Lectionary Reflection—12 November 2017
1-5“God’s kingdom is like ten young virgins who took oil lamps and went out to greet the bridegroom. Five were silly and five were smart. The silly virgins took lamps, but no extra oil. The smart virgins took jars of oil to feed their lamps. The bridegroom didn’t show up when they expected him, and they all fell asleep.
6“In the middle of the night someone yelled out, ‘He’s here! The bride-groom’s here! Go out and greet him!’
7-8“The ten virgins got up and got their lamps ready. The silly virgins said to the smart ones, ‘Our lamps are going out; lend us some of your oil.’
9“They answered, ‘There might not be enough to go around; go buy your own.’
10“They did, but while they were out buying oil, the bridegroom arrived. When everyone who was there to greet him had gone into the wedding feast, the door was locked.
11“Much later, the other virgins, the silly ones, showed up and knocked on the door, saying, ‘Master, we’re here. Let us in.’
12“He answered, ‘Do I know you? I don’t think I know you.’
13“So stay alert. You have no idea when he might arrive.”
Matthew 24 and 25 is a long monologue or sermonb known as the “Olivet Discourse” that’s also been called “The Little Apocalypse” by some scholars. But things get messy.
I should say we twist and twist and twist New Testament eschatology (the study of last things) until we make things messy.
As we’ve noted in the past couple of reflections, Jesus’ confrontation with the Religious Opposition of his day comes to a head in chapter 23. Jesus had been in the Temple when the conflict occurred (Matthew 21.23; 24.1). By the end of chapter 23 he was furious. He said to everyone present—
35-36“You can’t squirm out of this: Every drop of righteous blood ever spilled on this earth, beginning with the blood of that good man Abel right down to the blood of Zechariah, Barachiah’s son, whom you murdered at his prayers, is on your head. All this, I’m telling you, is coming down on you, on this very generation!
37-39“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Murderer of prophets! Killer of the ones who brought you God’s news! How often I’ve ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn’t let me. And now your house is desolate, nothing but a ghost town. What is there left to say? Only this: I’m out of here soon. The next time you see me you’ll say, ‘Oh, God has blessed him! He’s come, bringing God’s rule!’”
He then storms out of the Temple (Matthew 24.1). If we’d have been there, I’m sure we could’ve heard a pin drop! And then all the shouting starts! Everyone pointing at someone else blaming them, grabbing at the disciples, threatening people, etc.
The disciples quickly leave the temple, too, and follow after Jesus. “Surely,” they say to one another, “Jesus didn’t really mean that about the Temple...right?” They catch up to Jesus and, trying to be coy, point out the beauty of the Temple. Jesus replied, “You’re not impressed by all this, are you? The truth of the matter is that there’s not a stone in that building that’s not going to end up in a pile of rubble” (Matthew 24.1-2).
What follows is Jesus’ teaching on the then coming war with Rome that would completely destroy, not only the Temple, but Jerusalem and the whole Old Covenant System. The problems come in when people twist this passage and say that Jesus isn’t teaching about that. Some people maintain that Jesus is actually talking about our time and the supposed “end of the world.”c But just a cursory read through that passage, paying careful attention to the 79 times Jesus uses the word “you,”—79 times—and one should see right away that Jesus was talking about something the disciples and their contemporaries would experience.
And those “you’s” are important. In the passage this morning, Jesus tells the disciples, “Stay alert. You have no idea when [the groom] might arrive.” He’s clearly talking to them about something they’d experience.
In every one of the stories Jesus tells about the then coming war, he talks about someone leaving and returning after a delay. Those same people who say this passage (and most of 24 and all of 25) is really about our time quickly point out the delay. So let’s address that head on.
Notice that our story today is about ten women; five “smart” and five “silly.” They’re preparing for the return of the Groom. However, the Groom “didn’t show up when they expected him, and they all fell asleep” (verse 5).
Isn’t that interesting? The women fell asleep. Where else have we read about people falling asleep? In Mark’s telling of the Olivet Discourse, we read (again, notice the “you’s”):
32-37“But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job.”
And Paul wrote:
But make sure that you don’t get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God. The night is about over, dawn is about to break. Be up and awake to what God is doing! God’s putting the finishing touches on the salvation work he began when we first believed. We can’t afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don’t loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!
