9 November 2014
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 27A (RCL)
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
1 Thessalonians 413-18
Paul’s first letter to the Church at Thessalonika is the first written evidence we have of a person named Jesus claimed as Lord by a small band of misfits in the Roman Empire. Paul probably wrote the letter around the year 50. On other evidence, we can assume Jesus died around the year 30. This letter then gives us the state of reflection on the person of Jesus twenty years after his death. Clearly Paul taught and the Thessalonians believed that this Jesus would “come back” after his death, in some apocalyptic scenario that involved the summons of an archangel and the trumpet of God. Already, by 50, people were wondering why this return was so long delayed. Many who had believed had died before seeing the parousia, the official visit of Jesus as Lord (that’s what parousia means).
Paul uses the euphemism of “falling asleep” for death. Those who have fallen asleep will arise and go before the rest of us to meet Jesus in the air. Paul does not want us to grieve for them, as if, by not living until Jesus’ return, they were going to miss out on his establishment of the new order of things. They’ll get there before the rest of us.
The parable in Matthew’s Gospel uses similar metaphors. The ten virgins all got drowsy and fell asleep. And when the cry comes to meet the bridegroom, all ten virgins are resurrected (the verb Matthew uses for ‘to wake up’ is the same verb he uses for Jesus’ resurrection). The marriage was a common metaphor used in the Gospels for the return of Jesus, or at least the feast at the end of days. Matthew uses this same vocabulary field for the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane: they fall asleep and Jesus resurrects them.
The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the just at the restoration of the kingdom. Matthew seems to indicate in the parable that the christians believed in the resurrection of the just and the unjust. The five virgins without sufficient oil will miss out on the wedding. Not only must we be watchful (be resurrected), but we must also have oil in our flasks. Staying watchful is not incompatible with dying. We might fall asleep and still be watchful.
This raises the question of what the oil means in this allegory (and it does read like an allegory). What is wisdom, and how does it keep oil in our flasks. In the Garden, Jesus instructs the disciples to watch (be resurrected) so that they not undergo the test (martyrdom). Oil is perhaps then courage, prepared by prayer, to face the coming trial, or the works of justice needed to be admitted into the kingdom when the bridegroom does come.
We no longer expect Jesus’ immediate return, nor expect to face the test of martyrdom, so the oil can mean something different for us. The virgins lamps needed to be burning, presumably, to witness some aspect of the marriage itself and perhaps to illuminate the feast. What do we need in order to be able to perceive the presence of the bridegroom? What preparation do we need to meet the tests that face us? In these days of waiting for the grand jury report, perhaps we need prayer so that we can hear the frustrations of those we might like to see as “agitators.” It takes preparation to see the divine energies at work in boring circumstances which make us drowsy. The crisis or test wakes us up, and if we haven’t been paying attention to the divine energies when life is “normal”, we’re likely to miss them in the moment of crisis. Be watchful, awake, resurrected.