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What does the Christian life consist of? What does God expect from us?
Here's Jesus' answer, according to Matthew's Gospel: "Wait faithfully. Together. Or else."
Sure, that isn't an exact quotation, but it sums up -- again, according to Matthew -- what Jesus says to his followers when he instructs them about how they should live after he has departed from this earth.
Let me address the "or else" part first. That usually attracts the greatest attention.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus seems a little infatuated with judgment and retribution. At the conclusion of each of the four parables he tells within Matthew 24:45-25:46, the section that comes just before the plot to seize and kill him springs into action, certain characters don't fare so well. They are cast out to where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth," locked out of a banquet by the guy who presumably invited them in the first place, tossed into "outer darkness," or punished in "eternal fire." Along with the book of Revelation, Matthew's Gospel has generated a large share of distress through the centuries.
Are these promises about judgment authentic warnings spoken by an uncomfortably stern Jesus, or are they brutal revenge fantasies put into his mouth by ancient Christian communities that had lost the ability to trust their own members or to put up with differing opinions and practices? We may never know.
But we can see clearly that no other gospel comes close to calling so much attention to such nasty consequences. But also no other gospel expresses so much nervous concern about how to determine what differentiates true believers from the pretenders in their midst. The promise of a day of reckoning in which Jesus will reward the persistent faithful and expel the poseurs seems intended to soothe these worries, perhaps to keep fragile and wounded communities from tearing themselves apart.
If there's any good news in these parables it resides in their insistence that judgment (whatever it is to look like -- remember, these parables speak metaphorically) is God's prerogative, not ours. And this judgment is not arbitrary, for it discloses and affirms those people whose lives express the virtues Jesus embodies: faithfulness, perseverance, readiness, obedience, and compassion.
This brings us to the reason why we must wait faithfully together, which is also one of the primary reasons why I go to church: on my own, I'm not capable of expressing those virtues. I need a community to help me, so we can work at them together, relying on God's help. Individually, none of us can muster the endurance or the faithfulness we need; nor can we fully trust our private motivations.
A Parable about Waiting Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13)
Together, these four parables in Matthew refuse to let us think that the Christian life equals passivity. Each parable commends readiness, whether that readiness involves actively caring for those in God's "house" or meeting the needs of people who suffer.
The second of the four parables, found in Matthew 25:1-13, focuses less on particular actions that exhibit faithful readiness (for specific examples of these, see the fourth parable, in Matthew 25:31-46) and more on the question of what it means to live faithfully as we wait for God's intentions to be brought to their full fruition.
This parable about ten bridesmaids (called "virgins" in the original Greek) characterizes Christianity as a waiting religion. Awaiting the fullness of the "kingdom of God" Jesus promised, Christians hope for new realities to come into existence. Christian faith involves waiting with confidence.
The ten bridesmaids await a bridegroom's arrival, when the wedding festivities will begin at last. When fullness will arrive. But the wait proves to be difficult, as it usually is for people with high expectations. It lasts deep into the night.
The ten who wait look almost identical, except for one detail. All are bridesmaids. All were invited. All want to see the bridegroom and join the party. All wait into the night. Even the five wise bridesmaids fall asleep, too; none is especially heroic or invulnerable.
Only one difference separates the two groups: some, those described as wise, were prepared for the bridegroom's absence. These five took pains to do what was necessary while the bridegroom remained away, symbolized by their surplus lamp oil. The others, the foolish ones, are exposed when they find their lamps empty at the big moment: because they did not bother to equip themselves to wait the right way, they will not be equipped to share the party with Jesus the bridegroom when he becomes present.
So they find themselves disinvited and locked out. The bridegroom claims not to know them. What happened?
What makes this parable about anything other than what it looks like on its own -- a description of a mean, demanding Jesus?