Paul has the same urgency that Jesus had in his lesson. Perhaps even more so. For Paul, the time is almost up. It’s been roughly 30+ years since Jesus ascended and the time that remained was “very short” (1 Corinthians 7.29; NLT).d Paul’s encouraging the followers of Jesus in Rome to not “doze off” because God is “putting the final touches” on their salvation. The New Living Translation puts Romans 13 this way:
This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here.
Paul seems to be referring to this story from Jesus. He’s encouraging followers of Jesus throughout the then known world to “wake up…the day of salvation will soon be here.”
And this, too, ties into Jesus’ story. Notice that in Jesus’ story the Groom returned to the women he left. Those weren’t different women but the exact same women. Jesus tells the disciples that they need to be ready for his return— “So [you] stay alert! You don’t know when I’ll return.” It doesn’t matter what people tell us. Jesus hasn’t changed focus to a different group of people, he’s still addressing the disciples.
Paul, some 30 odd years later, is telling the same generation of people the same thing. There’s our delay. It’s within that same generation—not hundreds or thousands of years later. It’s the same group of people. They’re the people Jesus “left behind” and it’s to them he was to return. The question, then, is quite simple:
Did Jesus return to those people or not?
How we answer that question tells us more about how we view the Bible than it does about the contents of the Bible. So, in the famous words of last knight of the Holy Grail, “Choose wisely.”
But what does any of this have to do with us today?
Well…nothing. The context of our passage this morning had a specific audience in view. And, contrary to what a lot of people tell us, we weren’t that audience. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something here for us.
If we just look at the main principle—being ready when Christ comes—I think that’s something for everyone. But the coming of Christ shouldn’t be seen as the “Second Coming” or the like. If we understand the arrival of the Groom as the passing through the thin veil of life in this world’s realm into the Otherworld’s realm, i.e., the Realm of God, then there is something for us.
The question becomes, how does one prepare for one’s own passing—or the passing of a loved one—through the veil? Too often we hear of bedside regrets, “I wish I would have done such-and-such.” Or a loved one saying, “I wish I would have said this-or-that.” I remember a doctor speaking to us when my Mom’s time was getting small. My Dad said, “I’m not ready for her to go.”
Dad was looking back over their lives together and realizing there were things he could’ve done differently and wanted the opportunity to do things better. He didn’t get that chance. Mom passed through the veil soon after that.
My own regret about that time was I wasn’t strong enough for her. I was torn between being too bold around those who weren’t Christians and not bold enough to be any kind of comfort for my Mom. I remember asking her is she was scared and she said she was. I don’t like pat answers because they have no substance. They’re used to make the giver feel better than they are of any consolation for the hearer. So I had nothing to say. No words of compassion (that I remember). Certainly, I prayed with her (that’s all I could do) but my prayers were barely audible because I was more concerned with other’s feelings than my Mom’s solace.
Of course, this was before I became a priest and it was because of my Mom’s passing that I finally stopped running from that calling.
How then does one prepare for the “end”? Since we have no way of knowing when that will be—either for ourselves or our loved ones—what can we do?
Mindfulness is being present in the moment. It’s neither about things we’ve done (or didn’t do) in the past nor is it being consumed about what may or may not happen in the future. Jesus said,
“Give your entire attention to what God’s doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness in the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” To me, this is what being prepared for our own end (or the end of a loved one) is about. When we’re mindful, we’re conscious or aware in the now. If we love someone, we should tell them (and tell them often). We should never postpone letting others know they’re meaningful to us. We should never postpone serving our loved ones in any way we can. We should learn their “love language” and speak it to them as often as we can.
In another place, Jesus said, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day” (Luke 9:62; MSG). God’s Realm shouldn’t be thought of as “going to heaven,” but in bringing God’s Rule to earth. And God’s rule is to serve others (Mark 10.42-45). In other words, we should seize every opportunity to be present with whom we love. We should be intimately aware of what we’re doing and every component of it. I remember my wife reading a passage from one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. In it he said something like if we’re present when eating bread, for example, we sense all the components that make up the bread—the grain, soil, water, and sunshine. We’re also aware of how the bread nourishes our bodies and strengthens us.
In this way, we will be ready for when our time comes or when it comes for a loved one. By being mindful we will be prepared. We’ll have our lamps full of oil with plenty on reserve to care for those who need it.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
- Scripture quotations marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
- Jesus does tell some stories to punctuate his message.
- This, in part, is because the King James Version have the disciples ask, “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24.3).
- Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.