Week of Sunday November 6: Pentecost 21
Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But 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.” 10And 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. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Matthew 7: 21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
I remember the outrage when the town was flooded with apocalyptic Chick comics; hardline sectarian tracts. Our consternation was intriguing. As a friend said, “The thing is, we do believe there will be a judgement day! What is the problem?”
I think the problem came from two things. The stark nature of the comics, from their storylines to the style of their graphics, laid bare the harsh and arbitrary nature of popular Christian ideas about judgement day. In these comics, we were shown the brutality of what we believed, stripped of all its piety and justifications. It was confronting.
To our credit, we were also offended. We were revolted by the gloating, indeed the delight, of these comics in the suffering of those who were left behind, and going to hell and damnation.
At the end of Matthew we have a full chapter (24) on the destruction of the temple and the end of the age, leading into parables of judgement, (25) and ending in eternal punishment. (25:46) How do we approach this?
As a young people Larry Norman’s anthem rang in our ears. Life was filled with guns and war, and everyone got trampled on the floor, I wish we’d all been ready.... Little kids were terror struck watching “Thief in the Night,” thinking it had already happened, and they’d been left behind. And I still hear the angry gloating with which people talk about the coming day.
There is much in life to be angry about! But I can’t help feeling that some of the gloating anger towards those who we believe will be judged, is a psychological projection of our inner anger and disgust at ourselves, and our failings. We try to solve our own self hatred and disappointment by tipping it onto those others who are not being saved.
And much of the anger and gloating comes from bitterness; bitterness that things have not worked out how we wanted. Our broken dreams and failed plans sometimes fuel a fire of rage that is apocalyptic in its proportions; you’ll get yours! We who are bitter and disappointed need to read Matthew carefully. For whatever it means where Jesus says when the son of man comes in his glory, Matthew speaks directly to we angry gloaters. All the judgement parables here are about Christians, not the wicked.
I think these reflections are hugely important for me to mull over this week. When I come to preach on Sunday, the congregation and I will be in many minds.
In one mind we will be discomforted and uneasy about stories of fire and punishment and judgement. I cannot ignore that.
And whatever Matthew actually says, we will have in our minds a Chick-ian conglomeration of ideas with a heritage in Dante and medieval art, hellfire preaching, and theologically inept Hollywood movies, not to mention trashy religious novels. Much of that does not match either the vision of Matthew, or Jesus. I must confront that.
Finally, we will be more or less mindful of our all too human tendencies to schadenfreude and projection. Against this, we bear scars and griefs deeper than we can tell. Our un-healed pain always confronts our ethical qualms.
Where will we find good news as we read this series of texts that end in eternal punishment?
My first reflections have been to try and put the notion of judgement in some perspective. John Petty has recently posted an excerpt from Martin Luther.
"Yes, we might well keep quiet here about individual petty thieves since we ought to be attacking the great, powerful archthieves with whom lords and princes consort and who daily plunder not just a city or two, but all of Germany. . . In short, this is the way of the world. Those who can steal and rob openly are safe and free, unpunished by anyone, even desiring to be honored. Meanwhile, the petty sneak thieves who have committed one offense must bear disgrace and punishment to make the others look respectable and honorable. But they should know that God considers them to be the greatest thieves, and that he will punish them as they deserve."
Martin Luther, Large Catechism, explanation to the 7th commandment, (Book of Concord, Kolb-Wengert edition, page 417, paragraphs 230-231)
Too much of our conversation on ethics in churches is about “individual petty thieves.” We beat ourselves up about almost inconsequential failings, and ignore the great corporate evil within which we live and work; the evil where the powerful exploit the poor. This evil truly requires judgement, and must be ended.
In Australia this weekend we have seen the brutal expression of industrial might. The Quantas executive shut down the airline without notice for the purpose of crushing industrial action. Thousands of people were stranded worldwide, and justifiably angry.
During an interview on ABC TV an industrial relations pundit said something like this: “The employers usually win. They have the money and the power and the connections. All workers have is their ability to work, or not.”
It struck me how much we are at the mercy of the powerful in society, if their desires do not coincide with our needs. The powerful rule, and take what they want, just as they did in Jesus’ day.
But Jesus is not talking about Quantas! Whatever we might think of the five million salary for the boss, the thing about Quantas is that those arguing with the airline are also well paid. They receive among the best pay rates in the airline industry worldwide.
Jesus is talking about a situation where the poor are not airline pilots and engineers who have been forced to arbitration, but folk who are starving, who have few if any rights, and who live in occupied territory. Judgement is about neutralising the “the great, powerful archthieves with whom lords and princes consort and who daily plunder not just a city or two, but all of” the world. It is for the poorest of the poor, not for those already a good way up the totem pole.
