Last revised: November 19, 2020
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PROPER 27 (November 6-12) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 32
RCL: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 or Amos 5:18-24; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13
RoCa: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; Matt. 25:1-13
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
This is another of Matthew’s vexing parables from Jesus which he alone passes on to us. In 2020 I finally feel comfortable in my reading after a many-years journey with it. The final piece to my reading is to see it more fully in its immediate context: It is one of several parables designed to enhance a sense of urgency in Jesus’ disciples in hearing the prophecies that bookend the parables. I believe that Matthew climaxes his portrait of Jesus by emphasizing Jesus role as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy — especially as the fulfillment of the “Son of Man” prophecy in Daniel 7.
The structure of this portion of Matthew’s Gospel is: (1) a series of prophecies in Matthew 24:1-31; (2) a series of parables on being prepared and awake in Matthew 24:32-25:30; and (3) the prophecy of the Son of Man Judging the Nations in Matthew 25:31-46. Clearly, I’m advocating to not read 25:31-46 as the last in a series of parables, the so-called “Parable of the Sheep and Goats,” but instead to see it as the climaxing prophecy in Matthew’s emphasis on the fulfillment of prophecy that leads into the Passion. (For further elaboration of that structure see “Nuechterlein on Jesus as Fulfilling ‘Son of Man’ Prophecy in Matthew’s Gospel.”)
Once seeing that context in Matthew, the importance of this parable is more clearly subordinated to the prophecies. Its purpose is to provide another example of how time can run-out and bring consequences if not prepared. The purpose of prophecy itself is to show the current path one is on, and where it leads, in order that one might act and choose a different path. Prophecy is not fortune-telling. It is not meant to lock a person or nation into a foregone fate. It is aimed at urging that person or nation to steer clear of a negative fate by choosing another path in the present. The parables in-between Matthew’s prophecies — of which the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is the fourth of five — are designed to underscore the urgency, giving us pictures of folks who ran out of time to choose another path and so suffer the consequences.
In 2020 I preached a sermon in light of these insights, “Choosing the Path of Caring for the Least . . . Before Time Runs Out” (and its video version). (It also happened to be the last week of a three-month covenant as Bridge Pastor in a local congregation, which I briefly address near the end.) After opening with illustrations of time running, I explain Hebrew prophecy as the gracious glimpsing of the the path one is on so as to be able to choose a different path. Example: Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I then set the context of the parable between Jesus’ prophecies in Matthew 24 and 25, with the urgency of this parable looking ahead to the judgment on the nations in Matthew 25:31-46. The sermon concludes with reflections on our current time of urgency in choosing leaders in the 2020 election.
* * * * *
The issue of urgency in theology is also a crucial background to preaching this parable. In the 2020 sermon, for example, I write:
Over recent centuries, our message became too oriented to the afterlife. Our sense of urgency was tragically misplaced to help people avoid God’s violent punishment in hell. “Time will run out on your life and God will punish you for an eternity,” became our central message.
Brothers and sisters, I believe this is completely off-track. Jesus didn’t come to save us from a violent God. Quite the contrary, a nonviolent, loving God sent Jesus to save us from our violence.
Over the last fifteen years in my preaching and teaching, I’ve worked at shifting the focus of faith from the afterlife to this life, from there-and-then to here-and-now. It begins with having a different lens for reading the New Testament message, pioneered by Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright. I led a book study on Wright‘s Surprised by Hope (the popularized version of The Resurrection of the Son of God ) as soon as it came out in 2008.
The next big step was the articulation of this sea-change to wider audiences through master communicators — great preachers! — such as Rob Bell‘s Love Wins in 2011, which our congregation studied shortly after its appearance. Along the way books by Brian McLaren were sprinkled in (such as the A New Kind of Christian trilogy and A New Kind of Christianity). Now, the shift is part of all the best books articulating the basics of the Christian faith. Among recent books, I especially recommend Diana Butler Bass‘s Grounded, Brian Zahnd‘s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, and Brian McLaren‘s The Great Spiritual Migration.
But there is still considerable resistance to this sea-change, especially to letting go of the traditional idea of hell. There is an aspect of resistance that I find compelling: the element of urgency — definitely part of Jesus’ message in passages like today’s Gospel. That urgency is sometimes lost in the translation from afterlife to this-life. In my own Lutheran tradition, this happened under the guise of what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” With a twin emphasis on grace and the afterlife, there was no urgency to one’s discipleship in the here and now.
