Twenty-Third Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): “Seeking the Holy One, Not Just the Holy Place”
Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13
November 11-12, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
There are things about this Gospel parable that make me wonder. I wonder what the hold-up was for the bridegroom and his entourage. These days, if the bride is running late it’s the groom who’s apt to feel butterflies of misgiving as his groomsmen kid him about the possibility of being left standing at the altar. (On 1 memorable occasion the bride’s trolley broke down on the Rte. 35 bridge en route to Holy Trinity, so she was really late. I think a cell phone kept the groom in the loop and calm, though.)
Also, I wonder where the five plan-ahead bridesmaids expect their panicked friends to find a store selling oil in the middle of the night. More importantly, I want the five “plan ahead,” “wear a belt as well as suspenders” women to be compassionate as well as wise. Didn’t their mothers ever teach them, “When we share, everybody has enough”?
And that just shows how little I know. I want the story to say something it doesn’t. At heart, the story Jesus tells isn’t primarily about generosity or compassion (although we’ll come back to that later). It’s about being prepared, all the time. Sort of like keeping the church kitchen clean all the time, being sure there’s a thermometer in the refrigerator and bleach under the sink and instructions for the Heimlich maneuver posted, all the time, so when the health inspector pops in we’re sure to pass, even without advance notice of the visit!
The bridegroom has harsh words to speak through the door to the breathless bridesmaids when they plead, “’Lord, lord open to us’… ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Then comes Jesus’ command to those listening to this story: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:11b-13), of His return in glory, as Lord and Judge.
I was in Pennsylvania last week and passed a church sign advertising an event called something like, “Preparing Your Family for the Coming Tribulation.” I imagine they’ll talk about faithfulness in time of trial and sources of spiritual strength. Who knows, maybe they’ll include something about emergency rations, adequate water supply, having lots of batteries on hand, like we’re encouraged to do as part of hurricane preparedness. It’s not our theology to focus on what are sometimes called the end times, and certainly not to say, “See, this natural disaster or that war (or other political upheaval) is a sign of fulfilled prophecy, and we’d better buckle our seatbelts for a rocky ride!” For us, it is enough to know a) He will return as He promised and b) we have work to do in the meantime. Even Jesus said He knew neither the day nor the hour, so any effort on our part conjecturing about the unknowable is a waste of precious brain power and spiritual energy.
It’s really interesting to me that oil in Jewish thought often represents good works. We’re just coming off our commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, so we’ve been hearing a lot about how we’re justified by grace through faith apart from the works of the law. So true: we can’t “earn” heaven” – our salvation, our spiritual healing from the sickness of sin, isn’t a reward for good behavior on our part – it’s a gift, the gift of God through Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.
But that doesn’t mean our behavior doesn’t matter. It matters a lot in this story whether the bridesmaids’ lamps are lit or not. It matters a lot whether they’re on the scene when the bridegroom arrives. They arrive after the door to the reception is closed, and he breaks bad news to them: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
Back to my wish that the wise bridesmaids could have also been compassionate. One of the commentaries says:
…[T]here are certain things that cannot be borrowed… A [person] cannot borrow a relationship with God; he [or she] must possess it for him [or her]self.”1
To be in true relationship with a loving God is to live a loving life. Justification by faith doesn’t mean that God has no expectations of us. Jesus laid out plenty of expectations. We are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. We are to judge not, lest we be judged. We are to care for the widow and the orphan and the stranger in our midst. We are to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, encouraging the faint-hearted, comforting the grieving.
There’s an interesting connection between the 1st lesson from Amos and today’s Gospel. Like the Gospel, the 1st lesson contains harsh words, spoken by God through the prophet:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We think that Amos spoke that condemning word in a sanctuary, like Bethel. In the place where the people offered sacrifice and praise, Amos had the unenviable assignment of telling the people that God didn’t like the sight, sound or smell of their liturgy! (The literal translation of the Hebrew words for “I take no delight in” is “I don’t like the smell of”!) Amos spoke to the people of Israel at the high water mark of the Northern Kingdom’s economic success and geographic expansion. The problem was, the rich kept getting richer and the poor were trampled deeper and deeper into the mud. Wealthy landowners charged indigent farmers exorbitant rent and then took more than their share of the crops. Through Amos God expresses passionate displeasure and predicts that everything, including the land, will be taken away from the people because of their greed. That came to pass when the Assyrians overran the Northern Kingdom in 722 B.C., carrying many of the people into exile, never to return. (This is when ten of the twelve tribes of Israel basically disappear.)
We live in a time when there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, when greed leads and virtue lags behind, when proposed tax breaks for the “haves” threaten to decimate basic human services to the “have nots.” The reason Amos’ prophetic message to the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century B.C. is part of Scripture is because it is a cautionary tale for people of every age and place. It’s been said that Amos’ words didn’t so much indicate a problem with worship as with the worshipers. They weren’t living in everyday life what they professed in worship. They weren’t passing along the mercy God had shown them. They weren’t exercising their voice on behalf of the voiceless or exerting their power on behalf of the most vulnerable.
If the shoe fits, we have to wear it…. The final verse from Amos is:
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Righteousness refers to the life of an individual, including our moral choices, our compassion. Justice refers to the life of a society, to its moral choices, to its compassion. Our Western symbol of justice is somewhat passive: the blind-folded lady seated by the balanced scales of justice. The biblical sense of justice is more dynamic. A society does simply have justice; it does justice (as in the Lord’s command through the prophet Micah that we should “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God”). The ever-flowing stream of righteousness is unlike the wadi that is only filled with run-off in the rainy season. It is like a mighty river that never stops flowing, powerful enough to carry away any pollution that has fouled its waters.
So we pray that in all things we may seek not only the holy place, but the Holy One.2 We ask that our actions outside this sanctuary mirror and complement the words we hear and speak within it. We pray that what we do outside the sanctuary reinforce and never cancel out what we do within it. We pray that we wait in faith, hope and love for the One who came once and will come again, lamps ready, hearts aflame with love of God and neighbor. Amen
1William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, rev. ed., Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 320.
2James Limburg, Hosea-Micah (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox: 2011), p. 105, quoting James Luther Mays, Amos (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), p. 86.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham