Sunday, November 09, 2014

Carrying oil - the wise and foolish maidens

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all the maidens woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
‘No,’ they replied, ‘If we do that there won’t be enough for both us and you. You’d better go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The maidens who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
Therefore be vigilant, because you do not know the day or the hour.
(Matthew 25:1-13.   adapted from NIV)

There’s a delightful series of cartoons in The Stage called Hamlet, usually featuring two actors talking at a bar.
“So, you’re performing at an outdoor New Age festival?”
“Aye. What’s more I’ll be staying on site. But I don’t know whether to bring my own tent or borrow one of theirs…. Tepee or not Tepee, that is the question”

My friend Denis Noble, one of the fathers of systems biology, wrote a wonderful little book called The Music of Life explaining that we should not think of DNA as some kind of computer program, but rather that we should think about biology as more like wonderful music played on an organ, in which the many stops, pipes and notes combine to create dynamic music in a way that cannot be reduced to any single part.

In many ways the Bible is like music. One part resonates with another. Jesus and Paul only need to quote one phrase from a passage and many of their hearers will recall the whole passage: it’s a bit like someone saying “to be or not to be.”  So when Jesus talks in the previous chapter about the coming of the Son of Man he quotes Daniel “The son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven”. (Daniel 7.13). Daniel was a very live and topical book for Second Temple Jews. Here is the context from Daniel 7:
“After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast … it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left … it had ten horns… [one] horn had eyes like the eyes of a human being and a mouth that spoke boastfully….
As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat…. Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire….
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Pretty much everybody in 2nd Temple Judaism thought that Daniel was a prophecy of the fall of the Roman Empire. The emperor who is said to be “son of God” (speaking boastfully indeed!) and his empire will be overthrown by God’s mighty acts through God’s Messiah in a great Day of the Lord. Israel will be restored to its rightful place as top nation, though the more thoughtful interpreters remembered that it was to be through Israel that “all the gentiles” will be blessed.

It’s a little bit like the attitude of the British at the beginning of the First World War. The right side will achieve victory and it will all be over by Christmas. Well it was, but Christmas 1918 not 1914. And there was terrible death and suffering before eventually the 100 Days Offensive achieved the decisive victory.

Expectations in Israel were high. But Amos makes it clear that this is not so simple.
Woe to you who long
    for the day of the LORD!
Why do you long for the day of the LORD?
    That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
    only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
    and rested his hand on the wall
    only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light—
    pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
So what is it to be? A day of light or darkness? A day rejoicing, or weeping and gnashing of teeth?

And there is something else: a part of God’s plan which no-one had anticipated. The final victory of God would be a day of God’s time and not ours.  Obvious when you think about it, perhaps. But certainly not obvious at the time. We now believe that the Universe is about 14 billion years old. So if the universe were a 70 year old man, a universe-year (if you like) would be 200M years, a universe-day would be about 540,000 years, an hour would be about 23,000 years, a minute about 380 years and a second about 6 years. From this perspective we’re about 5 universe-minutes after the resurrection. God’s perspective is not, of course, governed by arithmetic. But it’s notoriously difficult to see the true shape of anything when you are in it. I can’t resist quoting a Chinese Poem carved on the wall of a temple in a mountain range:
From front a range, from side peak
Views relate in ways oblique
Can’t know the mount’s real true face
While I’m centred in this place.
Su Shi, “Written on the Wall of West Forest Temple” (11th Century) translated NB

This all seems very confusing. Is Jesus talking about the end of time, about the end of the age, about his vindication, his second coming, the fall of Jerusalem or indeed how people should prepare for their own deaths?  And the answer is: all of these. Jesus’s words resonate through time and eternity.

We lose sight in English translations of the extent to which Jesus uses poetic language to convey deep and resonant truths. For example in Matthew 24 Jesus says in the days before the flood they were “eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage.”

That sounds prosaic if slightly odd. But in Greek that’s
trwgontges kai pinontes, gamountes kai gamizontes. 
Catchy, poetic, memorable.

So what is happening here?  The bridegroom is coming to the wedding feast – the messianic banquet – and it is the duty of these maidens to welcome him in carrying their lamps to light the way. But some are prepared and others are not. They “slumber and sleep.”*

Then in the middle of the night there is a cry, behold the bridegroom!  This reminds us of Isaiah 40 “Behold your God! Behold the LORD.”

The maidens all rise up – the word is the same as used for resurrection – but those who are unprepared cannot perform their duties. (we shouldn’t infer that Jesus is condoning selfishness here or worry about the likelihood of oil stores being open in the middle of the night – that’s beside the point).  They go away to try to get themselves prepared, but by the time they return it’s too late. The door is shut. They have never known the Lord – the Lord has never known them.

So the arrival of the bridegroom – the day of the Lord – is good news for those who will make themselves ready to receive him, but bad news for those who will not.  This is also the message of Amos – the Day of the Lord will be darkness for Israel because they are not obeying the spirit of God’s law.

Is Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem? About the moment of our death, where we will fall asleep and then the next thing we know (probably) will be to rise up to meet his judgement? Or is he talking about the end of time?  Well I think the answer is – all of the above. Tom Wright is convinced that this is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem which, as Tom points out, is one element of the demonstration by God that Jesus is indeed a true prophet.  But rather as in music one theme can have many resonances signify many different things, and as in biology one gene or set of genes can be involved in many different processes, so Jesus words can have meaning at many different stages of our lives and in many situations.

So what can this mean for us, today, on this remembrance Sunday? May I offer three thoughts:
  1. We never know when God will call us to do something important and special in His service.  We are called to be lights of the world. God will equip us with the strength we need, but we must be open to his call. And prepared, watchful, vigilant.
  2. Nor do we know when we will meet our deaths. We will slumber and sleep, and then rise up to meet our Lord. There is a paradox here which we cannot hope to resolve and we just have to remember. God in Christ has won the victory over sin and death, and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  We do not and can not earn our place at the wedding banquet – these maidens were appointed to welcome the bridegroom and didn’t earn their place. And yet, as Jesus makes clear, we cannot just blithely assume that we have to do nothing.
  3. Our lamps have to be filled with oil. And what is this oil? Well of course it’s not petroleum, but olive oil. The same oil that is used for anointing, and Christ means “the anointed one.”  So I think one of the things this passage is saying to us is that we must be filled with the oil which is the spirit of Christ.  Only he can equip us for the work he wants us to do – and only he can equip us for our deaths to become the prelude to a glorious resurrection.
Let us pray
Lord Jesus. Thank you for your word, your way, your truth and your life.
Thank you that you laid down your life so that we might live.
Thank you for all those who gave their lives fighting for freedom and against tyranny.
We pray that you will fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit.
And we claim your promise that you are with us always, now and until the end of time.

* I wondered if this was Is this a reference to The Lord who keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep? (Psalm 121.4) the LXX word for slumber is the same but the word for sleep used is different (kathuedon in Mt, hupnwsei in LXX) Maybe there is there some poetry here?
Chronizontos de to numphiou
enustaxen pasai kai ekatheudon
mesEs de nuktos kraugE gegonen
idou ho numphios, exerchesthe eis apantEsin

This could be a rendering into Greek of something more catchy and poetic in Aramaic.
Or are we meant to think about people dying and then sleeping awaiting resurrection?

BTW, although I didn't mention this in my sermon, it's interesting that all the disciples in this parable are women!

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