Among Christians who keep the sense of urgency focused on a hellish afterlife, however, there has been a costly ungrace. The cost was not to one’s own self, following in the way of the cross, but to the Other, the “unbeliever.” The cost of urgency twinned with a focus on the afterlife has been a colonialist approach to ‘evangelism’ at best, and a justification for imperialistic, violent colonization at worst. The sense of urgency has been joined with fear of eternal punishment in the afterlife to create hellish situations in the here and now. And so now, hopefully, there is a sense of urgency to make the sea-change from afterlife to this-life.
A properly Jewish-Christian sense of urgency seeks to be part of God’s healing and transforming this world in the here-and-now. The urgency of discipleship is to follow Jesus in nonviolent resistance to the hellish forces in this world — a commitment to stand against the hell of human violence without adding further to the hell. It leads to a costly grace by following Jesus’ willingness to suffer the violence, absorbing it rather than perpetuating it.
In 2014 I sought to navigate a faithful sense of urgency with the sermon “Reviving an Urgency for Readiness.” Next week (Proper 28A) is another parable with a sense of urgency, and I preached a sermon with a similar message in 2011 (after leading a study of Rob Bell’s Love Wins and receiving resistance), “A Grace-Filled Sense of Urgency.”
The 2014 sermon uses Bonhoeffer’s 1930s context as an illustration. He found the “cheap grace” of his native Lutheranism to be falling short in the active discipleship needed to resist the rise of Nazism. In 2017 and 2020 we face the rise of authoritarianism in many nations of the world and a President in the United States who is friendlier with authoritarian leaders (Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Xi, et al.) than with democratic leaders. None of these has yet become the next Hitler, but the point is that one of them may do so if we lack urgency as disciples to stand against them.
It’s important to be clear that raising the specter of Hitler here is not to interject an argument about whether nonviolent resistance would have worked against Hitler. The point is not about nonviolence against someone like Hitler once they are firmly ensconced in power. The point, especially with regard to someone like Donald Trump, is to make sure they don’t have the opportunity to turn into the next Hitler. The time to repent and listen to someone like Bonhoeffer was in the early 1930s, before Hitler became cemented in power. If enough disciples of Jesus in Germany had lived with costly grace, Hitler might not have ever reached a no-return point in gaining power. But they had fallen asleep and let their lamps run out on the oil of cheap grace. I believe this parable calls us to wise and active discipleship before we end up left out in the dark once again. Trump is not yet the next Hitler, and perhaps will never be fully inclined to be. But he shows dangerous sociopathic tendencies and a love for authoritarianism. What is needed is enough wise disciples to keep enough oil in their lamps of resistance. The oil of Christ’s salvation is for the here-and-now, not the then-and-there of afterlife.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 10, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), also listed below under the Gospel. Hamerton-Kelly took the opportunity of the Amos 5 and Matthew 25 readings to preach a great sermon on apocalyptic. Many modern Christians are fascinated by apocalyptic (witness the Left Behind series) and almost seem eager to greet it. They are confident that they will be raptured away from the misery. But Amos 5:18 stands as a warning against such confident complacency: “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness not light; as if a man fled from a lion and a bear met him…” Hamerton-Kelly writes,
There are several things wrong with this picture, not least of which is that the NT, while it does have violent apocalypticism on its fringes has the non-violent kind at its heart. The first coming of God to judge and to save the world took the form of the birth of a baby whose refusal to resort to violence led to his being crucified eventually, and when God comes again his presence will be the same as this first time, gentle, loving and non-violent. We are at present at the end of the church year, where the lectionary directs our attention to the second coming in judgment, conveyed in these parables and pictures at the end of Matthew’s gospel. We reflect on the second coming and prepare again for the first, for Advent, which begins in three weeks, and for Christmas. We must hold these two advents together if we are to understand what the gospels are saying, namely, that the one who comes to judge is the same as the one who came to die; the baby Jesus does not suddenly change into the barbarian Christ, the one who turns the other cheek does not suddenly become a virtuoso of vengeance.
