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Archive for December, 2011

Matthew 25:1-13
1  “Then the Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 The five who were foolish didn’t take enough olive oil for their lamps, 4 but the other five were wise enough to take along extra oil. 5 When the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight they were roused by the shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is coming! Come out and meet him!’
7 “All the bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. 8 Then the five foolish ones asked the others, ‘Please give us some of your oil because our lamps are going out.’
9 “But the others replied, ‘We don’t have enough for all of us. Go to a shop and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were gone to buy oil, the bridegroom came. Then those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was locked. 11 Later, when the other five bridesmaids returned, they stood outside, calling, ‘Lord! Lord! Open the door for us!’
12 “But he called back, ‘Believe me, I don’t know you!’
13 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return.

This is a much-debated parable, and so it is important to consider all the information very carefully. In our interpretation of scripture, in particular parables, we tend to be either literal or symbolic; but we can’t lean too heavily on either approach, or we will miss the point altogether.

First, let’s identify the symbols in this parable: the bridegroom, bridesmaids, wedding feast, and lamp oil. Most interpretations say this parable is about the end times, when Christ (the bridegroom) is meant to return for his bride, the church. In that case the oil would represent our faith and the way we live our lives, and the feast would represent life after death, with some being allowed in and others being excluded.

However, if we pay close attention to the first line, the insights will change, for it does not say “the kingdom is like a wedding feast.” It says this: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” In many translations the word “virgins” is used in place of bridesmaids…and in our modern context it’s difficult to make sense of why these unwed women would be waiting for the groom on his wedding night. Perplexing as usual, although I think one thing is certain…Jesus is telling us to be ready when the party begins.

In order to understand this story more fully, let’s examine Jewish wedding custom in Biblical times. The explanation below is a paraphrase of information found on biblestudymanuals.net. It’s a bit lengthy, but worth knowing about in order to fully understand what’s going on in this parable:

The first major step in a Jewish marriage was betrothal, which involved the establishment of a marriage covenant between the prospective husband and the bride’s father. They would negotiate to determine the price that the bridegroom must pay to purchase his bride. Once the price was paid, the marriage covenant was established and the man and woman were regarded to be husband and wife.

After the marriage covenant had been established, the groom would leave the home of the bride and return to his father’s house. There he would remain separate from his bride for a period of twelve months.

This period of separation afforded the bride time to gather her possessions and prepare for married life. The groom occupied himself with preparing a living space in his father’s house to which he could bring his bride. At the end of the period of separation the groom would come to take his bride to live with him. The taking of the bride usually occurred at night. The groom, best man and other male escorts would leave the groom’s father’s house and conduct a torch light procession to the home of the bride.

Although the bride was expecting her groom to come for her, she did not know the exact time of his coming. As a result the groom’s arrival would be preceded by a shout, which would forewarn the bride to be prepared for the arrival of her groom. After the groom received his bride together with her female attendants, the enlarged wedding party would return to the groom’s father’s house. The wedding guests would already be assembled there. Shortly after arrival the bride and groom would be escorted by the other members of the wedding party to the bridal chamber.

While the groomsmen and bridesmaids waited outside, the bride and groom would enter the bridal chamber alone to privately engage in physical union for the first time, thereby consummating the marriage that had been covenanted a year earlier. The groom would emerge from their new home to announce the consummation to the groomsmen and bridesmaids waiting outside the chamber. These people would pass on the news of the marital union to the wedding guests. Upon receiving this good news the wedding guests would feast and make merry for the next seven days.

And so returning to the first line of the parable: “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like…” Notice this doesn’t say anything about a split kingdom, where some of the bridesmaids are in and some are out. The kingdom is made up of those whose job it is to invite everyone to the wedding feast. And as the kingdom comes to earth, there will be those who are prepared for this role and those who are not. In Jesus’ time, some of the listeners (the Sadducees and Pharisees) were not realizing that he was the Messiah. The bridegroom had come to sit in their midst, the consummation had already taken place, they were the ones responsible for letting everyone know…and they were complaining that the party hadn’t started. They had no oil in their lamps, no recognition of the spirit…and so they fretted and got bored, grumbled and then rushed about, but wound up realizing what was going on too late to join the celebration.

