The things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible, It ain’t necessarily so! (from Porgy and Bess) Is today’s reading really about end times?
If you cast your mind back to 2011 there was something almost sad and tragic about the strange (and some said doddery) old Pastor, Harold Camping, who for the third time missed what he believed to be his certain date for the end of the world. When it failed to happen on his earlier predicted date in 1994, he read some more of the Bible, did some more calculation and announced was going to be 21 May 2011. For certain, he said, that’s when the faithful were to be raptured up to heaven. When despite the numerous texts he had used, that date too failed, a bewildered Harold Camping recomputed and clarified his broadcasts to explain that the 21 May was a beginning of Gods judgment and it was actually going to happen in its pyrotechnic and spectacular finality the same year 21 October. The only problem was that it didn’t.
That we noticed nothing on his third attempt consigns the late Harold Camping to that steadily growing line of failed prophets. Yet we might do well to remember he was not alone. Time after time (and sometimes among some fairly mainstream denominations) self-appointed prophets have convinced their faithful followers that the signs are now right for the imminent coming of the bridegroom to claim his own. Sometimes waiting in joyful and humble expectation, sometimes waiting with vast outpouring of emotion and even fear … and yet always the result appears the same. The fireworks fail to start, the riders are missing in the sky, the stars refuse to fall and the Lord fails to show. And, thus far at least, the world stubbornly refuses to end.
Yet the parable in Matthew is still there with its troubling message. When least expected the bridegroom will show …and hard luck for those who are not ready. Perhaps it is the wrong sort of coming and the wrong sort of getting ready which dominates our thinking.
When John F. Kennedy was campaigning for his 1960 Presidential bid he often used to close his speeches with the following story of Colonel Davenport, then Speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives way back in 1789. It seems that one day, while the House was still in session in broad daylight, the sky above Hartford suddenly grew dark and gloomy. The alarmed representatives looked out the windows and the consensus view was it was a sign that the end of the world had come. In those days science education was virtually unknown and few would have even heard of eclipses – let alone be able to recognise the event for what it was. In the midst of the ensuing hubbub with many representatives calling for immediate adjournment so that they might rush home and see to their families Davenport rose to his feet and said, “Gentlemen, the Day of Judgment is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. Therefore, I wish that candles be brought.” Candles were brought and the session continued.
Perhaps Colonel Davenport gave advice for our time as well.
Looking at Christ’s original message and seeing what has happened to it through the best efforts of the modern doomsday prophets it is probably fair to suggest that there has been a human tendency to surround the message with unnecessary religious gloss and unnecessary fantasy. Although Jesus had a natural storyteller’s feel for a great illustration – time after time he reminded us that what he really required of his followers was that they should drop religious pretence and start caring about the God of Love they claimed to follow, and, what is more, expressing this love in the form of concern and compassion for all who are encountered as neighbours.
Preparation in this sense is more than getting “on message” and is not then particularly compatible with stepping up the religious emphasis. Every now and again I remind myself that when it comes to my biological father – a family doctor of great compassion and immense practical common-sense – to please him when I was growing up was simply accomplished by trying as best I could to follow his example. On the other hand had I knelt in front of him – or to sung a few rousing repetitions of “Majesty” in his honour, that would have rightly appalled him…particularly if he had realized my daily life was not affected by my artificial and contrived display of adoration. I appreciate it is only a personal point of view but I have long puzzled why we would assume it would be any different for a popular understanding of what God is supposed to be.
Dom Crossan, impatient with the strange prognostications of those claiming an individual enlightenment free from any bothersome need for scholarship or compassionate action put it as follows: “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)
(Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. Harper SanFrancisco).
And for that matter there is no need to look for total mystery in Jesus coming when Jesus himself in several places suggests we will find him in the commonplace. Jesus says we will in effect be meeting him in the faces of those in need. If it was necessary for Jesus himself to reach out, meet and on occasion even touch those in need, whether they be lepers, those requiring physical healing, or those rejected by society, perhaps we too need to review who we meet, who we help, and how we are expressing the love we claim to have in our hearts.
The religious setting of a Church has one potential downside in that it is very easy to convey a false sense of religious concern when we are so to speak “on show.”
