The Unexpected

Posted: November 9, 2017 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 23A, 2017
Matthew 25:1-13

The Unexpected

One of the things I had to do when I was preparing to go to Dunedin and start training as a Minister was to write down what I thought parables were and which stories in the Bible I thought were parables. I have often wondered since what the faculty thought of my response. What I am certain of now is that I didn’t have a clue what was and wasn’t a parable when I wrote my response. And that is confirmed every day since as I am constantly finding new things about the scriptures. The most obvious question that comes up about our reading from Matthew today is “if it is a ‘parable’ then where is the surprise? There is no twist in the tale, no unexpected surprise. The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: that “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom that says that those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… The story comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). The story also emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So here we have to accept that this story is not a parable and thus there may not be much of Jesus in the story. But we don’t have to discard it just yet. There are several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

But before we engage in that discussion we might see if we can orient the text in its own time. We find ourselves with Matthew toward the end of the first century C.E. Followers of Jesus who are Jewish are spreading out beyond Jewish influence and in some cases the differences have meant a separation from synagogue worship. The increasing acceptance of Gentile membership in the Jesus movement has meant that the belief systems were beginning to make distinctions between Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus movement. On top of this the return of Jesus was taking too long for many and for others the nature of its meaning was changing. His return was increasingly metaphorical and thus more culturally universal. We find ourselves with Matthew addressing himself to a Jewish audience as they struggled with these new social realities. Sad about their loss of the past and uncertain about their readiness for the future.

At one level the story of the Wise and Foolish Virgins deals with the trepidation and aimlessness that many of the audience may have felt. The simple logical message is the importance of preparedness. In the story, five of the bridesmaids were ready for the coming of bridegroom’s party, and five were not. Alongside the lesson concerning the need for preparation, another idea deals with the fact that no one can prepare someone else for all the eventualities of life. Much as we would like to prepare our children, our families, or our friends, we can’t do it completely, we just have to get on with doing as much as we can. Show them the ropes, and lead by example. At another level the three sub-themes are developing. What is a Jesus community like? What is this communal care like? What does the second coming of Jesus really mean and indicating a cultural change coming; what is happening to the core social institution of marriage?

What is this communal care like?

In a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called five wise young women raises the question: How is the issue of scarcity in a community dealt with? Process theologian Bruce Epperly asks; “What would have happened if the women had pooled their resources?  Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) With perhaps a growing economic instability and uncertainty, choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response, but is it the only way, or even the right way? When one prepares to protect what one has how is this concern balanced with the concern for the needs of others, especially those who are most vulnerable to almost total loss? It has been claimed before that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality need to be lived out in our society, and not restricted to the individual realm. As an aside there is an interesting issue here when it comes to our ability to change St David’s. If we struggle with the idea that we need to dissolve and join with another congregation is it our belief, that is getting in our road to becoming more authentic? Should we commit ourselves to change in order to support people in other congregations who are struggling to maintain themselves?” Are we as a church just a group of unrelated individuals or are we an interdependent body of Christ?

What does the second coming of Jesus mean?

Those who hear ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and ‘be ready’, and ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasized. He is addressing the issue that Jesus hasn’t arrived yet. Dom Crossan addresses this well I think when he says that “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently.  The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally.  The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)

It appears that a theme dear to Matthew’s heart is the theme of the anticipation of coming judgment. It is important for him to emphasize to his community two things with regard to Jesus’ return. One is that they don’t know when it will come, so speculation is futile. The second is that it will come, so preparation is crucial. In the story of the Faithful or Unfaithful Slaves that directly precedes the story of the closed door, the Master comes back sooner than the slave anticipated and found him abusing his powers. In this week’s story, the Bridegroom comes later than the foolish bridesmaids anticipated and they had not gathered the provisions needed to welcome him.

