November 12, 2017

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 5:18-24
Matthew 25:1-13

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 5:4-24


In one episode of the famous British comedy show, Mr. Bean, a group of servants are waiting for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth. Mr. Bean is one of those servants. He joins the welcoming party feeling confident that he has done all the preparations necessary to present himself to the queen. But, when he sees what the others have done, Mr. Bean realizes that he is not ready at all.

So, in the last minutes, he tries to imitate what the others have done. He tries to clean his shoes with his own spit, clean his teeth with a loose thread from another person’s clothing, and tidy his nails with the zipper on his trousers. In the end however, all of his last-minute preparations fall apart when he, in a panic, head-butts the queen.

This episode of Mr. Bean reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the ten young women who are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. The parable was told for the first century Christians who were eagerly anticipating Jesus’ return from heaven, which they believed was imminent. As such, this generation of Christians lived with a strong sense of urgency, believing that Jesus would return in their lifetime.

But living two millennia after the events told in the Gospels, we don’t live with the same kind of urgency anymore. Therefore, the parable about the ten young women that form a bridegroom’s welcoming party is for us, as much as it was for those Christians living in the first century. The parable was told not only to remind Jesus’ followers about his return; it was told as a warning about its delay.

In the parable, the bridegroom’s arrival is postponed for one reason or another. But the wedding party has not been cancelled. The young women who are called wise are called so not because they stay awake during the wait. No. All of the women, the ones called wise and the ones called fools, fall asleep. But the wise ones have prepared extra oil, just in case something wrong happens and they have to wait longer than expected. The foolish ones, on the other hand, don’t take any precaution.

In the same way, no one knows when exactly is the day and time when Jesus will return. Only God knows. The first century Christians, including the Apostle Paul himself, expected that Christ would return in their lifetime. That didn’t happen, but the parable that we hear today had anticipated such thing.

The wise people are those who are ready not only for Christ’s return, but also for its delay. The wise people will not be disappointed by the delay and will not be taken off guard when Jesus finally returns. The wise people will prepare the ‘extra oil’, so that when Christ indeed returns, they will be ready.

But what does it meant to prepare the ‘extra oil’ today? How can we prepare ourselves so when the ‘bridegroom’ finally comes, we will be let into the ‘wedding party’ and not be left out? Or worse, how can we prepare ourselves so that when the ‘queen’ arrives, we will not head-butt her like Mr. Bean does.

We find the answer to the questions in our reading from the book of one of the ‘minor’ prophets, Amos. In the part of his writing that we read this morning, Amos the prophet talked about the Day of the Lord. This was the day when God would fully reveal God-self and when God’s salvation for Israel and the world will be fulfilled; the day when all wrongs would be righted.

But Amos reminded the people of one aspect of that day that could not be dismissed or forgotten: judgement. The Day of the Lord would be the day of judgement. The people of Israel and the world could not be restored unless evil was purged; and that required judgement. As such, for all the people who had lived their lives by indulging in everything that the world offered at the expense of others, the day would not be a good day. Those who failed to live up to the commandments that God gave to the people would be judged harshly.

And God could not be persuaded by religious festivals or offerings or songs, unlike the other gods in the region at the time. God demanded one thing and one thing only: a just and righteous life. Only those who lived a just and righteous life would fare well on the Day of the Lord. Those who did not live the kind of life that God wanted them to live were warned.

Indeed, judgement is also an element that we cannot ignore in Jesus’ parable about the ten young women. The door to the wedding party represents this judgement. It is opened to those who are prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, but closed to those who are not.

We often ignore this element of judgement in the parable however. But God’s judgement was always a fundamental element in the life of the Hebrews and the early Christians. One day, we all will be judged by what we do with our lives. Have we lived the kind of life that brings justice into the world, that right the wrongs, or have we lived the kind of life that foster evil in the world? Have we hold on to what is right even when the entire world has fallen into the temptation of doing the wrong things?