With this in mind we listen first to Amos and then to Jesus, and we discover that their themes converge. Both attack what we call complacency, the self-satisfaction of what Mark Twain called “a Christian holding four aces,” (his least favorite kind of person). Who are the people Amos tells not to look forward to the “day of the Lord”? They are those who believe that they will be coddled and congratulated on that day and have the great satisfaction of seeing their enemies tortured by none other than God Himself. That day will be the great day of the divine vengeance on God’s enemies, who are, of course, precisely the same as my enemies. God will do the dirty work of revenge for us and we will walk away doubly blessed. Not only will we have succeeded, but they also will have failed — no room for both to succeed. Amos, however, puts it vividly; that that day will be for us not light but darkness; we might think that then will be better for us than now because we shall have escaped the lion of our present enemies, but on that day we shall meet the bear of our own sinfulness, we shall discover that the one to blame is not the other but myself, that instead of complacency I should have been contrite. “I have met the enemy and he is I. God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
He sees the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids as making the same point:
Jesus tells us a parable of ten virgins, five wise and five complacent. The complacent ones assume that they will be included when the bridegroom comes. They do not need to pay careful attention, to plan for unexpected delays, sudden changes of plan. They are bridesmaids and so are automatically included. But they discover that the complacency is fatal, and furthermore that in these ultimate things nobody can help you; you cannot borrow from those who have been prepared. You stand or fall on your own; no one else can make up your shortfall. Therefore Jesus says, “Pay attention, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). So we must be attentive not complacent, if, as one of the unconscious humorists of my profession put it, we do not want to end up in the dark with five foolish virgins.
Combined with N. T. Wright’s correction of our heavenly visions, shared below (under both the Epistle and the Gospel), this is a very helpful sermon to read on the apocalyptic theme of the lessons.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from September 14, 2003 (Woodside Village Church), 11th in a series of eleven sermons on the prophets.
3. This passage is one of the crucial voices of dissent of the Hebrew prophets criticizing sacrificial religion. For more on this theme see my page on “The Bible and Sacrifice.”
1 Thess. 4:13-18
1. James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 6, on “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia.” One of Alison’s overall theses is that Jesus subverted the apocalyptic imagination from within. The latter was an improvement over the pagan notion of an eternal return (Nietzsche?) but remained stuck within the notion of a violent God. So, says Alison,
It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. (p. 125)
The next step, in the light of the Resurrection, was for the apostolic witness to have the apocalyptic imagination of their Jewish heritage transformed into an eschatological imagination. They had to go back and recover the insight that Jesus himself brought to the notion of Judgment Day. But it did not happen overnight. The NT texts reflect the process of transformation, especially one in which all violence only gradually becomes purged from their view of God and the Judgment Day. 1 Thess is considered one of the earliest writings in the NT and is still closer to the apocalyptic imagination in some respects.
2. Ibid. Alison also takes on the popular modern thesis that Jesus might have had the timing of the Parousia wrong, that he preached an imminent Parousia. Then, as the thesis goes, when it was delayed, the early church created its own theology to deal with it. Alison suggests that the entire duality between this age and the next is proper to the apocalyptic imagination not to Jesus’ eschatological imagination. And so Jesus’ understanding of the Parousia was also transformed:
…where the heavenly reality of the crucified and risen victim is already present to the apostolic group, allowing the beginnings of a human life and sociality which are not marked by death, but whose members are free to live a life of self-giving in imitation of Jesus thanks to their faith in the death-less nature of God, then a continuity is already coming about between this age and the next. Human time itself, an unalienable dimension of the physical creatureliness of the human being, has begun to become capable of sharing in life without end. (p. 127)
So Alison says of 1 Thess:
If we take the notion of the ‘end’ understood as vengeance, just as it is found in 1 Thessalonians, it is a vengeful end which depends exactly on there being insiders and outsiders, so that the afflicted are vindicated, and the persecutors punished. But in the degree to which the perception of God changes, becoming, as we have seen, shorn of violence, two realities are altered simultaneously: the separation between goodies and baddies, insiders and outsiders, enters into a process of continuous collapse and subversion, and at the same time the ‘end’ cannot remain as a vengeance if there is no longer any clarity about who’s an insider and who an outsider, and under these circumstances the notion of the end itself changes towards what we see in 2 Peter: it becomes a principle of revelation of what had really been going on during the time that has been left for the changing of hearts… In this way the End, rather than being a vengeful conclusion to time, comes to be a principle, operative in time, by means of which we may live out the arrival of the Son of Man, the being alert for the thief in the night, the whole time. (p. 127)
What 1 Thess (5:2) does have correct is the image of the “thief in the night,” which gospel references (Mt. 24:42-44, Lk. 12:39-40) would seem to indicate comes from Jesus himself. Alison anchors his argument with an image or illustration that lends the book its title. Imagine if Abel was resurrected to confront his brother Abel like a thief in the night. But instead came to forgive him. Again, I’ll let Alison speak for himself:
What I wanted to suggest is that, in this, very exactly, does the Christian faith consist: in the return of Abel as forgiveness for Cain, and the return of Abel not only as a decree of forgiveness for Cain, but as an insistent presence which gives Cain time to recover his story, and, with the years which remain to him, which may only be days, who knows, to begin to construct another story… However the story is to finish, between this arrival of his brother like a thief in the night, and the end of his days, Cain will be hard at work in the construction of the story of one who can look into his brother’s eyes neither with pride nor with shame. He will look instead with the gratitude of a man who has received himself back at the hands of the one he himself killed, killed so as to fill the vacuum of the feeling that, before that other, he, Cain, had no ‘himself’ to give, no ‘himself’ with whom to love. This is the story of which we are talking when we speak of the human story in its working out starting from the resurrection. It is what I call the time of Abel. (p. 134)
So the time of Abel is prompted by the sudden appearance of the brother slain, who has already come like the thief in the night; the ‘delay’ in his return is a time of grace that allows the slayers a time to rewrite their stories.
