In our DNA or in Community yet to be?

Posted: November 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

In our DNA or in Community yet to be?

I want to suggest that in our Matthew’s story for today there is a lot of what we might name ‘ancient DNA’ but very little Jesus storytelling DNA in it. Another thing to consider is whether or not this is actually a parable? If it is this story is a ‘parable’ we are compelled to ask where is the surprise, or the twist in the tale? The Jesus Seminar said this about the story: “It does not cut against the religious and social grain.  Rather if confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254). Another thing this story does is it emphasizes boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again, is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus. So, it might be safe to assume that this story is not a parable but it does have several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes that seem to be running through it.

One of the sub-themes might be that of community life where communal life is a feature. The second theme might be that of a second coming, an immanent, return of the messiah and the third theme might be that of marriage.

Community Life and Communal Care 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 questions: How do we deal with issues of scarcity in our community? How do we deal with issues of privilege, distribution of power, resources and difference? The examples of economic instability reflected in business failures, home foreclosures, and uncertainty, and in these particular times we might ask why is it that “choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response?” Is it ok that the few control most of the resources?

Process theologian Bruce Epperly, asks is this acceptable when this life is a journey?  “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) How does the distribution of resources play out in a kingdom almost here and certain to come? Does an inequity of power and resources constitute being alert and ready?

The theme of the second Coming of Jesus that arises out of the fear of being left out, or left behind and missing out on a supernatural expectation of the messiah. When hearing ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do we do so because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others, where the message of ‘stay alert’ and be ready’, along with ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasised.

We know as Dom Crossan has commented “the so-called 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) Again, the story is that this new community that we seek is not only the now but also that which is certain to be. It is about the building of, the creation of, and the entering into; the manifestation of the kingdom of realm of God that we are called into.

A keen scholar of Paul Tillich suggested that “God is so immanent as to appear transcendent” In our obsession with transcendent and imperial cosmic notions of God we have neglected the immanent. We have focused so much on God “up there” and Heaven “out there, one day”, that we have forgotten the indwelling unity of all being in the heart of God. Let us not forget the opening lines of this, as with all the parables, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” It is an immanent reality as much as a transcendent one.

The third theme is that of Marriage and here we are asked to enter the historical context without all the information and that only goes so far because we have already experienced our own cultural assumptions about the place of the rite, the concept and the institution within which we might expect to be of the new realm of God.

Recent attempts to explain the place and purpose of marriage in our present community have engendered charges brought against some ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, by those who disagree with both this action, and any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church. The basis of the claims is usually presented by this who depend upon a literalized text as ‘contrary to scripture’.

These claims along with others 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. This is often coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’. This latter action is skating on very thin ice indeed! There is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage. Indeed, 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: (i) marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was an arrangement made “by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192); (ii) the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and (iii) the marriage was arranged and ratified by the fathers/mothers, but the negotiated the terms. The wedding then took place in two stages:

(i) a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then

(ii) 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). We might say ‘young women’ rather than following many orthodox scholars who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, and we say that 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 word does not mean virgin but rather ‘a young woman of marriageable age’.

Having spelt out the themes that arise and asking the ‘authentic’ question we are left with one and that is that of a parable concern which is what this new Kingdom or Realm of God might look like if and when it comes and this is akin to our first theme of community life and communal care as it might touch our life experiences. We can also resonate with this especially in light of the growing economic instability home foreclosures and the economic uncertainty in our time. We can also resonate with it in the post covid-19 world that lies ahead. As we prepare to protect what we now have, how do we balance this concern, with a concern for the needs of others, especially those who are now most vulnerable to almost total loss? This question is not new for back in the 1960s we were told that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity, our intimate beliefs about reality needed to be lived out in our society, and not be restricted just to the individual reality. In other words, this new realm; new kingdom; is not just about money, it is about the whole of life as and in community. It is not just about political ideology but rather about human flourishing.

So maybe we might ask how we all might react if the minister in the next suburb along the Valley, was to suggest that our congregations might commit themselves “to sacrificial giving in order to support persons in [other] congregations who lose their jobs or are threatened with foreclosure?” (B Epperly. P&F web site, 2008) Are we just a group of unrelated individuals or the interdependent body of Christ seeking the indwelling of the realm of our God?

What do we do to the poor and needy when we raise the value of houses in their area? What do we do for the poor and needy when we raise interest rates? Are these not but 2 questions we should ask when asking how we might make decisions that enhance human flourishing?

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.

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