I think it is fundamental in the Christian faith that God’s mercy will prevail in the end (see James 2:3), but this will not happen before God’s judgement. One day, God will hold us accountable for the way we live our life and we need to be ready for it.

I like to compare God’s judgement with the true story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian-American Jewish woman who won a landmark case against the Austrian government. When she was young, Maria and her husband left Austria after it fell under the NAZI’s control. They escaped to America and made their new life there.

But this only happened after her house in Vienna was raided by the Nazis who seized all valuable things in their house, including paintings by Austrian master, Gustav Klint. Two of the paintings depict her aunt, Adele, who had then passed away.

After the war was over, instead of being returned to the family, the paintings went to the Austrian State Gallery, owned by the Austrian government. In 1999, at the age of 82, Maria Altmann launched a legal campaign to retrieve the paintings. Her case went to the Austrian court, the US district court, and even to the US Supreme Court. In the end, in 2006, an Arbitrary panel of judges in Austria ruled in her favour and the paintings were returned to her as the heir of the family.

She finally won the case and a great injustice against her family had finally been righted, but it wouldn’t have happened without a strong case mounted by herself and her legal team. It took years of painstaking preparations to build up the case and mount the legal challenge in different courts before they finally got the verdict in their favour.

I like to imagine God’s judgement like the trials that Maria and his legal team had to deal with. Unless they came prepared, the case would have been lost, if it wasn’t dismissed altogether. After all, they were against the government of a nation.

Likewise, whether or not God will rule in our favour will depend on our preparations. But we prepare ourselves for the Day of the Lord not by mounting a brilliant legal representation, but by living our lives according to God’s will.

This again is the message that we hear from our reading from the first letter to the Thessalonians. Here, Paul was talking about the parousia or what is commonly known now as the ‘second’ coming of Christ.

Paul sent this message to allay the fear that some people in the Thessalonian church had regarding their loved ones who had passed away before the parousia. They were afraid that those who had gone before them would never be reconciled with Christ because they died before he returned.

But Paul affirmed the Christian hope that death was not a barrier for the believers to be united with Christ. When Christ returned, the dead and the living would be reconciled in his presence.

But allaying fear was not the letter’s only purpose. Paul clearly indicated that the hope for Christ’s return must give birth to a new life. In the part of his letter that we read today, Paul reiterated Jesus’ own words that the day when Christ would return would come unexpectedly like a thief (see Matthew 24:43-44). But the people in the Thessalonian church did not have to be caught by the day off guard.

Indeed, there was no need for them to be afraid of the day because they were children not of darkness anymore, but of light. Only those who lived in darkness should be afraid of the day. Here Paul was taking a dig at the Greek pagan worship in the city of Thessalonica, especially the worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, which was commonly held at night. The worship had the bad reputation of becoming a frenzied and ecstatic orgy.[1]

But the Christians in the city of Thessalonica must not be involved in such celebration anymore. They were no longer children of the night, but of the day. As such, they were to stay ‘awake’, not asleep; ‘sober’ not ‘drunk’; live in the ‘light’ not ‘darkness’. Of course, these are metaphors that mean that the Thessalonians were to be ready at all time for the coming of Christ. And they must do this by being true to their identity as those whose life had been shaped by Christ.

But how does this kind of life look like? Paul answered these question by listing the ethical implications of being the children of the day. The Thessalonians were not to repay evil for evil, but try to do good to all people. They should never stop rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks in any situation. They were to listen to the guidance of the Spirit and the teachings of their leaders, but they had to stay critical of what they heard. They were to hold on to everything that was good and not get involved with anything that was evil.

Friends, it is not our business to know when and how Christ will return. Our role is to prepare the ‘extra oil’ so that we will be ready when the fullness of time arrives. And we do this by making sure that our life is aligned to the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus’ proclaimed. If we do this, one day we will hear the Lord say to us, “Well done good and faithful servants. You have done your duty well. Come and join in my feast (Matthew 25:21).”

Toby Keva

[1] Amy L. B. Peeler, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, (November 16 2014)