3. Since 2004 the work of N. T. Wright has been more a part of my view on “apocalyptic.” Wright challenges the view of the Parousia which has held sway since Bultmann, for exegetical reasons that may be of support to Alison’s theological and anthropological reasons. The sources from Wright on 1 Thessalonians and eschatology are: The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp. 213-219; Paul: In Fresh Perspective, pp. 54-56; Surprised by Hope, pp. 128-133; Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, pp. 122ff.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 sure seems to describe Christ’s “Second Coming.” Let’s begin with the latter notion and Wright’s teaching about it:
When God renews the whole cosmos, the New Testament insists, Jesus himself will be personally present as the center and focus of the new world that will result. What does the Christian faith teach at this point? What is its sharp edge for us today? How can we make it our own? Answering these questions has become more difficult in the past century. There are two reasons for this, more or less equal and opposite.
One reason is that the second coming of Jesus Christ has become the favorite topic of a large swath of North American Christianity, particularly but not exclusively in the fundamentalist and dispensationalist segment. Growing out of some millenarian movements of the nineteenth century, particularly those associated with J. N. Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, a belief has arisen, and taken hold of millions of minds and hearts, that we are now living in the end times, in which all the great prophecies are to be fulfilled at last. Central to these prophecies, it is believed, is the promise that Jesus will return in person, snatching the true believers away from this wicked world to be with him and then, after an interval of ungodliness, returning to reign over the world forever. The attempt to correlate these prophecies with the geopolitical events of the 1960s and 1970s, which reached a height in Hal Lindsey’s bestselling book, The Late Great Planet Earth, has somewhat palled, but its place has been taken by the fictional scenarios offered by a series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins [Left Behind]. [Surprised by Hope, pp. 118-119]
But there’s one further problem to contend with, as well: the view that Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians thought the Second Coming was within a generation, and so they were wrong. Here Wright’s work on the Historical Jesus, some of which will be covered below with the Gospel, has helped to transform contemporary New Testament scholarship. His basic approach is to say that the past interpretations of certain Gospel passages to be describing a Second Coming are wrong. They describe something else. But if the Gospels never portray a Second Coming of Jesus, then where does Christianity get the idea of Christ coming back? Answer: In the rest of the New Testament, especially St. Paul. We read in Surprised by Hope:
Paul’s letters are full of the future coming or appearing of Jesus. His worldview, his theology, his missionary practice, his devotion are all inconceivable without it. Yet what he has to say about this great event has often been misunderstood, not least by the proponents of rapture theology. It’s almost time to address this directly, but first a word about another major and often misunderstood technical term. Scholars and simple folk alike can get led astray by the use of a single word to refer to something when that word in its original setting means both more and less than the use, to which it is subsequently put. In this case the word in question is the Greek word parousia. This is usually translated “coming,” but literally it means “presence” — that is, presence as opposed to absence. (p. 128)
It’s helpful to know how the word parousia was used in the wider Greek world: (1) The awareness of a god becoming present; (2) when a king or emperor came to visit — royal presence. Early Christians probably meant both these meanings when referring to Christ’s coming again, but parousia wasn’t used exclusively for that future coming. It also indicated Christ’s presence in the interim:
The Jewish story line in question was, of course, the story of the Day of the Lord, the Day of YHWH, the day when YHWH would defeat all Israel’s enemies and rescue his people once and for all. . . . What happened, it seems, was this. The early Christians had lived within and breathed and prayed that old Jewish story line. In the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, shocking and unexpected though they were, they grasped the fact that in this way Israel’s God had indeed done what he’d always intended, though it hadn’t looked like they thought it would. Through this they came to see that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, was already the world’s true Lord and that his secret presence by his Spirit in the present time was only a hint of what was still to come, when he would finally be revealed as the one whose power would trump all other powers both earthly and heavenly. The Jesus story thus created a radical intensification and transformation from within the Jewish story, and the language that results in describing the Jesus event that is yet to come is the language that says, in relation to the future: Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. (p. 130)
Wright also responds to the popular “rapture” theology — the idea that Jesus will come first to take away his faithful people before the time of judgment for all those “left behind.” The main verse is 1 Thess. 4:17: “The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” Wright explains this imagery:
When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of “meeting” the Lord “in the air,” the point is precisely not — as in the popular rapture theology — that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. (pp. 132-33)
And so Wright sums up:
The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed. That, as we shall now see, is pretty much what the rest of the New Testament says as well. . . . (p. 133) There will come a time, which might indeed come at any time, when, in the great renewal of the world that Easter itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers. (p. 136)
Reflections and Questions
1. There are commentaries (Ernest Best’s, for example) which speak of NT “mythologies” of the Parousia that we might not want to accept as modern people. Mimetic theory sheds light on what constitutes a mythology; and I think that Alison helps us to steer through the mess of modern scholarship with a refreshing view. The best route to preaching this passage might be to use it with the gospel to talk in terms of Alison’s “time of Abel.”
