Faith In Real Life Blog: “Missed Opportunities”
Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2023
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
How we read this passage is largely dependent upon the lens we use to see God. If God is a strict father who chastises his children when they fail, this parable can be used to ‘prove’ such a God. The foolish bridesmaids did not prepare. They were not really ready for the groom to arrive (late though he may be) and could not participate in the joyous wedding procession. Then, they scrambled to find the needed oil but were too late. Even though they did their best to make up for their error, they missed the procession. And worse, they were totally excluded. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” That is harsh. No second chances. No credit for good intentions. No forgiveness. No grace. Through such a lens, God draws a hard line and gives no quarter. Many of us have that concept of God lurking around—even as we speak of a God of love.
But we can take exactly the same passage and view it through the lens of a loving God. And that is the lens I choose. Be clear, this is a choice. It is a faith claim. It reflects my deepest convictions but there are plenty of arguments for a stern father God who punishes bad behavior. However, I do not view Jesus, nor God, in that way. So, it is particularly important to look at these ‘harsh’ passages and find the grace within them.
Before I begin my ‘takeaways’, the passage needs a little bit of context. This Gospel was written well after Jesus’ death. Jesus had promised to return soon—Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’ It was hard to hold on to that promise as more and more of the first disciples aged and, in fact, tasted death. Added to that was the persecutions and sufferings of the early Christians. Being a Christian was not working out as planned. Little did they know that two thousand years later, people are still waiting for a victorious Second Coming in which good conquers evil and the faithful are finally vindicated.
THE BRIDEMAIDS’ ERROR
Both the foolish and the wise got so tired they went to sleep. No one can be always vigilant. The error of the foolish bridesmaids was not that they went to sleep. Their error was they did not consider the possibility that the unexpected might happen. Oddly, their error may have been too reliant upon the rules—the ‘how things were supposed to be’. Who would have thought the groom would be delayed so long? In the first century (and in ours), who would have thought that the grand celebrations of Jesus’ coming could be so delayed. The foolish imagine that everything can and will work out as planned. Real life has never worked that way.
If we haven’t considered the possibility of the unexpected, it is particularly difficult to hold on to the faith that love will prevail. Jesus did not come as expected. As far as the 1st century Christians were concerned, Jesus was very late for the party. It is hard to believe the wedding is possible when the groom is missing. In more contemporary language, it is hard to believe love will prevail in the midst of a broken world of intractable conflicts. But holding on to the hope that love will prevail is what sustains us when God seems so impossibly far away. God shows up in unexpected ways at unexpected times. Late by all ordinary social conventions, the groom showed up.
This raises an important question: What are we expecting when Jesus comes again? Our FIRL group was quite vague—basically settling on: “I don’t know” ; “Whatever a Second Coming means, I am not waiting for a rapture”; “I will have to wait and see.” I was impressed and relieved. In our group, waiting for the Lord meant wait and see. If we face the fact that we cannot predict—based upon reasonable wedding custom or upon proof texting from the Bible—we remain open to God working his purposes out beyond our expectation or even imagining.
Our expectations often prevent us from participating in celebrations of love—or in terms of the parable, the foolish bridesmaids did not leave room for surprise. Real life is full of surprises—both delightful and terrible. We cannot plan for all contingencies, but we are really foolish if we think life will turn out as planned. There are some errors we cannot fix.
Those sudden left turns are disorienting and difficult but spending time saying: ‘This shouldn’t have happened’, ‘It’s not fair’ or ‘I meant well’, even if true, reduces our ability to engage life in the present.
One of the most common regrets of grieving is missed opportunities. Sometimes it is too late to talk to your parents, your children, or your friends. Death often does not come as scheduled. There is often never a right time to really say thank you nor a right time to say how we really feel. We often imagine there will be plenty of time but that is not how it really works. We miss important opportunities to connect that are gone forever. If we didn’t know it before, the lesson we need to learn: to stay current with our emotional accounts, is painfully presented.
We may not be able to go back in time but we can make a course correction in our present. A missed opportunity is almost always painful to recognize—but there is a big difference between painful and bad. In real life, we learn most of the important lessons the hard way.
The key issue becomes: “Will we learn from our missed opportunities?” Just because we painfully regret missing the wedding banquet does not mean there will not be other banquets. We all make such errors. Hopefully we will be able to learn enough to join the next procession.
Some of the harshness of this passage is based on our viewing it as a judgment on the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids. They made a mistake and their error meant they missed one of the social events of the year. We all make such mistakes. But we get in trouble when we make the consequences of those mistakes absolute. Just because we missed the wedding banquet does not mean there will not be other banquets. We all make such errors. Hopefully we will be able to learn enough to join the next procession.
The important line is the last: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” We believe in a God who loves us. We believe in a God who wants us to have a meaningful life.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” is not a threat—Do what I tell you or you are going to hell! It is a cautionary warning. It is no different than our warnings to our children: “Don’t run with scissors. You will hurt yourself.” We might even yell in anger or in fear. A child may feel punished by the admonition. But hopefully we finally realize the importance of the warning. As parents, if our caution went unheeded and the child was injured, we would grieve. I believe that is how God sees us.
If we insist on our own way, we will lose right relationship with God. If we insist on our own way, we lose the opportunities for love and connection. We lose opportunities to see the living Lord in the face of everyone we meet. If we run with scissors, we may get away with it, but we do so at great risk. Such behaviors can lead to injury—even death. That is a hard lesson indeed
PREPARE FOR THE UNEXPECTED
The Messiah came in the most unexpected way. So much so, that many people rejected him out of hand. Wanting someone who would fix things—to relieve us from suffering and oppression is as ordinary as it comes. But, discovering a God with us is only possible when we give up what we thought God was supposed to do. When we cling to our own expectations of who God is ‘supposed to be’, we will miss discovering who Jesus revealed God to be.
This chapter ends with the “Judgment of the Nation”. It is a list of missed opportunities: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you as a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
Jesus says I am in the midst of you. Quit looking for me in the end times. Look in the face of every person you meet. Don’t miss these opportunities for connection. Do not be blinded by secular definitions of value and worth. Do not be blinded by your preconceptions about God and what God is supposed to do.
Prepare for the unexpected presence of God in the most unlikely of times and places. It is where you will find love. Otherwise, you will miss the banquet.
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Let it be so.