Commentary for Pentecost XXIIII, 8 November 2020
The texts for this week are: Joshua 24:2-a, 14-25, Psalm 78.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13
By Father Doug Woods
I’m sitting on the edge of my seat. It’s the day after Election Day in the States, and there’s still no clear winner. An election is a judgment of sorts—an opportunity to speak out about the policy of one party or another, one candidate or another. This election, judgment is still not clear; we still don’t know who’s won. We’ve been praying for God’s blessing on all the people in the United States.
All of the texts this week are relatable under the notion of the Parousia, the Second Coming. This is the time when Jesus will come, as it says in the Apostles’ Creed, "to judge the living and the dead." I want to spend a couple of minutes on JUDGING.
In ancient Israel, the Judges were GOVERNORS, and one of their functions was, occasionally, to SAVE the people from enemies. In a way, the role was a combination of all the branches of modern government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Over time, we’ve discovered it can be tricky if the laws are made by the executive; it can be self-serving. It should be done by an independent legislature. Likewise, it can be tricky if the laws are judged by the executive; there’s danger of favouritism. This should be done by an independent judicial system. That’s why we now have separate branches. But in those days, the boundaries were, let’s say, blurred. It is true that the judges governed, but they also judged.
I should also say that judging isn’t necessarily the same thing as condemning. For example, all teachers judge. They give students grades based on how well the teacher judges they’ve done. Also judging goes on at, e.g., horse shows, dog shows, etc. It’s not condemnation; it’s all about how well the animal conforms to the standards for the breed, and how well it performs various tasks.
So when Jesus comes “to judge the living and the dead”, what happens? I’ll get to that at the end, when we’ll have some evidence that will make it easier to answer the question.
Joshua 24:2-a This story comes at a time when the people of Israel have succeeded at conquering the Promised Land. Now that they have their own land, it’s time for them to switch from a nomadic life to an agrarian one; they can now actually grow crops. This is a turning point in the life of the people, and now is a good time to think of who they are—or who they’re about to become. Since they’re becoming something different, what does that say about their relationship with God? Is it, “Thanks, see you later,” or is it, “We want to continue in our covenant relationship with you”? This is what Greek philosophers used to call a "krisis" ‘a time when an important, crucial decision MUST be made’. Now Joshua occupies the position Moses used to have in the life of Israel; he is now the mediator between Israel and God and he puts this krisis question to them: “Do you take your relationship with God seriously? Do you judge God to be worthy of your loyalty?”
Psalm 78.1-7 You can imagine that this psalm might be a summary of the things Joshua reminded the people of before putting his question to them: “God has been good to us. This is something our ancestors—and our parents—have told us. This is the sort of thing we should tell our children so they’ll know what we know. God is worthy of our thanks and praise.” He’s saying we need to judge God to be worthy of our faith. We need to be reminded that we didn’t get these good things for ourselves; God gave them to us. And then we need to move on to Torah so they’ll understand what it means to take God seriously. We’d do well to do the same thing in the modern church.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 You remember that a couple of weeks ago we talked about the Thessalonians and their concern for their friends and families, who had not yet heard the Good News of salvation. The question is “If they died without coming to faith, what will happen to them at the end of time?” This is a question about the Parousia. Paul comforts them with this: “ … since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” That is, Jesus already has it in hand; since he died and rose again, God will also raise those who have died.
Matthew 25:1-13 Chapters 24 and 25 are Jesus’ teaching to the disciples. They’re leaving the Temple after the conflicts with the Temple authorities, and Jesus does several things: 1) He predicts the destruction of the Temple. 2) He tells them about the signs of the end of the age. 3) He predicts that the church will suffer persecution. 4) He predicts sacrilege in the Temple. 5) He tells them about the Second Coming. 6) He tells them of the need to be watchful. 7) And then he tells them four parables, the so-called Judgment Parables. The first of these parables—the Parable of the Unfaithful Slave—comes at the end of Chapter 24. Our gospel reading for today is the second Judgment Parable, at the beginning of Chapter 25. It’s about a wedding feast.
The story is a little vignette of what a wedding was like in ancient Israel. In those days, marriages were patrilocal, i.e., after the wedding, the couple moved into the groom’s family’s house. The house was a cluster of homes, each one with a member family of the family as a whole living in it. The ideal marriage partner for the groom was a first cousin—the daughter of one’s father’s brother. Apparently, there were few birth defects from this close intermarriage. The marriage was arranged by the father with the strong influence of the mother; the mothers arranged the marriage contract, but the fathers signed it. The purpose of a marriage was to join the two families. The high point is when the groom goes to the bride’s house to take her to his house, where the rest of the ceremony takes place.
The “bridesmaids” were the sisters and cousins of the bride. I’ve heard it said that it was a matter of sport for the groom to show up unannounced; you never knew when he’d arrive, so the bridesmaids had to set up a vigil, so they’d be ready to escort the bride. This could happen even late at night, so they needed to have lanterns.
In this story, five of the ten bridesmaids were foolish; they didn’t have enough oil to keep their lamps burning. Before the groom arrived, they begged the five smart bridesmaids to lend them some oil, so their own lamps wouldn’t go out. The smart bridesmaids said, “We can’t. Then all of our lamps would go out, and there’d be no light.” So the foolish girls go off to buy some oil, and while they’re away, the groom comes, and he and the bride and the five clever girls go off to the wedding feast, and the door is locked. Shortly after that, the foolish girls come to the groom’s house and say, “Let us in!” The groom says, “Who are you? I’m not letting you in.”
This is a story about faith—about SERIOUSNESS of faith—and about judgment at the Parousia. The wedding feast is about the bride and groom. The groom is the Son of Man, the Messiah. Those who are acting as attendants to the bride—the church—are given a job, and the job requires some preparation: making sure there’s enough oil for their lamps. But some of the attendants don’t really take their job seriously; they underestimate the seriousness of their job. They judge it not to be all that important.
So, the question is, what’s important in my faith? Is it the moment of conversion? I can tell you from personal experience that’s an incredible thrill, and you can ride the crest of that wave for quite a while. Is it the worship in the church? Some worship can be very exciting: great music, great singing, great preaching. One final question: is it the oil in the lamp? That’s what keeps the lamp burning.
Another question: what is the church meant to be doing, anyway—and this is where the judgment issue comes in. The groom locks the foolish bridesmaids out. Why? Some of us are very uncomfortable with the notion of judgment. For one thing, we take judgment to mean condemnation. We know that’s a mistake. For another, we wonder how can judgment take place in the context of mercy? We love it that God loves us just as we are. But there is one other thing: do we love God? Do we love God enough to take God seriously? Do we judge God to be worthy of our attention? Yes, of course God loves us just as we are, but the good news is that in mercy, God loves us too much to leave us that way!
So, are we serious enough about God to be fully faithful to God? Are we serious enough to do the works of faith (“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” James 2.26)? This is not the same as justification by works; we can’t win our way to salvation. That has the cart before the horse. But works as a result of salvation are essential. That’s complete obedience to the Law. That’s what happens when you love God and your neighbour.
So, the question is, are we serious about our faith? How have we shown that? Faith isn’t just believing; it’s doing.