2. There is also the aspect of comfort, which is Paul’s main purpose in this passage itself. But N. T. Wright’s way of looking at apocalyptic in the New Testament changes the manner of comfort. In recent generations of Christians, the emphasis has been on ‘going to heaven when you die’ — most often thinking in terms of disembodied souls, more like Plato. But Wright seeks to ground our Christian hope back into the resurrection of the body, based on Christ’s own resurrection as the firstfruits. Our Christian hope is primarily for what comes after resting in the Lord during the time in between the death of our earthly bodies and the resurrection of our heavenly bodies for the new creation. This passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 does address that in-between time for those who grieve lost loved ones. It assures them not primarily with that time of rest, however, but with what comes after it when Christ returns for the New Creation. Those who have died in the Lord will also be raised to join with those still alive when the New Creation arrives. In his commentary specifically on this passage, for example, Wright writes:
How do you describe the colour blue to a blind person? If someone has never been able to see, how can you even convey the idea of colour, let alone the difference between colours? . . . Now put yourself in Paul’s shoes as he tries to tell the Thessalonians what is going to happen at the return of the Lord. He has a practical purpose: some Christians in Thessalonica have died, and the others aren’t sure what to believe about where these people are and what will happen to them. Paul is concerned that they learn appropriate Christian grief, instead of the wild and hopeless mourning that typified pagan funerals.
Paul therefore needs to describe the moment when God makes his new world. The only possible language is that of pictures. Scientists struggle even today to find the right language to describe the moment when our world came to birth; they, too, are driven to use highly colourful and metaphorical language.
Paul’s starting point echoes one of the earliest Christian creeds, the short verbal formulae that summed up what the church believed: “Jesus died and rose again” (verse 14). That little sentence, though, doesn’t just give information about the past; it reveals what will happen to those who belong to Jesus. They too, if they die “through him,” that is, through being united with him, will also rise again. God will “bring them with Jesus.” Paul is not undertaking to say exactly where the dead are, or what state they are in. It is enough to know that they are in God’s care, and that, when Jesus appears again, so will they.
But his main point requires more colourful language. This is where readers have often experienced the kind of difficulty that a blind person would meet if, supposing red to be literally a hard colour, or yellow a sharp one, they would assume that all hard objects were also red, or that all needles, forks and knives were also yellow. The basic point Paul is making is that those Christians who are still alive when the great day dawns will not find themselves at an advantage over those who have died. He explains this by using one of the pictures which, when read like the hard/red or sharp/yellow misunderstandings, has misled many Christians into supposing it was a literal description of what will one day occur.
He joins together several pictures from the Old Testament, and says (verses 16-17) that the Lord will come down from heaven, accompanied by various dramatic signs. The dead will rise; those who are left alive (Paul says “we,” assuming here that he and his companions will be among those still living) will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. These two verses have had a huge influence in some circles where “the rapture” is assumed to be the main Christian hope, with people being suddenly snatched out of homes, jobs, cars and aeroplanes, leaving the rest of humankind suddenly bereft.
To read the passage like that is to make the hard/red or sharp/yellow mistake. The key is to realize what resurrection itself means: it doesn’t mean disembodied life in some mid-air “heaven,” but the re-embodiment of God’s people to live with and for God in the new, redeemed world that God will make. It would therefore be nonsense to imagine that the presently alive Christians are literally going to be snatched up into the sky, there to remain for ever. How would they then be with the others who, having died previously, will be raised and given new bodies? . . .