This wedding feast is no spontaneous gathering; the village would have been preparing for a wedding ceremony a year in advance. To then miss out because they were not ready for the moment they had awaited for so long…foolish is the right word. So while the wise bridesmaids are lighting up the streets and proclaiming the marriage union to the entire village, the foolish bridesmaids are going to miss the whole party because they were preoccupied with the things of this world.

Let’s reconsider the symbols in this story. If we are the bridesmaids, then let’s say the lamp represents our hearts, and the oil represents the Holy Spirit who prepares us to receive Christ’s light. If we are not filled up with the Spirit, it’s easy to be consumed by the things of this world. When the divine party is about to start, we’ll be yawning and lazing about. We will have slacked off in our prayer and meditation times; and we will only notice that that our lamps are not ready as the party is about to begin. We go looking for oil at the wrong time and in the wrong place, and subsequently we find exactly what we had been seeking all along: separateness and lack.

But when we are wise, we have taken the time to prepare our hearts through prayer and meditation, spending time daily nurturing the spirit’s place in our lives. And when the moment finally comes, we are neither bored nor impatient. We have been waiting expectantly all along, and we are ready to proclaim the bridegroom’s news to all the invited guests.

“The kingdom of heaven will like…” So where is this kingdom that Jesus talks about so often? Is it somewhere beyond the horizon, only accessed after life on earth has come to an end? The answer is simple: Heaven is where God dwells. Through his spirit, God lives within our hearts; he exists in thoughts and in time, in all the space in our universe; in every aspect of creation; in the community of oneness, ushered in by Christ’s existence as a man; in the center of the cross, and all along its branching arms, connecting us to him and to one another. The only way to be excluded from the kingdom is when we close ourselves to God’s presence by allowing fear, doubt and self pity to overpower our God-consciousness. When we fill our hearts with shame and self-centered thinking, there is no room for the Spirit to dwell there, nothing to carry the flame of God’s light.

Let us always remember that the kingdom is not some far-off place, but is right here with us, and the celebration has already begun. And then let us share our light with the world, inviting the entire village to join in as we celebrate our unity in Christ.

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My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together. –Desmond Tutu

A human being is multi-faceted, paradoxical at best. On the one hand, humanity is our ability to care for others, in a sense it is our compassion and kindness. But on the other hand, we can attribute most of the worst events in history to the essential flaws of human nature.

Allowing one another a shred of human dignity is a nice idea. Humanists are defined as secular individualists who employ scientific reason and critical thinking to their problems. Humanist approaches seem to focus on the betterment of society through a basic respect for all humans. Sounds ok so far.

But…and this is a big but…I’ve seen over and over that even with the best intentions, we will wind up hurting each other again and again. Even at Koinonia, where a small group of people have committed to living reconciled lives, we fail each other over and over. We unintentionally (and sometimes carelessly) step on each others’ toes, gossip, bend the truth in the name of being nice…as my A.A. friends say, our best thinking doesn’t seem to get us very far.

So yes, Desmond, we can only be human together. But, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Alexander Pope) I’m with Alex on this one. Humanity is full of errors in judgment, self-righteousness, self-centeredness, fear and flat out disregard for the other beings around us. And so, in my experience, we absolutely need divine intervention if we are to make anything worthwhile out of the mess of life on Earth.

Without God, I’ve charged headlong into the life I dreamed of, where I just wanted to be happy all the time. When that was my life, relationships fell apart, jobs were abandoned, my family was to be kept at arms’ length, and I was fierce and independent. At best, I was lonely and aimless, experiencing intermittent happiness among the mess. At worst, I was filled with resentment, judgment and paralyzing fear.

With God, I’ve balked many times at the life he has laid out before me. And then thankfully I’ve followed his lead regardless of my fear. Faith tells me to keep going despite my inner-critic’s warnings. With God, fleeting happiness is all right because a deep sense of joy permeates my walk with him. Even in the midst of turmoil, I can experience divine grace and forgiveness. And in God’s presence, I can be more than simply human. I can glimpse eternity, and know that my humanity is a precious and temporary gift.

Each life is a treasure. How will you spend yours? Will you squander it on selfish pleasures? Or store up heavenly riches that will reward you and countless others in this life and the life to come?

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