I guess from time to time a large number of Christians have considered themselves inspired by some of Jesus’ wisdom as recounted by the Gospel writers. Yet given some of the realities of the day to day problems encountered by most modern societies it is also fair to ask if the inspiration has always moved our communities forward for the better. Inspired…. that’s all well and good – but inspired to change which attitudes? – and inspired to do what?
Today’s story certainly seems far removed from a modern Western setting. Join me in reflecting on Jesus original story.
For those of us more familiar 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 in line with Jesus’ story.
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 – in the course of which the bride would often finish up in a new village.
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. And the unprepared bridesmaids missed out altogether.
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.
Now almost two thousand years after the telling of the story, for a good part of the myriad of Church congregations, this parable has come to signify the second coming – with the message of be prepared. Yet prepared for what – Armageddon perhaps and Jesus returning…perhaps in something symbolized in Revelation?
If we are objective with Christianity’s record of numerous attempts to find the signs of this coming we should be honest enough to admit that over the last 2000 years there have been numerous failed attempts to prepare one another for a coming that failed to materialize….again and again and again.
Last month it was supposed to be the mysterious planet which was supposed to strike the Earth just like it was supposed to do by the failed doomsayers several years ago.
We might cast ours mind back to 2011 the 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.
Harold Camping’s failures consign him to that steadily growing line of failed prophets. 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 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. 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?
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.
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.
( A Note to the reader: Share with a wider audience by adding your own reactions or examples in the comment box below. Apology this week. Initially I accidently posted this sermon for last week’s date!)