So when Paul talks of Christians “being snatched up among the clouds,” he is again not thinking of a literal vertical ascent. The language here is taken from Daniel 7, where “one like a son of man” goes up on the clouds as he is vindicated by God after his suffering — a wonderful image not least for people like the Thessalonians who were suffering persecution and awaiting God’s vindication. And their “meeting” with the Lord doesn’t mean they will then be staying in mid-air with him. They are like Roman citizens in a colony, going out to meet the emperor when he pays them a state visit, and then accompanying him back to the city itself.
Paul’s purpose here is not speculation, but comfort. We, for different days, may need to change the imagery to make the point. We may find it more intelligible to speak of Christ’s “appearing” — as Paul himself does elsewhere — than his downward “descent.” But his point is that we can be confident in God’s future purposes for those Christians who have died. There will be grief, of course; but there is also hope. There will come a day when God will put all wrongs to rights, when all grief will turn to joy. Jesus will be central to that day, which will end with the unveiling of God’s new world. There, those who have already died, and those who are still alive, will both alike be given renewed bodies to serve God joyfully in his new creation. (Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, pp. 122-126)
3. Paul uses “we” language here when talking about those who will still be alive when Christ returns. Did he think he would be alive for Christ’s return? That’s possible. His being wrong about the timing isn’t as crucial as Jesus being wrong.
1. Many commentators point to the importance of the end of the Sermon on the Mount to the central images of this parable:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On 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?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ 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!” (Matthew 7:21-27)
The bridesmaids are categorized as wise and foolish, as are the two builders of houses; and they call out “Lord, Lord” when shut out, as Jesus talks about in 7:21-23. The response here is the same as in the parable, “I did not know you.”
Point? That not following the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount has real consequences for which time might run out to change them. Jesus has opened the way to living the Way of avoiding negative consequences if we answer his call to discipleship.
What are the highlights of the Sermon on the Mount? How are we to live?
- Beatitudes: with God’s topsy-turvy values of valuing most those who are valued least, those who are marginalized.
- Radical behaviors for living God’s law of love in the world in 5:21-48: Don’t even be angry, don’t even lust in your heart, don’t swear at all, turn the other cheek, love your enemies.
- Matthew 6:21: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
- Matthew 6:31, 33: Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.
- Matthew 7:1, 3: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
- Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
2. The change in audience might be crucial here. The lectionary parables of recent weeks followed Matthew 21:23:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
Jesus is responding to the elders of the people in the previous parables. Beginning in Matthew 24:1, we have a change of setting and audience:
As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus is now speaking “privately” to his disciples. He is speaking to us, his followers. Does that make a difference in hearing the warning of these next three parables?
3. The word for “bridesmaid,” parthenos, is used only one other time in Matthew, in 1:23, a quote of Isaiah:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Remember that Matthew’s Gospel begins with seventeen verses of genealogy, mostly a list of father’s names, with only five mothers picked out: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Uriah,” and Mary. All of these conceptions were under questionable circumstances involving women who may have been considered outsiders for various reasons. 1:18 immediately gives us Mary’s situation: she is found to be with child while only engaged and not even living with her betrothed. She is, somewhat ironically, the “virgin” of the Isaiah quote in Matthew 1:23. Other than in this parable of the ten bridesmaids, parthenos is used in the four Gospels only to twice refer to Mary, in Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27.
4. There are no close parallels to this passage in Mark and Luke.
1. See above on second lesson; the Parable of the Ten Maidens includes the notion of the delay of the bridegroom, or the delayed Parousia, which Alison addresses.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, on Matthew 24-25, pp. 152-158. Alison thinks it important to take the last three parables of Jesus in Matthew together: the Ten Maidens, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats. They speak to how to live in the present in the time of Abel. His conclusion is:
So, with Matthew, apocalyptic language and all, we see that his three final parables have to do strictly with how to live in the time of Abel: first, being alert means preparing yourself patiently for the duration; secondly, the patient construction of the kingdom means having your imagination fixed on the abundant generosity of the One Who empowers and gives growth; and thirdly, what is demanded is a non-scandalized living out which is flexible enough to be able to recognize those whom the world is throwing out, and then a stretching out of the hand so as to create with them the kingdom of heaven. All of this is a making explicit of the eschatological imagination through the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination.
