Mission One: Ready to Shine

Sunday, November 6
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Mission One: Ready to Shine

Weekly Prayer
You let us choose, O God, between you and the false gods of this world. In the midst of the night of sin and death, wake us from our slumber and call us forth to greet Christ, so that with eyes and hearts fixed on him, we may follow to eternal light. Amen.

Focus Reading
Matthew 25:1-13

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

All Readings For This Sunday
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 with Psalm 78:1-7
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Focus Questions

1. How much do you think about the return of Jesus, and how does it affect your faith life?

2. How do justice and grace relate to each other?

3. What do you think Matthew would say today about our many books on the end-time, or the predictions of preachers about a specific date?

4. Is this parable about staying awake, or being prepared? What’s the difference?

5. In what ways have we as a faith community drifted away from the values of the Reign of God?

by Kate Huey

In these later chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, as Jesus draws closer to dying (and, of course, to rising again), he speaks at length of “the end times.” Matthew has drawn together a number of parables and sayings of Jesus to provide a rather intriguing challenge for us today, two thousand years later. After all, one part of the message of all these stories, combined, is the question of timing. Jesus’ disciples have started it all off by asking him, at the beginning of Chapter 24, for some insider information: When are all these things you’re talking about going to happen, and how will we know they’re about to happen? One assumes they want to be prepared, but maybe they just don’t want to prepare any sooner than necessary. Or perhaps they’re just longing to know that fulfillment, and perhaps vindication, too, are at hand. Jesus’ response in these two chapters has been called “The Little Apocalypse,” and it’s not easy reading. If the disciples are looking for reassurance, the words of Jesus give them (and us) a lot to think about.

After speaking at length about the end of the world in the previous chapter, Jesus begins to tell his followers several parables, three of which we’ll study closely in these final weeks of Year A. But right before today’s passage, Jesus has spoken about a master’s unexpected return that catches his unfaithful servant off guard, one who thinks he has plenty of time to misbehave, to beat his fellow servants and to eat, drink, and (presumably) be merry. Today’s parable about ten bridesmaids follows the harsh warning about the fate of that unfaithful, unprepared and surprised servant.

Most commentaries on this text include some background on marriage customs in the first century. While we can’t be sure about the details, scholars believe that getting married took both time and effort. There were actually two stages: first, the agreement, not between bride and groom but between their families, and second, the fetching of the bride by the groom for the wedding ceremony, followed by a celebration that went on for days. Richard Swanson suggests that this was a good chance for unmarried women and men to connect, for prospective husbands and wives to find each other, so these young women might have been looking for their own husbands as much as watching for the bride’s own groom. It’s no wonder, then, that “the young women have a huge interest in being noticed favorably,” Swanson writes. We may be surprised to hear that five of them refused to share what they have, a note that clashes with the rest of Jesus’ teachings about generosity. Perhaps, Swanson continues, “This competition may help explain the odd actions of the young women.”

Prudence as wisdom

The story, after all, seems to be about being prepared more than about sharing or being generous. Swanson thinks “prudent” may work better to describe the young women who brought enough oil. Prudence, he says, is “a well-honed ability to navigate in the real world,” with “a useful and practical wisdom.” Five of the young women had sense enough, as Thomas Long puts it, not to be “ready for the groom but…ready for the groom’s delay.” If the bridesmaids, both foolish and wise (or prudent), are the church today, how ready are we followers of Jesus for his return? What does ready, or having “enough oil,” look like almost two thousand years after Jesus died and rose again, promising to return one day, but not saying when? “The wise ones in the church,” Long writes, “are those who are prepared for the delay; who hold on to the faith deep into the night; who, even though they see no bridegroom coming, still hope and serve and pray and wait for the promised victory of God.” 

Jesus’ story ends with the foolish young women being locked out of the party. His words sound familiar to readers of Matthew’s Gospel, because we remember another harsh warning from Jesus, as he finished the beautiful Sermon on the Mount, about people who sound religious but haven’t lived out their faith, who haven’t done the will of God. When those people cry “Lord, Lord,” Jesus says that he’ll claim he never knew them (Matthew 7:23).

