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Posts Tagged ‘Parables’

My friend Amanda snapped me out of my blogging slump today, with this great post about what it means to be a neighbor. It got me thinking…what kind of a neighbor am I?

I’d like to say I’m the type of neighbor who always thinks of others before myself. I’d like to testify that my house is filled with friends, that I frequently visit others just to say hello, that I create about myself a calming presence that welcomes everyone into my midst so that I can show them God’s love in the way I behave.

Reality, I must confess, is unfortunately the flip side of that coin. I’m usually so busy rushing from task to task that I walk too fast to notice the blue sky, much less to pay attention to the needy person in my path. My house is usually a mess, and though I aspire to have friends over for tea, the invitations I issue are too few and too infrequent. I rarely visit or call on others unless I need their help with something, and only after my agenda items have been covered do I ask how they are doing. And since I haven’t been managing my stress well, people are more likely to encounter emotional shrapnel from my venting than meeting me as a serene and loving daughter of the most high.

All right, I’ll stop blasting myself for a minute now and say that I am pretty good at welcoming people, I do love to hear and share stories about all sorts of topics, and generally people give me feedback that it’s fun to be with me. But lately, I’ve been so caught up in project lists, or caring for sick kids, or crying over all the stress in my life, that I’ve been shutting others out. And it’s about time I pulled my head out of my own backside for a minute to take hold of all the opportunities I have to become a better neighbor.

When Jesus issued the Golden Rule, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself,” one of his listeners (an expert in religious law) challenged him to define neighbor. This is when Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan. The tale is so familiar that it’s almost become cliche, yet it sill presents a direct challenge to our modern attitudes and prejudices. In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Version of Luke 10, the injured man is white and the Samaritan is a black man. In the more familiar version of the story, it’s well-known that Samaritans and Jews did not hold mixed company. Jesus skillfully turns the idea of neighbor on its head! We are to live as neighbors to everyone, not just to people who are like us, or who make us feel completely comfortable all the time.

But even more relevant to my current predicament is the analysis of those who did not stop. All of them were in a hurry to get on with some self-important errand. Yes, I would argue that motivation to serve in the ancient temples, and especially in today’s churches, can easily be born in the ego rather than the heart. We can get caught up in the work, in the plans, in the fundraising and maintaining our image. All for what? For nothing, if at the end of the day we have no energy left to enter the holy experience of being a neighbor to those we encounter.

Perhaps this recent stress I’ve been going through coupled with being sick at home all last week, and now still at home caring for my daughter who has bronchitis…maybe these are blessings in disguise. Each obstacle has forced me to slow down, to think about what’s most important in life, and to truly value the people around me who’ve loved me enough to let me say “no” to the daily grind, and who have kept things going in my absence. Perhaps all the agendas can be set aside. And then I can grasp hold of this new opportunity to remember what the Golden Rule was all about in the first place.

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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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This post is from the message I was privileged to share this past Sunday at Koinonia’s gathered worship service. Every Sunday evening, we share communion and a meal, followed by a simple worship service based on the lectionary readings for that week. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Matthew 20:1-16
Parable of the vineyard workers

1  “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.
3 “At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4 So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5 So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.
6 “At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7 “They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8 “That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9 When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’
16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

This parable is well-known, and we might hesitate to admit that we probably remember it because it rubs us the wrong way. Our American culture is built around the premise that you earn your way to the top. “The early bird gets the worm,” so to speak. It’s been ingrained in us from a young age that if you work harder, your reward will be greater.

Especially now, in an era where we’ve grown used to systems of welfare and government assistance, there might be a sense of self-righteous indignation when we perceive that anyone else is getting something for nothing. Sayings like “there’s no free lunch” are part of our vernacular, and we just come to accept it as fact. Just last week it was suggested in a mainstream political debate that when those without health insurance are faced with catastrophic illness or injury, perhaps we should let them die rather than cough up the tax dollars to give them a chance. The audience cheered at this suggestion, an audience full of people who claim to be Christians, people who claim they hold upstanding values when it comes to fairness and justice.

I found a re-write of the Lord’s Prayer on one website where this passage was being discussed:

Our Father who art no longer powerful,
your name is very ordinary.
Thy Kingdom come, but only in heaven,
cause we’ve got it all taken care of here on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread
cause we have worked long and hard for it.
Forgive us our sins regardless of whether we forgive others;
after all, it’s your fault we are tempted.
Deliver us into evil cause that’s what we like most.
For ours is the kingdom, the power,
and we should get all the glory. Amen.

It seemed comical at first, then a bit shocking. How many times have I thought these things? How frequently do I take control into my own hands, then want extra credit for everything I’ve accomplished? How many times have I cast God aside, then forgotten to call on him in times of trial, then blamed him for my circumstances? How many times have I purposely chosen evil, then wondered why my life is so hard with me in the throne? Certainly I don’t think it’s right to leave people for dead when they can’t afford insurance, but I confess that the idea of working all day only to be paid the same wage as someone who worked only one hour at the same job in the same location really bothers me.

These thoughts of entitlement, of fairness and supposed “justice” are products of the Confuser’s work in my life. The enemy is using these to distract me from the beautiful message waiting in this parable. (By the way, we must remind ourselves that a parable is an allegory, a story that is meant to draw comparisons, not something to be taken literally.)

The workers in this story are meant to represent the church. Some are born into this world as kingdom workers; they are raised in the church, they live all their lives with the church, and they die in the church. Others leave or are never involved in the first place. They live worldly lives, filled with sin and depravity. Then there are all those in between, the ones who hang around church but don’t do much outside of Sunday morning. Those who rarely or never go to church, but lead fairly moral lives. And everyone else that falls somewhere among all the extremes.

What this parable tells us is that everyone has an equal chance to enjoy the rewards of answering God’s call. We might hear the call first thing in the morning. Or we might show up late and so be called an hour before closing time. But it is God who calls us to receive his rewards, and God who decides what each of us will receive. The kingdom of God is the antithesis of the American dream. The kingdom is upside-down, a place where the last to come are the first to be rewarded, a kingdom where we are to be mature and child-like all at once, a kingdom where all are welcome because there is no such thing as status or self-importance.

The landowner in this story shows us what God’s grace is truly about. We read it as earnings for a day of labor. But the way I’ve come to see it, the day represents a lifetime, and the payment is salvation. There’s no greater reward than salvation. One cannot be “more saved” than another. As we live out Koinonia’s calling to be a demonstration plot for the kingdom, may we always remember that we have already been hired at the vineyard, some of us earlier in the “day” than others. Let’s invite the late-comers in, and let’s continue to challenge one another to answer God’s call, so that we will not be embittered when the last become first. Let’s rejoice when the rewards are issued, and receive our places in God’s eternal kingdom.

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