More specifically to the Parable of the Ten Maidens, he makes a helpful connection between the wise and foolish maidens and the wise man who builds on a rock and the foolish man who builds on sand in Matt. 7:24-27. (One might also point to another connection to the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your lights so shine before others…”; Mt. 5:16. The latter is a traditional part of many baptismal liturgies; the time of Abel is the time of our living in our baptisms as forgiven people who are graciously given the opportunity to live a new way that takes solidarity with the victims, rather than the persecutors, and to let our lights so shine.)
Alison also addresses this passage in a video homily for Proper 27A (Ordinary 32); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison begins by setting the scene, which has shifted from the Temple controversies in Matthew 22 to this new setting of speaking privately to his disciples. Overall, Alison uses a more allegorical mode of interpretation than I’ve chosen, but he fits it beautifully into the context not of the Son of Man prophecies in Matthew 24-25 (my chosen reading) but as a preview of what is about to take place in the Passion. The disciples, especially Peter, show themselves to not be ready for the coming of the bridegroom in the Passion. To be prepared — and the same is true of any subsequent disciples — the disciples needed to have learned to see the arrival of the bridegroom paradoxically in the one who is led away for scapegoating. Alison concludes with a great story of a low-ranking German soldier during the Holocaust, by the name of Anton Schmid (as told by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem), who saved Jews being transported by train to the death camps and was consequently executed by the Gestapo.
3. James Alison, Knowing Jesus, makes the connection between the Beatitudes (see comments on the Gospel of All Saints A, generally two weeks previous to this lection) and the final parable in Matthew:
The key feature of blessedness is that it involves living a deliberately chosen and cultivated sort of life which is not involved in the power and violence of the world, and which because of this fact, makes the ones living it immensely vulnerable to being turned into victims. That is the center of the ethic as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If we then turn to the end of Jesus’ last discourse before his passion [Matt. 25:31-46] — the mirror image of this, the first of his discourses — we find the same intelligence at work. In the famous passage of the last judgement, the judgement is defined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma. The judgement is presented in terms of the human relationships towards victims. Those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick, or imprisoned. Those who have understood, whether or not they know anything about Jesus, are those who have seen their way out of the self-deception of the world which is blind to its victims, and have reached out to help them. Again, the intelligence of the victim [link to webpage on Alison’s use of this phrase “the intelligence of the victim“]: it is the crucified and risen victim who is the judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.
As indicated above in #2, Alison treats the three parables in Matthew 25 as a sort of triptych. Being prepared for the coming of the bridegroom is to live life in relationship to the world’s victims.
4. The art connected with this parable is rather interesting. Jenee Woodard, at her “The Text This Week” website, provides Links to images of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Robert Widdowson, on the GIRARD Ecunet meeting (no longer available), offered another link to art which seems to be from the perspective of the foolish virgins who are shut-out: the liberation perspective of Cerezo Barredo’s drawing of the five foolish virgins.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 10, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “Taken In By Grace; and in 2014, with a good use of a movie, “‘August: Osage County‘”; in 2017, “Extra Oil for the Wait“; Brenda Sawatzky Paetkau, a sermon in 2017, “Healing in a Hurtful Text.”
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2014, “On Gathering with Those Who Keep Their Lamps Burning.”
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2008 these lessons followed the weekend after Barack Obama was elected to the presidency. He had begun his election night speech, “This our moment. This is our time.” He continued with a list of the challenges that lay ahead. I believe that this is what the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids is about, the challenge of taking up discipleship with Jesus before the dire consequences begin to pile up. For a number of generations Christians have heard the being locked out of the wedding as missing out on heaven; one must have some urgency on deciding for Jesus before you die, or it will be too late. But N. T. Wright has been correcting our Christian eschatology (see above for the Epistle) such that we hear the warnings of the Gospels as warnings for consequences in this world. Our sense of urgency needs to be for today. The world needs disciples of Jesus to lead it into the Way today. Or we may once again be left out on our dreams for peace. The next great apocalypse of violence (think World War II, not the Left Behind series) may come upon us. I ended the sermon “The Audacity of Hope“:
Would we say with Barack Obama, but with our discipleship of Jesus at the forefronts of our minds, ‘Yes! This is our moment. This is our time. This is our chance to repent and get on board with God’s agenda, God’s kingdom, God’s will for this creation. Jesus got it started for us two thousand years ago, and the problems we face now are our opportunity to follow Jesus and be part of God’s finally defeating those powers of sin and death for good. Yes, Lord Jesus, we will get on board with what you started in this world so long ago. We will answer your call. This is our moment. This is our time — to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace around the world; to reclaim God’s Dream of a creation that lives in harmony, grace, peace, and love. Amen.’
