For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

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