Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost Yr A Proper 27 Nov 8 2020
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7,1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13
Last Sunday, the Feast of All Saints, we recommitted ourselves to following Jesus, we reaffirmed our baptismal promises. In these days it feels to me like not only do those promises call me into ministry, but they are also like armor donned not for battle, but for life, life that just keeps throwing down the crap.
And I think Matthew keeps throwing it down, one parable after another, one parable more difficult than the last one. This parable in front of us today is one of those watchful parables that we heard in the preceding chapter of Matthew's Gospel. And it challenges our quickly made assumptions about judgment, grace and the end times. The characters in this story are not simply good or simply bad. The definitions we give good and bad have always reflected our own prejudices more than they have faithfully represented Gospel truth. And another thing this story is not about is getting into heaven by what we do or don’t do.
In these Covid days, I’ve been watching The Good Place on Netflix. On first blush The Good Place is a story about getting into heaven or going to hell. The basic premise is that you need to earn enough points to get into the Good Place. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that something has gone wrong, and the Good Place might not actually be the Good Place. Discussion ensues about how you earn points, and what you do to earn points, and what you do to earn points and why you would even want to earn those points. Michael, the demon turned friend, calls those points moral dessert. Isn’t that great? Moral dessert. The result of earning your way into the Good Place is moral dessert. However, the story deepens to acknowledge that humans are much more complex than originally thought and that what humans do is not always easily categorized into right and wrong. And the question is raised about who does the judging and accounting of the points anyway.
That is partly what this parable in Matthew is about, it shows us the complexity of our moral decision making, but this parable leaves us uncertain. There is no right and wrong, there is no satisfying ending, and there is no moral dessert. Because this parable may very well be about how to live ready and awake even in the complexity of life.
Let’s take a look. What Matthew presents to us today, as he has throughout his gospel, is terribly troubling. These ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. How were five foolish and five wise? Because five of them took their lamps, but no extra oil. So when the bridegroom was delayed and they all fell asleep, and they were running out of oil and the other five wouldn’t share with them, they were denied entry to the marriage feast. How could that possibly be? You’ve got five who won’t share with the other five, and five denied entry, it just doesn’t seem fair. So one explanation for this rejection is that the five foolish maidens had already somehow been determined to be evil. It brings me right back to the Good Place, in spite of a list of good deeds these maidens may have had, they are rejected at the door to what seems to be the good place.
What do we do with this? How are the maidens being judged? Why are they being judged? That’s what brings me to what I really think this parable is about. I think it is about living ready and awake in the midst of this complexity of life. And, this is a story about the end of all things, and the beginning of the new, and the coming of Christ. But I think it’s mostly about how we live in the world, the place God has given for human habitation.
First we look to being ready and awake in the midst of the complexity of life.
Secondly, it is not the maidens who are doing the judging of one another, it is the one who is called Lord.
In Matthew’s gospel we can go right to the Sermon on the Mount, and the beatitudes for direction. We can go right to the answer to the lawyer’s question, which is the most important commandment? We all know the answer, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ We go to these passages in Matthew not because these are easy answers, but because they show forth the complexity in which we are asked to live our lives. The complexity in which we are to be ready, to be awake. What is the measure by which humanity is judged? That measure is our willingness to wrestling with the complexity of these blessings. Blessings that don’t show specifically what is right or wrong, good or bad, and don’t earn us moral dessert. If we are honest with ourselves, we wrestle with these beatitudes all the time, we ask what it means to be poor in spirit, or meek, or merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or even what is persecution. Because the reality is that you and I rarely are poor in anything, or meek, or persecuted.
Even loving our neighbor seems hard and complex in these days. In these times of division, how do we love our neighbor when we know we cannot agree to disagree about really important things; like the evil nature of racism, or the devaluing of women’s bodies, or the wonder of how love chooses a partner in life?
You and I must grapple with the complexity of this life. This is what kingdom readiness is about. We must wrestle with blessing and beatitude. We must love our neighbor even when we don’t like our neighbor. Not because we hope to rack up points and get the moral dessert, but because this is our ministry, this is our call, this is what it means to follow Jesus. We must love, because we are loved first, and because if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.
And more good news in this terribly troubling story in Matthew is that you and I are not the judge. It is not up to us who gets into the Good Place, thank God, because I for one would really botch that one. No, it is not up to us. That work is not ours. That work has already been done on the cross. The cross disrupts all of our categories of good or bad, and lays them at the foot of that cross with Jesus’ words, forgive them, forgive them. It is finished. We are called to lay down our pride and arrogance and love every neighbor. This life may not be comfortable when we do that, and it is indeed complex. And we may be called to stand in places that are difficult or dangerous, but this is the readiness for God’s kingdom as it will be, there is no other. Loving one another, standing with one another, is what following Jesus looks like. Being ready is not about you and me deciding who is foolish or who is wise, that’s God’s job. Being ready is to watch, and wait, and in the midst of that complexity, to love one another with abandon.
Thanks be to God.