Years ago, when 20th Century Fox advertised in the New York papers to fill a vacancy in its sales force, one applicant offered a novel alternative to the usual CV: “I am at present selling furniture at the address below. You may judge my ability as a salesman if you will stop in to see me at anytime, pretending that you are interested in buying furniture. When you come in, you can identify me by my red hair. And I will have no way of identifying you. Such salesmanship as I exhibit during your visit, therefore, will be no more than my usual workday approach and not a special effort to impress a prospective employer.” From among more than 1500 applicants, who do you think got the job?
But bringing it closer to home…. I have several friends in the airline business and three of them have independently told me they have had to deal with some well known TV personalities. Two of these they identify (and named) as people who have a wonderful TV presenter personality – but a nasty and unpleasant way of dealing with airline staff when they are dealing with those they consider of no importance. Our usual workday – or everyday approach to those who we encounter in our day to day lives is in fact a measure of our prepared state.
Now back to Jesus original story.
For those of us aware of how modern weddings occur, the story of the bridesmaids may well seem virtually incomprehensible. A wedding party when the bride is not even apparently present, when the bridesmaids have no idea when the bridegroom is to arrive …these are hardly part of our experience. Yet in Palestine in the first century AD, the scholars tell us of wedding customs that were similar.
Wedding feasts were in fact the main social highlight and were so important that there was even an allowance that those studying the law could be released from their duties to attend. Out in the countryside a great deal was made of the wedding procession which often went between villages and the whole village would turn out to accompany the bridal couple to their home – which for the bride would be often in a new village. There was a Jewish saying: “Everyone from six to sixty will accompany the marriage drum”. One of the customs was evidently to see if you could catch the bridal party unawares. The bridegroom might come in the middle of the night and since no-one was supposed to know for certain when that was going to be – or even the exact date of the wedding, the custom was to post a lookout who was supposed to call out – “behold the bridegroom is coming”. At this point those who were prepared were supposed to rush out to greet him.
At one level, as Jesus is recorded as telling the story, the parable appears to have been directed to portraying the Jewish nation as a whole. The story of the Messiah was deeply ingrained into national expectation of Israel and the Jews as God’s chosen people were the ones expected to be ready for his appearance. In his story Jesus was in effect saying that many were unprepared for the Messiah’s coming. Yet with the example of Harold Camping and numerous others like him as a warning, what the story does not make plain is when and how the Messiah is expected to make his appearance – and even more puzzling exactly what it is that we are meant to be doing by way of preparation.
Looking around at the various approaches we might note that in our world today, there are two big mistakes people often seem to make with regard to the coming of the Lord. One mistake is to assume that the preparation is for some Hollywood blockbuster type event perhaps in line with the Lord of the Rings and that the preparation is therefore best left to looking around for some self-assured authority who might explain for us the meaning of obscure texts and leave us with nothing to do other than to anxiously wait with a mounting sense of paranoid anxiety. The other mistaken notion is to join with others who are more in tune with religion than ourselves, watch from the side-lines and save our involvement for the odd foray into Church worship.
Finding someone to do the interpretation of this particular parable, and to organise our preparation for us, seems to me almost the opposite of what Jesus was suggesting. Leaving the preparation for our response until it is too late is silly at every level. In the same way that any impending event depending on us needs our attention, there are clear examples of mounting needs of neighbours that require our thoughtful and often costly response. Imagine doing nothing about a mounting debt, nothing about a known and worsening structural fault, and nothing about near neighbours facing crisis. If caring about neighbours is the Jesus thing to do, putting off showing concern is to be unprepared. Nor can we simply leave it to others and hope for the best.
Surely the point about the foolish bridesmaids was that they had not even done the preparation for themselves and wanted the bridesmaids who had actually organised their own oil, to share. Christianity by proxy – attending the same Church as the committed believers, and thinking that associating ourselves with others’ efforts to love their God and their neighbours as themselves is hardly likely to substitute for our own efforts in preparation. Jesus was in effect saying you cannot borrow someone else’s oil.
The foolish bridesmaids were only guilty of one thing – they slept when they should have been awake. I wonder what T.S. Eliot would have made of that. T.S. Eliot talked of the Hippopotamus who sleeps by all day and hunts by night. In his 1920 poem one verse reads:
The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way–
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
And by the end of his poem he has the Hippopotamus taken up to heaven with the angels while as he puts it:….
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.
The sleeping bridesmaids found themselves locked out of the action ….but regardless of what TS Eliot may say of the Church we can hardly join in his dry and uncomfortable criticism as outsiders. It is we who are after all are the Church – and if we are letting the chance to take action go by, whether or not we can be stirred to wakefulness will in the last analysis depend on no-one but ourselves.