If we, by contrast, reserve judgement for those who have not repeated a form of words we made up, to show allegiance to the God we have imagined, then we deserve every bit of scorn and disgust the world tips on us. We are the Chick comics of our local town.
Judgement was not primarily punishment upon. Judgement was rescue from.
Of course the texts talk off eternal punishment; the authors were human. They used the language and thought of their day. Punishment of the Herods and their hangers on, seemed only fair.
But looking at the day of the Lord as rescue from evil, instead of punishment of evil, changes our perspective dramatically. It rescues us from our pettiness, and our predisposition to revenge. It provides us with the ability to wonder if, perhaps, even someone as evil as a Herod, needs to be rescued from something.
The text this week begins, not with judgment of those who are evil, but with a warning to those who seek to be righteous. It says Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this... (25:1) which immediately tells us to go back and read what comes before.
Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? (24:45)
Are we faithful slaves?
Be watchful, says Jesus, and don’t gloat about the destruction of the temple (24) because that will make you as bad as those from whom you have been saved. You will become wicked and unjust, and a beater of servants. (24:47-49) You will have started out as one of the wise virgins following Jesus, but found to be one of the foolish virgins who ran out of oil. (25:1-13)
As a parable, a story with one overwhelming main point, the message is clear. Be prepared. Live the life that Jesus has shown you, or when your day comes, you will not be ready— even if you have been invited to the feast; that is, even if you are a follower of Jesus by name.
We can go deeper into the imagery. Stoffregen notes how “virgin” is a biblical code word for purity if discipleship.
Paul uses this word symbolically in 2C 11:2 in reference to the Corinthian church:
I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
I think that Paul explains his meaning of this word in the next verse:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. [NOTE: the Greek word translated "pure" [hagnotes] is closely related to the word translated "chaste" [hagnos] in the previous verse.]
He goes on to contrast the imagery about harlots in Hosea and other places. It’s sexist imagery, but within the worldview of the time the allusions are clear.
Brian lists the recurring use of the words “wise” and “foolish;” a recurring theme in Matthew. I’ve cut and pasted a block of text from his commentary:
A verb related to the Greek word for "lamps" is used in Mt 5:15-16 in reference to good works:
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. [NRSV]
The verbal form for "foolish" is used in the preceding verse (5:13):
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste [lit. "become foolish"], how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. [NRSV]
The same words for "wise" and "foolish" are used in 7:24-27, where the difference between the two house-builders is whether or not they acted on Jesus' words:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall! [NRSV]
The same word for "wise" is used in 24:45, which implies doing the right thing at the proper time:
Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?...
Be wise. Be ready. Give light. Don’t let your light go out. Be the faithful and wise slave. Otherwise, you may find the door closed to you.
We still have to deal with the day the son of man comes in his glory (25:31) It is the frame which holds our text. We can't ignore it.
People are afraid of it, and incredulous of it. Many wonder about the moral luck inherent in such an image as the day of judgement.
I hope there will be a day, a time, when all earth and all creation is rescued from this thing we call evil. A time when the entropy of reality, and especially of our species, ceases to drag us down and destroy the good to which we aspire.
I have no idea how that will happen, although I think living the compassion of Jesus is pointing us in the right direction.
What I do know is that most of the imagery of a judgement day does not, and cannot work for me. I have not experienced the wholesale oppression and hopelessness that means such an image can be real and hope-full. I do not know the savagery which means I could hold such an image without being a hypocrite.
My reality is that the privilege of my life and salvation demands mercy of me. I must be the Christian who prays, along with Origen perhaps, that God will delay coming until even the devil has time to repent. Time was given to me.
For me, and my experience, to ever imagine that the barbarity inherent in the images of judgement can be justified, is to belittle and mock the depth of so many other folk’s suffering. To think more violence, even although from God, will silence violence, is to have learned nothing.
And to desire judgement is already to slip into the smug mindset Matthew is warning us about; the gloating self righteousness of the saved who have forgotten, or repressed, their own evil.
I must seek truth from the text in another way.
I am reminded of the night I was riding home and navigating the large roundabout near our house. A four wheel drive stopped and gave way to me, or so I thought. Then, unseeing, he accelerated and proceeded to drive over the top of me. I had time only to think that this couldn’t be happening to me, and then, that perhaps I had no more choices left in life; this might be the end. A time will come, not of our choosing, when there are no more choices available.
It happens more slowly, too. Increasingly, we can only live with our regrets and disappointments. There is not time, or there is no ability, to relive, undo and repair what we have done. Our choices focus or life's direction; it narrows in upon us. This is inevitable.
The only question is whether we will find we have oil in our lamps, or whether we will find we have not actually lived the way of Jesus. If we have not lived that way, we may find our lamp drained by regret and bitterness. Will our own actions have shut the doors we most wished would stay open to us?
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.