Ordinary Time, A
November 9, 2014
The Lectionary Gospel reading for today brings before us what we may term as a parable of warning from Jesus, and is included in the series of talks Jesus gave that comprise what some commentators call the Olivet Discourse or the Eschatological Discourse, found in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
All of the five talks that comprise the Olivet Discourse carry forward toward the hearer both a solemn and ominous tone, as Jesus strives to open before his followers the heaviness of the hour, especially as his state execution quickly approaches, which will ultimately prove to be but a precursor to their own taste of Roman brutality. How could he acquaint them with the impending doom they faced as a nation because of their continual turn away from his shalom to the inhumanity found in the false-self, which would only lead them, could only lead to more violence and more torture and more war?
Well, in today's text he told them a story. It was a story taken from everyday life. It was a story with which they could readily relate. But, as I said, it was a story of warning.
As a window into the text let us align our thoughts today around three headings:
The Great Event
The Oil of Readiness
Knowing and Being Known
The Great Event
In this parable Jesus compares the Kingdom to ten virgins in a wedding party who wait for the bridegroom to appear. As we shall see, five of the women were wise and five were foolish based upon their readiness to receive the bridegroom when he abruptly arrived.
What is Jesus saying to his hearers? He wants them to see standing before them that the moment of Israel's bridegroom, of Israel's deliver, had arrived. Jesus, offering himself as the embodiment of Israel's King, had suddenly -- as promised -- come to the temple:
“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:1-4)
This was that great event; this was the culmination of the promises to the nation. This was the time for the bells of jubilation to sound. No, it didn't look like they thought it would, but here it was, or rather here he was! Now, what would they do? Would they receive him? Would they welcome him? Would they be ready?
Sadly, we know it did not turn out too well.
Likewise, there stands for us a great, promised event. The final day of the Lord, when the world will be reclaimed once-and-for-all to again and forever do the Lord's bidding and to come under the Lord’s complete care. Listen to how the Hebrew prophecy from Isaiah saw this day:
1 O Lord, I will honor and praise your name, for you are my God.You do such wonderful things! You planned them long ago, and now you have accomplished them.2 You turn mighty cities into heaps of ruins. Cities with strong walls are turned to rubble.Beautiful palaces in distant lands disappear and will never be rebuilt.3 Therefore, strong nations will declare your glory; ruthless nations will fear you.4 But you are a tower of refuge to the poor, O Lord, a tower of refuge to the needy in distress.You are a refuge from the storm and a shelter from the heat.For the oppressive acts of ruthless people are like a storm beating against a wall,5 or like the relentless heat of the desert.But you silence the roar of foreign nations. As the shade of a cloud cools relentless heat, so the boastful songs of ruthless people are stilled.6 In Jerusalem,[a] the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will spread a wonderful feast for all the people of the world.It will be a delicious banquet with clear, well-aged wine and choice meat.7 There he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.8 He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken!9 In that day the people will proclaim,“This is our God! We trusted in him, and he saved us!This is the Lord, in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25:1-9)
The Oil of Readiness
But, and here is the warning, not everyone will be ready for the great event. Not everyone will be of the wise ones. Some will live foolishly. Some will squander away their moment of the great event.
Much speculation has been offered by commentators as to the meaning of the lamp oil. I tend to think that since we are not told what the oil represents it is wise not to speculate. Said differently, parables do not teach theology beyond the point of their primary intention. Having said that, I would agree with N.T. Wright who says the oil represents readiness. This makes good sense and it fits the primary push the parable.
We should remember in this regard that the Hebrews were part of one long, long story that Christians believe reached its capstone and turning point in King Jesus, the Messiah. This was a story the Hebrews had waited for centuries to be fulfilled. Now, suddenly, there it was looming before them. Were they ready? Some were; some were not.
How could one tell the difference between the wise and the foolish? Preparation. That is, realizing that the bridegroom could appear any moment the wise women were readied themselves and were at ready at any moment for that event, but the foolish women failed to prepare and so they missed their moment.
Jesus knew only a few of his generation thought the King would arrive in their life time. Only a few lived in such a way that when the message sounded they had ears to hear. Only a few were ready to receive him. I think there is scriptural evidence that this lack of faith surprised him (Mk. 6:6) and saddened him.
Listen to St. Luke account of the Triumphal entry, which I hope you know fits well with the interpretation we are offering for today's text:
41 But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 42 “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. 43 Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Notice the weeping Savior, sitting the donkey, seeing obdurate Jerusalem, and knowing all to well the outcome of this stubbornness of heart.
Brothers and Sisters, we too can miss our moment. We too must be ready. We too must have the look of expectation and anticipatory hope in our spirits. You see, like the foolish, we can become easily distracted by the tugs and pulls of a selfish world at war with itself. We can become enamored with the power of things and pride of place that all to soon sours us on the sacrifice and cross-bearing necessary for the Gospel, turning our attention from the world's one and only King.
Knowing and Being Known
Which leads to the final thought from the text, the idea of knowing and being known. Notice the how the close of the text reads:
11 Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ 12 But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’
Here is the result of the warning personified: the bridegroom recognized the wise women but not the foolish. At first blush this seems rather harsh because we wish for everyone to be included.
We wish for everyone to be given time to run to the market for oil. Why were some left out? Well, one way to see this is to see that the foolish women were foolish by choice. Obviously, they could have prepared for the bridegrooms appearing, but for whatever reason they did not. Our actions and decisions really do matter, causing ripples for ourselves and for others that never cease.
Or, said differently, we could say that the prophets and even Jesus himself had preached preparation all along. Both called upon their hearers, to count the cost of following the narrow way. Think about this text from St. Matthew's Gospel as an example of Jesus’ preaching:
18 When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he instructed his disciples to cross to the other side of the lake. 19 Then one of the teachers of religious law said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 But Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man[e] has no place even to lay his head.” 21 Another of his disciples said, “Lord, first let me return home and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus told him, “Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:18-22)
The upshot of all this is quite simple. We choose our own life-path. We choose either the preparation toward the true-humanity of the JesusWay -- which the Lord here deems as wise, or we choose the path of selfishness and the self-life, which the Lord deems as foolish. And, how can we recognize which path we favor? The narrow path of the JesusWay is struggle and arduous. It's full of set-backs and stumbles. It abounds with weeds and the overgrowth through which we daily must cut. This is the true spiritual labor of preparation.
Let us close with the what may be Jesus most powerful reminder of the choice that faces us everyday:
24 “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25 Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. 26 But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27 When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)