Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Carry Your Torch!



The Twenty Third Sunday after Pentecost brings before us a loving, but mixed message. This comes in prophetic parable from the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. The parable, though not quite an allegory, tells us of the eternal consequences of careless spiritual ignorance. It speaks of being unprepared toward knowing that our salvation is freely provided through Christ Jesus. For those who do not know, consider that our Lord had for all time taught…

“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
 But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’”
 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
                                                                                          (Matthew 25:1-13)

Lamps Held High?
In the latter decades of the first century, Matthew related to his churches that Jesus had told a parable about his disciples needing to be prepared. The kingdom of heaven was promised as coming. The Matthean disciple in turn therefore, asked that those in his charge should be ready for the return of Jesus and the judgment to come. In this way that disciple highlighted the future for Jews and Gentiles across the spread of the Roman Empire.
 We note that the publishing of this parable as part of the gospel had occurred about 10-15 years after the battle of Masada. At that monumental site, armed Jewish resistance had committed suicide rather than surrendering to the Romans. Given the devastation there as noted by historians, we who become concerned for a delay in the arrival of God's heavenly realm need to pay close attention.
 Two factors stand out concerning this parable. The first is that the bride was not mentioned. Therefore, may we assume that the expression of the emerging church as the “Bride of Christ”, later spoken of in the book of Revelation, had not yet fully developed for Matthew. Secondly, there exists no definite link in Hebrew scripture which alludes to the number of bridesmaids. Throughout scriptural texts, however, the number ten repeatedly seems to indicate a developed “fullness”, whether stated in physicality or time. Given this scriptural tradition then, we specifically note a passage in which Israel was warned about the futile work of ten women breaking the bread of God’s Word as provided. It reveals that they worked in fullness…

“When I break your staff of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and shall deliver your bread again by weight; and you shall eat, and not be satisfied.
And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, but walk contrary to me,  then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and chastise you myself seven-fold for your sins. You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters.
 And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols; and my soul will abhor you. And I will lay your cities waste, and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing odors. And I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be astonished at it.  And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.”  (Leviticus 26:26-33)

 Given this reading, though possibly a reach for our minds, I offer that the text translates from the inability of Israel to realize the fullness of the only one who is “Righteous”, even though God had supplied the bread of life that ten women prepared. This echoes for us throughout history.
 I consider therefore that the long isolation and fall of Masada was a pivotal echoing event heard by the community of Matthew, Conditions revealed by historians describe that siege as closely mirroring the Leviticus passage that we have read. The occurrence echoes that we need see through the period of Israel’s captivity in Babylon… to the fall of the high rebellious fortress.
 To me, it seems the first exile was a temporary corrective to Jewish waywardness and national sin, and the second... the falling at Masada, exists as a harsh and final sentence. However, we need to keep awake, for the procession of history is not complete.
 "Why so?" We may ask. In answer, we note in the parable that all bridesmaids nodded… then slept. So actually… none stayed awake! None were worthy. We also note that once called…some bridesmaids had oil… and other foolish maids had none.
 In particular, note that no mention was made for the source for the oil. The oil is simply something that we may assume had been supplied for them. The oil was a vital entity that the bridesmaids neededm which some did not forget...

Where’s that Oil?
Here my Lutheran upbringing immediately reminds of the baptismal oil placed on the foreheads of persons that are newly marked by water and the Holy Spirit. It is an oil not earned, yet is gracefully given… and then must be carried by us throughout our lives. Therefore olive oil placed upon our brow symbolizes our acceptance into the heavenly parade. But notice that we can’t see the oil which is held high upon us like a torch… and some of us forget.
 Like for the bridesmaids in the parable, the oil marks for us the differences between those who forget… and practice a thin, outward religion… over against those who receive and accept the inward commitment provided by the Holy Spirit. We may also note sadly that those who are without oil are told to go out into the night’s darkness to try and find it. Too late they return and try to gain entry. We are reminded of the prophetic words…

“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light; as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned with his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your plump beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:18–24)

 Amid this hinting of baptismal oil, a sudden cry rings out as set against the darkness. The warning of immediacy comes to us repeatedly from many prophetic witnesses. We see similarities of the warnings in Mark 13:34 and Luke 12:35-38. Also, the readers of the entire gospel of Matthew were warned earlier by our Lord. Again the cries of from the rock fortress made humanly at Masada echo. Amid the aftermath news of the fortress falling, Matthew’s message gave his community a warning. The gospel tells of a bright glimmer of what is coming for the church even unto this day…

Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)

 Keeping watch for the heavenly procession, therefore, is an action brought before us as a form of Jewish wisdom. If we of the church are wise, we shall keep the precious remembrance of our baptism at the forefront of our minds. Knowing that the groom’s procession, Jesus Christ may literally be at the door at any moment. Let us try to keep awake though it seems futile. Let our church attempt to keep awake even knowing that in sin we fail. For soon the cry will go out. When it does, having the oil of baptism already given to us, we shall not miss being in the procession.
 Several decades after this gospel writing, blessed John of Patmos wrote in the Apocalypse…

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”
 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus.  Worship God. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. 
                                                                                     (Revelation 19:9-11)

So this parable indeed was prophecy for the churches to whom Matthew wrote, and so it is with us unto this very day. Watch therefore, people of God. In his church be ready. Remember your baptism… and keep living in the promise that the bridegroom shall come. Carry your torch and tell others so that they too may have oil.





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