The truth is that we are often unprepared for what comes next in life, despite our constant preoccupation with the future. Sometimes a premature ending takes us by surprise. At other times, we are unprepared for something to take longer than we had anticipated. In the former case, we think we have all the time in the world, to mend a relationship, to achieve an important goal, to discontinue a bad habit or begin a good one, to take care of ourselves, to read important books, to take a stand, to show we care. How often do we hear people say they wish they had done or said something sooner? We had all the time in the world to spend time with our kids. Except somebody sped up the clock, and now their rooms are empty and we get the sinking feeling that our ship has sailed.

Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, “Repent one day before your death.” One of them then asked, “How will we know when that day is?” To which he replied, “All the more reasons to repent today, lest you die tomorrow.” In the story of the closed door, the problem was not the surprisingly quick return of the master, but his surprising delay. The bridesmaids, the 5 foolish ones anyway, were not prepared for the long haul. Even though life and the world may seem to go on forever, a day is coming when there will be no more second chances to do certain things or to cease doing others.

What is happening to marriage?

This is too big a subject for part of a sermon except to note that many churches have yet to sort out what it means. We have some that persecute or restrict ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, others that disagree with both this action, and indeed, any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. What is significant is that the basis of the claims is usually presented as ‘contrary to scripture’.
This and other claims are then supported by a list of scripture passages
identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating in some way to marriage and the marital relationship. Coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. The trouble is that there is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. In fact, we have very limited, if any, information on first century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs. What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be:

  1. that marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was rather an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192). 2. That the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and 3. that the marriage was arranged and ratified on negotiated terms.

Once these were met the wedding then took place in two stages: 1st a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then 2ndly a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age, to the home of her husband.

Our story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations, with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride. “The young women are relatives and friends of the groom.  They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the story” (Reid 2001:193). Note I have said ‘young women’ rather than following some scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, because the word used to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth, which has also been translated as ‘virgin’. The trouble with this is that the word does not mean that. It means ‘a young woman of marriageable age’. Here I think we have an example of the need to preserve a particular orthodoxy and override modern scholarship.

In conclusion then, the story of the Ten Maidens appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. Certain features of the wedding it describes seem realistic, others are strange. In ancient Palestinian weddings the marriage feast was at night; the bridegroom was met with lamps, and the bridegroom was expected to delay coming for the bride. Certain details are not realistic. They include the length of the delay, the midnight arrival and the supposition that the shops would have been open for the sleeping maidens to buy oil (Luke 11:5-8). This suggests that the story is already an allegory of the delay of Christ’s return in Matthew’s community. The five foolish maidens are not foolish because they slept, but because their lamps are not lit. Light in the story symbolizes good deeds done in response to God’s gracious initiative.

The return of Christ for Matthew will be a time that separates the good from the bad (13:36-43; 26:31-46). The five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins represent these two groups.

If one takes the view that all these stories like the sayings of Jesus are about the nature of the kingdom of God. Then one has to say that: “It shows up where you least expect it.” In this case, it is the vision of a door slammed in our faces and permanently locked. Every shattering of the illusion of endless time, every reminder of the ticking clock and our mortality is where the kingdom of God beckons.

As we live out our lives in what seems often to be an imperfect, troubled world, this story suggests we should take action in response to injustice while effective action is still possible. We should participate now. In this parable Matthew retains the urgency of the return of Christ in his community, while also acknowledging that it is not necessarily imminent. As Jesus followers we have the responsibility to continue in good deeds in the extended present, in the knowledge that the time will come when we will lose the opportunity for proper action. The servants in the story of the unfaithful and faithful servants failed because they abused the time of waiting in doing evil deeds. The maidens in this story fail by inactivity. They presume a gracious future without preparing for it by active discipleship. This is the definition of foolish for Matthew. Amen.

Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.

Craig L. Blomberg, Preaching the Parables: From Responsible Interpretation to Powerful Proclamation (Baker Academic Press, 2004).

Madeline Boucher The Parables: Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1981)

John R. Donahue, The Gospel in Parables (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

Alyce M. McKenzie, The Parables for Today (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.