Scanning the skies for a quick return

Harsh words, indeed. Today, we don’t like to focus too long on these stories or the warnings they convey. We’re a little more willing to spend time on Matthew 25:31-46, because what we need to do is so clear in that story. Today’s text, about oil and bridesmaids and wedding parties, is a bit more of a challenge, especially as we in the United Church of Christ are fully engaged with Mission One, which is indeed about sharing, justice, and joy. It helps to remember that these early Christians in Matthew’s community, a generation or so after Jesus had ascended to heaven, were still scanning the skies, setting their sights and their hopes on his quick return. We suspect that the first generation may have believed that Jesus would return in their own lifetime, but by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, there had already been a delay. And perhaps that delay prompted some questioning and some falling away. Matthew’s account, including these difficult parables,certainly addresses that falling away.

There are two questions we might ask: Why does Jesus speak so harshly, and how are we to take his warnings, and live faithfully in anticipation of his return, but also prepare for its delay? Fred Craddock describes two types of parables, “those that offer a surprise of grace at the end…and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other.” We often need to hear about grace, but we also need to hear regularly about justice. While Craddock writes of cause and effect, Arland J. Hultgren puts it another way: “Like virtually every other passage in Scripture, this one can be interpreted as both threat and promise, law and gospel.” One of my favorite phrases, heard years ago, is “trouble and beauty.” Matthew’s Gospel has plenty of both, from the lilies of the field to these bridesmaids, hearing the terrible words, “I do not know you” (25:12).

Living in the meantime

As we wait, then, for the return of Jesus and the fulfillment of all things, how are we to live? Like the five wise bridesmaids, how can we be prepared? It may be true of every age, but today we’re tempted to be preoccupied with the end times, to read the countless novels about the end times, to look for signs that the end is near, and perhaps to neglect care for the earth or good stewardship for future generations, if we believe that Jesus is about to return any day now. Ironically, we can be so busy reading novels and looking for signs that we miss the ways God is still speaking to us today, in this meantime. We might not do God’s will, working for the healing of the world, caring for the good earth we were given, offering our own gifts in the transformation of an unjust society, reaching out in compassion to a world that is physically and spiritually hungry. However much we may be anxious about a dramatic end time, our faith reminds us of how often the Bible says, “Do not fear,” and then challenges us to work here, on earth, for the bright day of God’s reign in its fullness, which is glimpsed in every act, every moment of compassion, sharing, and justice. That is what Mission One in the United Church of Christ is about: even as we trust that we will be with God one day, in glory, we taste the sweet goodness of generosity and love right here, right now, through ministries of sharing the abundance with which we are blessed. “In the meantime,” we are ready to shine with love, and justice, and joy.

Faithfulness is not easy. In fact, for those who suffer it may be difficult not to long for Jesus to return right now and make all things right (more about this in two weeks, when we study Matthew 25:31-46). But we might also approach these stories with gratitude (which is always in order) for the wisdom they offer and the prudence they encourage. Jesus told us how to live according to the values and vision of the Reign of God, and loving God and our neighbor sums it up. Loving God will inevitably lead us to worship God rather than idolize the false gods of modern culture (materialism and nationalism, to name only two). Loving our neighbor will lead us to greater compassion and a firm commitment to justice, to making this a different and better world for all of God’s children. This kind of living isn’t sitting around and waiting; it’s active and fully engaged in the present moment, even as we trust in a future that is in God’s hands, even if the timing of that future is unknown to us. (For more information on how you can participate in Mission One, go to http://www.ucc.org/mission1/)

Trusting in God’s future

Arland J. Hultgren describes this way of living: “Every person must come to terms with living in the world, the place given by God for his children, over time. For modern Christians, that includes care of the earth and making peace for the sake of future generations. It is necessary to plan for the long haul, remain faithful, be wise, and stay strong.” And M. Eugene Boring says that such faithfulness makes it possible to “lie down to sleep in this confidence, rather than being kept away by panicky last-minute anxiety.” But such faithfulness requires endurance, Boring reminds us: “Many can do this for a short while; but when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise. Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again, and the bridegroom is delayed.”

However much we may fear a dramatic end time, Hultgren reminds us that our faith sees “the end” not as the end, but as “the doorway to the new – the new age, the new creation.” We can trust, as Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians, that “we will be with the Lord forever” (4:17b). This, for us and for all creation, Hultgren writes, is “finally good news.”

For Further Reflection

James Russell Lowell, 19th century
All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.

Albert Einstein, 20th century
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Martin Luther, 16th century
Where there are no good works, there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known.

Booker T. Washington, 20th century
Lay hold of something that will help you, and then use it to help somebody else.

Augustine of Hippo, 5th century
If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.
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