Ordinary Time, Proper 27 (2017)

fb“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Amen.
Joshua stood about a hundred feet or so up the steep incline of Mount Gerizim and looked out over the valley of Shechem, now filled with a few thousand people from the community, the people of Israel. As the warm and humid breeze blew through his old and greying beard, he could feel the weariness that comes from fighting in decades of war, and yet here was his people: hopeful, tired, eager, dirty, and imperfect. They were family. And just as it is in many families, he both hated them and loved them. He saw in them a group of outcasts and nomads—a people plagued by slavery in Egypt for 400 years and nearly 100 more of desert homelessness, fighting for their freedom. And yet something deep within also allowed him to see the beginnings of a new nation, a grand experiment, which would be founded on the principles of the God of Israel. Principles which would, unlike the other nations of the world, put an end to the commodification of human beings. No longer would they live in a land of haves and have-nots, slaves and masters, kings and subjects; all would be treated as human people—children of God. Joshua dreamed of a society built on justice, no longer centered on selfish vengeance and violence but filled with a radical system of laws which judged people fairly and equitably. In fact, the very city in which he stood had been set up as a sanctuary city for all those whose lives were in threat, whether they be Israelites or foreigners. And while the fight for freedom went on, Joshua could finally see the potential of what God had promised. Now at the end of his life, standing here before the people of God, in the same place God had promised his ancestor Abraham this very dream, he wanted to hear one last time, the commitment of his people to carry on the mission. “Put away the ways of Egypt. Put away the gods of other nations. Put away those systems of oppression and violence. Incline your hearts to God. Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house we will serve the LORD, the God of Israel.”
Thirteen hundred years later, a humble, Jewish peasant-turned-rabbi stood in the same place, at a well, talking with a Samaritan woman. Over the centuries the dream God had given Joshua had come and gone and the land was once again the land of outcasts and of those oppressed and commodified. Here before Jesus was a woman whose messy life had marginalized her from her community, which itself, Samaria, had been marginalized in the nation of Israel, which itself had been marginalized and dominated by the greatest Empire of that time, Rome. The grandiose vision of Joshua was nowhere to be found, and yet this Samaritan woman, foolish and ashamed in her own life decisions, heard in Jesus’ words a message of freedom, dignity, and empowerment which she had never experienced in all her life. This was the kingdom of heaven.
The fullness of Jesus’ encounter with the woman can be left for another day, but the message he gave her, the message of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is the central focus throughout the entirety of the Gospels, and perhaps even the New Testament. We see it in Matthew 3 in the preaching of John the Baptist. We encounter it in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount. We experience it as Jesus prepares to die in Luke 24, and we wrestle with it in Christ’s mysterious parables, including the one in our Gospel reading today. In its varying forms the phrase is cited more than 110 times in the New Testament. The kingdom of heaven is the heart of the Gospels. And yet, it is also perhaps the most difficult concept to understand.
Too often the notion of God’s kingdom is painted in the soft colors of sentimentality when in reality the message is the subversive anthem of protest songs. When Jesus first spoke about the kingdom of heaven, the words stood in direct opposition to the Roman Empire. To speak of a kingdom besides Rome was not only unpatriotic, it reeked of treason and put one at risk of arrest and execution. We know that it was partly because of this exact message that Jesus himself was killed alongside of terrorists and criminals.
At the same time, while subversive, the kingdom of heaven is not the typical message of historical rebellions which call for the violent destruction of the oppressor. No, it is a message of peace and compassion for all, oppressor and oppressed alike. It is nonviolent. The message seems to invite us to a different plain of existence entirely, one which does not define the world in terms of winners and losers but in charisms of love, gentleness, joy, and kindness. The message completely flips the world upside down. It is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor. It is not the happy, it is those who mourn. It is not heroes of war, it is those who stand for peace. It is not those in power, it is those who face persecution. The kingdom of heaven calls into question all the world’s most basic assumptions about how to live and exist. Like the dream of Joshua, when Jesus invites people to enter the kingdom of heaven, he is inviting them to put away these power struggles so common in the world and walk down another path.
And before we relegate these criticisms in Jesus’ message to the kingdoms of history, we must own up to our own society’s obsession with power. We, too, live in a society, like Egypt and Rome, divided into the haves and the have-nots, where we battle for money, position, and fame. Where we argue about who is in and who is out. Where we take pride in possessing the most nukes. Where we deny systemic racism. Where women are regularly objectified. Where we live by the motto that whoever dies with the most toys wins. Jesus’ message, two-thousand years later, has more relevance than ever.
I say all this to set up for us the reading from today’s Gospel which begins, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this” and proceeds by describing for us a world completely and utterly unlike that kingdom. We encounter in this parable not the unique kingdom of Jesus but a common story of the haves and have-nots. While the haves are rewarded, the have-nots are kept out in the cold and pretended to not exist. It seems that almost every detail in this story is inconsistent with Jesus’ typical message about the kingdom. In this parable half of the bridesmaids are foolish because they took no oil with them. By contrast, when Jesus sends out his twelve apostles with the message of the kingdom in Matthew 10, he commands them to take nothing with them for the journey and later condemns any city that does not welcome them. In today’s parable when the so called “wise” bridesmaids are asked to share their oil, they refuse. Compare this to Jesus’ command in Matthew 5, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” In today’s parable the lord closes the door and refuses entry for late comers (though there seems to have been no repercussions for the fact that he was late), but in the chapter immediately before this Jesus cries out, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.” This is a problematic parable indeed and in a challenging chapter! Last week’s lectionary reading ended with the line “those who exalt themselves will be humbled but those who humble themselves will be exalted,” but next week our lectionary reading will end with “for to all those who have, more will be given…but for those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” And today we are stuck right in the middle.