We need the rest of Matthew's Gospel to answer that question, for the rest of Matthew conveys an understanding of what it looks like to live in readiness. Such a life is marked by active waiting as we expect God to make all things new. It's more like eagerly expecting and diligently preparing in anticipation of your future graduation than it is like waiting silently in line to get through the TSA checkpoint at the airport.
Despite Jesus' absence, despite the presence of circumstances that conspire to rob us of wakefulness and hope, Christians express expectation. They anticipate.
And so we pass faith along to our children. We rely upon one another and upon the best of our traditions to sustain us when doubt and fatigue prove overwhelming. We forgive one another's sins, study scriptures, baptize people into a new identity, and share a meal to recognize the sustenance God provides.
These things aren't mere rituals or time-fillers. They sustain us in Jesus' absence, when the hazards of nighttime, fatigue, and resignation confront us all. They promote readiness.
But Matthew's Gospel, including Jesus' troublesome parables, will not allow us to neglect another dimension of this waiting. Living with deferred hope also prompts us to consider others who experience unfulfillment or absence in their own lives, especially absence of opportunity, absence of justice, or absence of hope. And so faithfulness must also consist in serving those who are poor, oppressed, and outside. It involves working for reconciliation.
Faithful readiness must be active readiness. It means saying that even though the wedding banquet hasn't yet begun, together we will act as if it has. To live otherwise is to be exposed as unaware, perhaps revealing our estrangement from the bridegroom, from Jesus himself.
Too many Christians read this disturbing parable and fixate on the reality inside the door, as they long for a promised wedding banquet to come and neglect their present circumstances. Other readers focus on the locked door and can't abide an exclusion that appears harsh and unyielding -- all that, just for forgetting an oil flask?
As important as those details are, they miss the fact that most of the action in the parable takes place on this side of the door, in a world that waits, in a world that suffers as it waits. Where we stand today, where we sometimes are overcome by sleepiness, no banquet door has been shut yet.
This means opportunity.
And so faithful readiness expresses itself actively, sometimes through impatience with suffering. It may express itself in outrage over yet more incidents of gun violence in the news and over the ongoing cowardice that keeps politicians from taking up measures to combat the problem.
Faithful readiness can express itself in bold solidarity. Consider medical professionals who travel into West Africa to combat Ebola and to provide care to its victims while ignorant and fearful people try to isolate Africa even further, acting as if this is another continent's problem, or another people's problem.
Faithful readiness can express itself in impulses for change and longings for freedom and human dignity. We may see it in some who participate in the Umbrella Movement on the streets of Hong Kong and among those who support those people with prayer and material or strategic support.
Faithful readiness can express itself in a refusal to accept closed doors, to borrow and refashion an image from the parable. This happens especially when doors are locked to keep out the vulnerable and to buttress our prejudices. Watch the inspiring stories of active readiness expressed by people of faith who advocate for children who flee to the United States only to be apprehended at borders, including some of the 74,000 captured this year alone. Take a moment to consider the heroic efforts of Sister Margaret Smyth who has reunited 150 child immigrants with their families on Long Island, New York, between April and October of this year alone. As she relates the moving stories that some of these children tell about what it was like to come to America alone, she reminds us these young people, "the least of these," deserve the same kind of care, support, and regard that we would give to Christ himself.
Faithful waiting involves more work than the parable may first let on.
Bible Study Questions:
1. How do you respond to the statement "Christianity is a waiting religion"?
2. How have communities and interactions with others nurtured your faith and helped you understand the Christian life in helpful ways? How have communities been detrimental to your faith?
3. The article recommends reading Matthew 25:1-13 in conversation with other parts of Matthew's Gospel, such as Matthew 25:31-46. How does this wider focus help you make sense of the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and what is expected of us as we try to live out an active, faithful readiness?
For Further Reading:
Lillian Daniel, When "Spiritual But Not Religious" Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013)
Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion; Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Jim Wallis, "The Moral Failure of Immigration Reform: Are We Really Afraid of Children?" (July 3, 2014)
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