2. Andrew Marr, on the GIRARD Ecunet meeting (no longer available), offered the following insightful comments regarding this parable:
Only human beings expel themselves. In the case of this parable, the problem with the five “foolish” bridesmaids is that they didn’t trust the bridegroom and just join the party. They ran off to get oil because THEY thought they weren’t good enough to get in without the oil. This approach can give us much the same deal with the parable of the talents as told in Matthew. Again, it is the one who has the least who thinks he or she really has nothing and feels inadequate to the kingdom and so won’t join the party.
See the comments for next week’s Gospel Lesson, the Parable of the Talents, in order to see the consistency of a ‘Girardian’ reading here. The third servant in that parable views his master as a “harsh man,” and thus is judged accordingly. Here, Marr is suggesting a similar reading: the five foolish virgins think they will get left out if they don’t have oil in their lamps, so they foolishly run off to find some; when they return, they find themselves left out as they expected. They did not trust the groom to include them regardless of not having lit lamps.
In keeping with Alison’s triptych reading (see resource #3 above), Marr comments:
This parable does put an emphasis on readiness, which is not the same thing as “works righteousness.” The image of oil for the lamps can be (and has been) interpreted as an inner disposition that makes one alert for the presence of the kingdom when that presence occurs. It can be seen as a disposition for empathy for the victim that makes one alert to the presence and needs of the victims and leads to responses that further the kingdom.
Link to a 2002 sermon using this reading of the parable, entitled “Faith in a Welcoming Bridegroom.”
3. My 1990 sermon (pre-Girard days that began for me in May 1992) on these texts was what Lutherans call “Law and Gospel” preaching. I set up the Gospel with the Law, primarily based on the Old Testament text assigned in the former Lutheran lectionary, Amos 5:18-24. Here are the concluding paragraphs:
Depressing, isn’t it? When do I get to the uplifting part, where I tell us what we need to do to get ready for the Lord’s coming? When do I challenge and encourage us with flowery words about justice and righteous flowing in our lives? But, you see, I’m not sure I can. It didn’t work for Amos. There’s something missing yet from his message. In fact, the parable from Matthew this morning suffers from the same kind of deficiency. For me, that’s the wisdom of the catholic mass, the regular partaking of the sacrament. That’s the wisdom of never wrestling with the word without the guarantee of the new covenant that comes with celebrating the Eucharist. For what is missing from our lessons this morning is the message of the cross. I could get pumped up with all kinds of words of great prophecy, like Amos, but still run the danger of leaving out the cross. But sharing our Lord’s Supper softens that risk, because our Lord has promised that it always carries with it the power of that message of the cross. Only the cross bears the good news. For the cross essentially tells us that there really is nothing that you and I can do to get ready for the Lord’s coming. But, you see, that’s just it: the Lord has already come. The day of the Lord has arrived. And, yes, Amos was right about several things. The day of the Lord was darkness for we who lived in the shelter of our own security. The day of the Lord did bring judgement on all who fall short of the righteousness of God. But Amos was also fundamentally wrong about one important thing: it was not God’s judgment which brought death to all the offenders. Rather, the horror and darkness of the day of Lord consists in that the offenders brought death to God. Amos never would have suspected that on the Day of the Lord it would be us who kill God. That it was Jesus Christ, in obedience to his Father, who leaped in and took the bite of the serpent for us. The good news is that God raises him up to extend new life to all.
In fact, the good news goes even further than that. Unlike the lessons from Amos and Matthew, which by themselves are on the side of the law, our lesson from St. Paul gives us a glimpse of that good news. Underneath all the apocalyptic language about Christ returning, Paul makes one thing perfectly clear: the end result is that we will live with Christ forever. And the basis for that hope is the fact that Christ died and rose. For St. Paul the words “with Christ” are almost a technical term. In Romans chapter 6 we learn that life with Christ begins at baptism, when we are baptized into the power of Christ’s dying and rising again. Thus, Amos’ challenge to let justice flow takes on a different light. It is not a matter of something I have to do, or we have to do, that justice will begin to flow. Rather, God’s justice and righteous flows from the cross, and in our baptisms it becomes a cascade of water that washes us clean. God’s justice becomes an everflowing stream through the days of our lives. It is when I know God’s righteousness as a sheer gift of grace that I can then hear Amos’ words as a gift, too, as guidance to my efforts of what it means to live in justice each day. And I can hear the commandments of Matthew to be ready with a new ending: when the bridegroom comes, he brings with him enough oil for everyone, so that, as we will say a bit later this morning, we can “let our lights so shine before others that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is heaven.” Let your lights so shine! Amen