Thursday, November 9, 2017

Whom Will You Serve?

Monday through Thursday, I usually post a reflection on either the Sunday lectionary or the text of a midweek sermon, but I have been out of town for the first part of this week. It seems like I'll only have one chance to reflect on the difficult gospel text on which I am scheduled to preach this week. The good news, however, is that I had a long car ride with Jack Alvey, a clergy colleague, and we spent a good bit of that time discussing the parable of the ten bridesmaids.

I am drawn to the way in which Matthew introduces this parable: "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.'" He doesn't wait for us to see what happens before labeling the bridesmaids as foolish or wise. He let's us know from the beginning that whatever unfolds will revolve around this distinction. We know nothing of the wedding, the bride, or the bridegroom. We don't know where they come from or where they're going. All we know is that the insight into the kingdom of heaven that we are to be given will be displayed in the distinction between five foolish bridesmaids and their five wise counterparts.

As the story unfolds, we discover what makes them foolish or wise. The foolish took their lamps but did not bring any extra oil with them. The wise thought ahead and brought extra oil along just in case. The bridegroom tarried (see the KJV and the Greek text for this deliberate delay on the part of the bridegroom), and all ten slept. Note that the distinction between the wise and foolish is not presented as a consequence of the nature of their alertness. As much as Matthew 24 is full of Jesus' warning to keep watch and the reward of the kingdom is given to the "wise and faithful" servant who anticipated his master's return at any minute, this parable presents all ten as falling asleep. Sometimes the kingdom is delayed so long that even the wise and faithful doze off.

When the bridegroom arrives and the bridesmaids are aroused, the foolish ones find that their lamps are out of oil and that they have no extra fuel with them. There is not enough to go around, and the wise virgins send their counterparts out to procure some more, but, while they are gone, the feast begins, and the foolish maids are left out in the dark. "I do not know you," the Lord says to them.

So what is the difference? What makes the wise bridesmaids wise and the foolish ones foolish? Is this as simple as being prepared? The universal slumber suggests to me that they aren't rewarded or punished for their urgency. Historically, the oil has been regarded by theologians as faith--that the wise virgins are those whose faith sustains them during the long delay--but I'm looking for a way to put that distinction back toward the beginning of the story where Matthew and Jesus put it. Faith isn't just something that some people have when hard times hit. Faith is something that changes the way we begin the story--our story.

Although the paring is not thematic, the Track 1 lesson from Joshua 24 helps me understand more fully the distinction between wise and foolish. "Choose this day whom you will serve," Joshua says to the people of Israel. Will your lives revolve around the gods of your pre-Abraham ancestors, the gods of the Amorites who live in the land we are entering or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? To whom will you owe your allegiance?

Faith isn't merely persistence through difficult times. Faith is having a trust-relationship with God that changes our life. The foolish are those to whom it never occurs that the bridegroom might be delayed. The wise are those who not only prepare for that possibility but are thus shown to be completely attuned to the bridegroom's arrival. Like a faithful twenty-first-century bridesmaid, the wise are those who serve the bride and groom by making themselves completely and totally available to them and the celebration that has been entrusted to them. They don't schedule a conference call for an hour before the ceremony. They don't have car trouble on the way to the church. They don't pull their cell phones out to check the football score during the reception. A faithful attendant is 100% committed to serving (attending) the bride and groom. That's the life of faith. The question Jesus is asking is whether we have faith like that.

It is foolish to let the wisdom of the world govern your life. The world's false wisdom says that we are in control of our lives, that we serve our own schedule and priorities. God's truth is different, and the truly wise are those who make God's truth the focal point of their lives. They are the ones whose service, life, and direction belong to God no matter how delayed the kingdom may be. What will the organizing principle of our lives be--ourselves or God? That's wisdom the wisdom of faith and the folly of self-reliance.

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