XXIII Pentecost, Year A
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors– Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor– lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.
"Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."
But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD; for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the LORD!" Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel." The people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey." So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
Thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord:
Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
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. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, `Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, `No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, `Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The Bible texts of the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel lessons are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA, and used by permission.
“The foolish maidens represent the wisdom of this world—the live-by-what-you-see wisdom that ‘God has made foolish (1Cor.1:20).” And then, “but the wise represent the wisdom of faith—the wisdom of trusting the foolishness of God in Christ crucified (1Cor. 1:21-25). In actual fact, of course, both sets of girls have all they need for now. But only the wise have the faith that will get them through their lives in solid contact with the presently unseeable and unknowable Bridegroom.” [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1989, p. 161].
Capon epitomizes the misunderstanding of this parable that comes from our incredibly frustrating tendency (we all seem to have it) to want to reduce the parables to religious allegories. If we were only intended by Jesus to figure out who’s who, and what’s what in the parables, if we were only supposed to figure out that “This stands for that, and that stands for this,” Jesus would not have used parables to teach us.
As fond as I am of Robert Capon’s work on the parables, this reading was an unfortunately apt illustration of the way that this particular mashal will be allegorized in many sermons this week. I will probably fall into my own trap here, trying to write about the wise and foolish maidens, but let me try to lead some new meaning out of this frustrating text.
What is it that really separates the two sets of maidens, the wise and the foolish? Expectation. We could say, “hope.” It isn’t the presence of oil in their lamps. That is the result of the real difference, that one group expects the bridegroom, and acts out of that expectation, and one does not, and is therefore unable to greet him when he arrives.
Now, as our desire for allegory pulls at us, we are tempted to read this temporally. If you do not live with expectation, you will not be able to greet Jesus when he comes. This is the error that most exegetes will fall into as they read this passage. This appeals to our mimetic natures. It offers us an object of desire (Jesus, or being with Jesus) and a way to obtain it that differentiates us from others (the foolish).
What this reading fails to take into consideration is that the expectation is as much a characteristic of the kingdom Jesus describes as the coming of the bridegroom and the foolish maidens’ discovery that they are outside the closed doors. In other words, in the kingdom, all these things are contemporaneous. It is the very act of entrusting ourselves to a state of expectation that places us in the presence of the bridegroom.
Here, Capon nearly has it right. That is to say, the “wisdom of this world” will laugh at our hope, at our expectation. But because he reads it sequentially, rather than contemporaneously, he ends his exegesis with the paradox of “solid contact” with an “unknowable” bridegroom. If only we could escape the trap of allegory, we would be able to see that the state of expectation produces, in the same instant, the presence of the One whom we expect.
This lifts out of a mimetic framework. There is no object of desire that is given to some and not to others, but there is an absolute divide between the life of trust in the God of the future who comes to us in the present, and the life that will not see beyond the empty promise of the world.
No issues of consequence arise from this week’s parable.
My daughter is fond of saying that, even if all this stuff about God and Jesus isn’t true, she’d rather live her life believing that it is. It just makes her life better.
There’s something to that. The decision to trust, to place one’s hope in the future, makes the future present in a real way. That isn’t to say that the kingdom is present to us in all its fullness. I’m not quite foolish enough to say that, but the decision to abandon myself to that future where Jesus reigns makes the present concretely different.
This year, there’s a movie out called “The Dreamer.” In one of the ads for the movie, they quote some (alleged) viewers of the movie. One man, standing with his child says, “You gotta have dreams, so that you can have something to believe in.”
He’s so right, though the notion that a movie about a girl and a horse is a viable substitute for a future with God as an object of hope leaves me breathless. Let’s preach in a way that makes The Dreamer unnecessary.