Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Judging the Wise and the Foolish

Scripture cited here includes Amos 5:18-24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13.

There sure does seem to be a lot to pick at in today’s Gospel. What’s a bridegroom doing arriving at his wedding banquet at midnight? Why should anyone expect oil dealers to be open at that hour? And most of all, how wise is it not to share what you have? We might rather pick an argument than agree that this is an allegory of heaven.

There’s something of the prophet Amos and something of the apostle Paul in this Gospel portion. Amos is heard taking to task the religious leaders of his time, who predicted that the people of God would be rewarded by a glorious day of national fulfillment, God’s favor poured out on his favorite nation. Amos argued, “You’ve got to be kidding! There is a great day coming, and it will be what our nation deserves, but woe to you who want that day to come! Expect God’s judgment, not God’s favor. No one nation is going to be exalted: all will be judged. And don’t let that news send you into solemn assembly and the singing of national anthems. Do you want to be prepared for that day? Then let justice roll down like waters, and responsible living like an ever-flowing stream.

That’s Amos! Invite him to your next cocktail party, and while you’re at it you might want to invite the cops, too. Amos never met a status quo he didn’t shake. What he does for us this morning is help us understand what those bridesmaids in Matthew’s allegory are preparing for, and that is the day of judgment, when God sends the Messiah to sort out the mess mankind has made of life on earth.

St. Paul offers his own vision of that day, but while Amos describes it happening to a nation, Paul is enough of a pastor to know that when people have to face change, they tend to ask, “And what will this mean for me?” When the trumpet sounds and the archangel calls, says Paul, the dead in Christ will rise first, then we rise and wait no longer for the Master’s return for we will be caught up in the clouds where they are, and where he is, for a mighty reunion that will last forever. You can reassure one another with these words, Paul says.

Matthew’s not so ethereal. He locates the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead at an abundant banquet, a wedding banquet, an image used also by some of the great prophets of Israel to describe the culmination of history. And the story Matthew sets around this feast, the one we may want to argue with, is all about getting in.

It’s also about oil, isn’t it? We can relate to that. Even with the price of gasoline down dramatically, oil is just as precious a commodity now as 2000 years ago. Because we’re hearing an allegory, this oil stands for something. In Hebrew tradition, oil represents deeds of love and mercy. You just have to trust me on that; first-century hearers would have known it when they heard it.

This Gospel story was spoken to that first generation of Christians who couldn’t gauge when their Lord would return to complete his redeeming of the world. They kept praying daily, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven,” not knowing if that might happen tonight, tomorrow—but expecting it at any moment. What was the church to do in the between-time? This story answers that question. And it’s where the oil comes in.

The bridesmaids represent the church—all ten of them, the wise and the foolish. From the beginning, the church has been a mixed bag. Given that we’re all human, this is no surprise. There is even a Latin term—“corpus mixtum”—to name this concept that people get baptized and join the church for mixed motives and out of mixed visions of what membership requires.

This was a life and death issue in the early Church, where the emperor’s persecution of Christians kept forcing a separation between believers willing to die for their faith, and believers not prepared to do so. I say a life and death issue— to avoid arrest, some Christians outed others, reporting them to the authorities, so whom could you trust within this “corpus mixtum” of a church? And once the persecutions had abated, the persevering church had to receive back into its fold the lax who had publicly denied their faith to avoid death. Yes, the bridesmaids represent the church—both the five wise ones and the five foolish. This Gospel announces the truth they embraced, or the truth that embraced them, that only God could judge who was worthy to come to the banquet. Until that day of certainty, all belonged. Beyond that day, it would be for God to judge.

But back to the oil. All ten knew they needed it for their lamps. Five took extra oil in flasks. (Should we call them the Energizer Bunnies?) They recognized that they were in for the long haul, and they intended to be ready. Five had only the oil their lamps came with, nothing more in reserve, and the later it got, the less they had. (In this present economy, we may have great sympathy for these five bunnies.)

Here’s Matthew’s message: As we await the coming of God’s rule on earth, what is asked of us—the part we are to play in that coming—is responsible discipleship, deeds of love and active mercy in obedience to the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as well as we love ourselves. That’s the oil. And that’s what the faithful showed in that first century, as they show it in every century, choosing to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. The lesson of the oil, adapted, is that as we wait for better times, God calls us to make these times better by deeds of love and active mercy.

Those five foolish ones were there for the party, and they thought they had timed the market so as to keep partying on. They failed to appreciate how fully God relies on his people to make of life a kingdom where justice flows like a stream. They left their flasks at home, and were unwilling to pour them out. They failed to show the likeness of God in which they had been made.

But did those five wise ones show the generosity of God? Well… no. Their role is to reflect the justice of God, just as harrowing as the prophet Amos said it would be. Remember the oil: these five wise ones, emptying their flasks for God, are full of what can never be lost, the integrity of their actions and the legacy of all they have done in costly obedience. They are prepared to enter that banquet tent, and nothing can prevent them.

The other five are on empty. They’ve expected God to be on their timetable. Their attempts to control their futures have so far blocked God’s efforts to transform them. So while their five sisters move beyond the limiting range of human economy into a heaven of abundance, these five are sent back to the store. They have no hope but the marketplace, so when they try one last time to enter the banquet tent, there is no hope in them that fits the hope of that feast, and they find the flap shut. By the terms of the story, they are not prepared to enter the joy of their maker.

Well, here I’ve tried to consider Matthew’s story the way he may have meant it. But this doesn’t satisfy me. I still want to argue with it. And that helps me realize that the point of this story, and of the larger Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not to satisfy me. It is to unsettle me, much as Amos does, a holy bull in my china shop.

I want to enter the banquet tent, but I don’t see myself in the five wise ones. I’m often on empty. I fail to let my spiritual practice, my prayer, keep my lamp lit. I expect God to be on my time-table—to guide us to our next parish officers before annual meeting, for example, to move us to complete our stewardship appeal in time and in amount to prepare us for the new year. I could go on and on. And to imagine that I can’t turn to wise ones and draw some of their oil, tap some of their encouragement, that would feel like being in a merciless marketplace, not in the kingdom of God.

That would mean living by the bad news of salvation by my own bootstraps alone, not living by the good news of salvation by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ, claimed by faith and practiced in community.

It is by God’s gift and by my choice that I live in the kingdom of God, that I choose to live each day the life of the kingdom that we pray will come. I, like you, cannot live that life alone. So I’m wary of stories that, like this one, divide the “corpus mixtum”, stories built on judgment. Let God judge when all is said and done. But let’s be open to an evolving theology that allows us to let go of a tribal God thought to favor one nation, one people, one culture, or one party over others. Let God judge in that great day, and for now I’ll use a story like Matthew’s to judge myself, but no one else.

We live in an age of toxic division in the Body of Christ, and at a time of deep disunity in our nation, half of whose people see the tent flap to heaven opened this past week, the other half wondering how their hopes fit the future. We need to find each other. We need to end our religious and political pastime of judging who is wise and who is foolish.

Whether in church or in state, none of us now can live alone the life that our future requires of us. We need the “corpus mixtum” to embrace its unity, and each of us is needed to help that happen. We must find each other across all the wisdom and all the foolishness and all the judgment that can divide us. The challenges we face require us to fill our flasks for the long haul of a new order that will be long in the making, and will require us to pour out our flasks to let justice roll down, and responsible living, like an ever-flowing stream.