The traditional interpretation of this passage is simply to not be lazy or foolish. The five foolish bridesmaids had not planned ahead or considered that the groom would be late. They were not ready. We should learn from their mistake and always be ready. We never know when Christ will come to judge us. Will we be ready?
But what if this parable can be looked at in another way? What if we flipped the story on its head and heard it a different way? In the Jewish tradition, the reading of scriptures is often compared to holding a diamond in the light: as you hold and turn it the light reflects in different ways, revealing different things.
Perhaps the message of this parable isn’t to be prepared or else you’ll be forgotten by God. Perhaps the message is to be prepared to be forgotten by the world. If this were the case, the “lord, lord” that the bridesmaids call out to would not be referring to the Lord, the God of Israel, it would refer to the powerful lords of the world who only view others for how they can be used. The bridesmaids would be called foolish not by the standards of God’s kingdom, but by the standards of the world. Because they did not have, they were rejected. Because they were not useful, they were forgotten.
Notice the message at the end does not say “keep extra oil.” Notice it does not say “keep what you have for yourself.” The challenge is to “Keep awake,” which is interesting because it specifically says that all the bridesmaids, foolish and wise, fell asleep. “Keep awake” doesn’t apply solely to the foolish bridesmaids left out in the dark, it applies to the ones who made it into the party as well. “Keep awake” applies to both the haves and the have-nots, both to those who have “made it in life” and to those left out in the cold.
Interestingly, this whole confusing parabolic section of Matthew leads up to the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where the command to “Keep awake” shows up again. There in the garden Jesus counts the cost of his radical kingdom message. There in the garden he prays, “not my will but your will be done.” He knows the time is coming for him to be rejected and left out in the cold. And in that moment, he calls on his friends for comfort but finds them asleep, “Could you not stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
It seems to me Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a lesson in endurance. Jesus is telling his disciples that commitment to God’s kingdom, the subversive way of love for all, will inevitably be tested. Over and over in life, as our mission to speak love into all regardless of status rubs up against the world of the haves and the have-nots, we will be tested. How long can we stay awake to this calling? Under what circumstances will we endure? No doubt about it, at some point in our lives we will be left out in the cold and forgotten. Whether it be because of our race or gender, whether it be because of our economic status, whether it be because of a mistake or bad decision we made, whether it be because of a natural disaster, we can’t always be with the “winners”. But how will we respond in those times? Will we go along with the way of the world? Or will we keep awake to the kingdom of God which has no winners and losers but proclaims to all, as it says in Galatians, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Perhaps the message isn’t to be prepared or else you’ll be forgotten by God. Perhaps the message is to be prepared to be forgotten by the world.
If, then, in the parable, the bridegroom does not represent Christ, then where can we find Christ in this story? Well of course, Christ is out on the street with the foolish bridesmaids. Like he was with the Samaritan woman in Shechem. Christ stands with the marginalized and the outcast. Christ cares for the have-nots and the rejected. In this very chapter of Matthew Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you [cared for] the least of these, you [cared] for me.” And in this upside down, backwards reading of the parable, it is the groom left out of Christ’s presence, only not because Christ has shut a door on him, but because he has shut a door on Christ. Jesus is out on the streets with the foolish!
However, even though that may be the obvious deduction given the understanding of Jesus’ kingdom message in the rest of scripture, this parable does not mention Christ’s presence with the foolish bridesmaids on the street. It simply ends with them seemingly alone.
This week I was talking on the phone with someone very dear to me who is going through a whole host of unfair and horrible circumstances, from divorce to the passing of her mother. She spoke to me about how lost she felt. She’s angry at God and confused by her circumstances. And yet even in her frustration, she told me that she couldn’t let go of her faith. She told me that sometimes she wanted to, but even in all her pain and anger she simply could not let go of her faith in God. Perhaps the reason she can’t let go is because even in the feeling of God’s absence, God has not let go.
When Joshua stood that day in Shechem to ask his people to leave behind the gods of Egypt, he reminded them how the God of Israel had sustained them for all those years. That phrase, “the God of Israel,” to me, is one of the most beautiful phrases in all of scripture. It comes from the story of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, who had fought with his brother over status and position and eventually, after betraying his brother and father, became estranged to them for decades. In the story, the night before he reconciles with his brother he is ashamed of his past and afraid of his future. In that moment God comes to him in human form and Jacob wrestles with him the whole night, walking away from it the next morning with a limp. God gave him a new name, Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.” That name would become the name of an entire nation of descendants. The phrase, “the God of Israel,” literally means “The God of those who struggle.”
God is not only with us in our dark nights; God defines Godself by being with us in struggle. Even when that struggle is directed towards God, God is unfailingly present. The reason my friend can’t let go of her faith is because God is present even in her anger towards God. God is the God of those who struggle with God.
This is the meaning of Jesus’ words to his disciples in the garden, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” God is calling us to keep awake to our kingdom mission. And while at times we will be thrown out by the lords of this world, we ought to always remember that God’s spirit is present, even when undetected, willing, and able to help us endure, to stay committed to that subversive and all-inclusive message of Christ. So, keep awake, dear friends, for you know neither the day nor the hour when you’ll end up out on the streets and your faith tested. Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD, the God of those who struggle. Amen.