can put ourselves aside for a while and make someone else’s life our priority. Perhaps it’s for a friend in need or catching up on an old buddy’s life. Perhaps it’s for a celebration or wedding. No matter the situation, there are these important moments in life that we should recognize are not about us. We realize we’re not the main character in this particular story. This is about someone else.
I met a monk a few months ago who told me marriage and monasticism were very similar. “For both to succeed,” he said, “it takes a person willing to die to themselves. Their life isn’t just about them anymore.” I think this is what the biblical authors were getting at when they compared Jesus and the Church to a groom and bride. Jesus died for us. This is more than a theological accomplishment or trite saying. He didn’t just give up his vital signs—he gave up the possibility of marriage, kids, a long life and years full of promise. Jesus died to himself and all his personal desires. Remember his prayer? “My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me” (Matthew 26:39). And he didn’t stop there. He told us to do the same: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
If Jesus‘ life tells us anything about salvation, it’s that salvation isn’t just about one person. It’s intricately tied into the lives of other people, too.
As a seminary student and aspiring pastor, this has become a powerful lesson. Seminary students are constantly learning how to be good pastors. We hope to speak to entire communities, get weekly stage time, counsel people in their moments of need and be engaged in the intimate details of peoples lives—their marriages and funerals, souls and hearts. And in the midst of all of this, it’s really easy to think those moments are about us. It’s really easy to think the lives of a church community rely on the pastor.
But great pastors know when to get out of the way. They know that certain events and moments are sacred. They know when to prepare the oil and eagerly watch with the bride as she awaits her groom. They know when to stop talking and when to listen.
Great pastors know when to kill their egos because someone else’s needs to be nurtured.
But this isn’t a discipline just for pastors or seminary students. It’s for anyone who considers themselves a Christ-follower. Following Jesus probably won’t lead you to be murdered these days, but it might kill your ego. In a culture where we’re perfecting the art of looking good, perhaps the Gospel is more applicable than ever.
Loving your neighbor as yourself sometimes means listening more than talking. Want to live out the greatest commandment? Step out of the limelight and let someone else shine for a while.