I: Retelling/explaining the Parable
A friend reminded me (this week) what an offensive text this is for us.
That’s kind of a funny thing, because it’s so strange and foreign when compared to our customs today. But yet somehow, intuitively—innately—we can see through all of that, even not understanding the customs. There’s a piece of this parable that we understand all too well, a piece that offends us deeply.
That offense (I believe) is the suggestion that we do not have as much control as we think we do—control over our lives and control over our time. You see, these bridesmaids think they are in control. They think they can manage. They think they have the power to do as they see best.
And, you see, they know the protocol. They know their responsibilities. They have arrived from their varying lives with varying amounts of preparation—but preparation may not actually be the point here. There is honestly no good reason that the five foolish bridesmaids couldn’t have waited in relative darkness for the groom. But they thought they were in control of their lives and their future. They dangerously assume they have all the time they need—that the rest of the world is operating on their timetable. But that assumption costs them greatly.
No matter what they thought, they’re not in control. They do not have have as much control over time or even their lives as they think they do at the beginning of the story. And so things turn for them—five of them—in a way they did not anticipate or expect, and will not accept.
You see, there’s dangerous assumptions that we make in this life, and one of the most dangerous is that tomorrow is certain. We assume and even expect that there is nothing in heaven and earth that can interfere with the plans that we have made. But that dangerous assumption is dead wrong.
II. Individual Assumptions
True story. A week ago Saturday—just eight days ago—my friend Daniel threw a surprise birthday party for his wife Kim. Daniel and I used to run around together in college—he’s a couple years younger than I am—and we enjoyed stirring up all kinds of trouble.
They had a lovely party celebrating Kim’s birthday, but Kim developed a migraine that night. It was so bad that they ended up going to the Emergency Room before morning came. At first, doctors thought she had experienced a seizure, but subsequent tests revealed a brain tumor.
That discovery sparked a lot more tests, including a brain biopsy on Wednesday. There is still a lot up in the air, but it looks like it may be a form of cancer that (thank God!) is not very aggressive. Doctors are hopeful about treatment. And as of Friday, Kim is back home with her family—for the time being.
I assure you though: Daniel and Kim have a very different set of eyes today than they did a week ago. Priorities have changed. Plans have shifted. Life looks different.
They have come out from under the spell of this world—the illusion that they are in control of their lives and their future. Just like five of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable, their life changed in an instant as this illusion came crashing down around them.
III. Institutional Assumptions
Another true story. One of the largest protestant churches in the USA will no longer exist as of January 1, 2015.
For the year 2013, the Mars Hill Church (in the Seattle area) had an average of 12,329 worshippers a week spread across 15 locations. It employed 16 lead pastors and over 40 additional pastors (link). The church income was over $26 million dollars (link).
But within a period of about the last year, a series of controversies and scandals were exposed. Virtually none of these actually occurred during the last year, but it is (perhaps) as the Bible says in Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” The sins of their past have at last caught up with them. Their founding pastor has resigned, on account of ethical violations and coworkers finally standing up to his abusive leadership style. Some of the church’s locations will become independent churches, but all assets will effectively be liquidated (link). By January 1, the Mars Hill Church will no longer exist.
The thing is: to the members of the church, and to most of the world, this unraveling was sudden and unexpected. They did not see it coming. For all they knew, tomorrow was certain. After all, this church had money, members, respect, a killer praise band, an online presence—it was what so many churches are trying to be. But here, in the span of roughly a year, it will be phased out into nonexistence.
A lot of churches these days struggle with viability; they do not know if they have the budget or the active members to survive. Some, sadly, become paralyzed by this struggle, and they turn inward and lose their focus on and participation in God’s mission.
But the reality (that we are all in) is that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. No matter a church’s membership size or budget, no matter the number of speaking engagements their pastor has each year, no matter how many other churches may idolize them as the ideal—we do not really have that much control over our future. To suppose we do is to make a dangerous assumption that may well be a hazard to ourselves, our churches, and our ability to be involved in God’s mission in the world.
IV: The Urgency of Mission
Now, I realize I might seem like I’m being a bit of a Debbie Downer here, but that’s not the case. It’s not easy to correct these dangerous assumptions, but Jesus works to do it and so should we. Even Jesus’ brother James works to shatter these illusions when he writes “The reality is you have no idea where your life will take you tomorrow. You are like a mist that appears one moment and then vanishes another… But your current speech indicates an arrogance…” (James 4:14, 16a).
James wants us to abandon our attempt to control tomorrow and to live fully in today. Our dangerous assumption that tomorrow is a given is the height of arrogance.
But even though we cannot control the future, we do have some control (through free will) to affect the present. I think this is why so many of Jesus’ teachings are focused on how we live in the here and now with one another: Now is where we can effect change. This is a concept Christian writer Richard Rohr describes as “living in the naked now,” and it permeates Jesus’ teachings.
Do you remember what Jesus instructs in Matthew 6:34? “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
When we are willing to lose our illusions about controlling tomorrow, we can live more fully in the present, and then we will recognize an urgency to the Christian life and mission that we miss when we are always working to manipulate tomorrow.
And recognizing that urgency is an important part of the Christian mission. We can’t put off to tomorrow what God is calling us to do today. We can’t delay responding to God’s invitation to discipleship. God’s given us already what we need to participate in God’s mission today, because today is when and where God wants us to act. To wait—to delay—is to dangerously assume we know better than God.
Immediately before Jesus’ words about not being anxious about tomorrow because today is enough to worry about, he tells us exactly what we should be focused on in the “naked now” of our lives. There, in Matthew 6:33, Jesus instructs us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” That is the urgent mission of our “today.”
Our urgent efforts to manipulate tomorrow often crumble and fail, for tomorrow is outside our control. But that push toward “now” can and should drive us to deeper participation in God’s mission of love and grace.
It is Jesus who proclaims in Mark 1:15 that “The kingdom of God is near! Seek forgiveness, change your actions, and believe this good news!”
It is Paul who reminds us in Romans 13:11-12 that “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The darkness of night is dissolving as dawn’s light draws near, so walk out on your old dark life and put on the armor of light.”
And it is Jesus again, who declares five times in the book of Revelation, “I am coming soon” (Rev 3:11; 16:15; 22:7, 12, 20).
Maybe (in today’s parable) Jesus’ instruction “Stay awake” would be better rendered “Wake up to the fact that you don’t know the day or the hour.”
Maybe what he means is:
Wake up to the fact that you can’t control the future.
Wake up to the fact that you don’t have all the time in the world.
Wake up to the fact that all you have—all you can be certain you have—is the present.
So make the best of it. Seek first the Kingdom of God. Love deeply. Give generously. Forgive recklessly. Believe wholly.
Offer your “now” to God. Because “now”?—”Now” is all we really have to give.
The rest of the story is in the capable hands of God.