Rewriting the Past

November 9, 2008

Clay Nelson

Pentecost 26     Matthew 25:1-13


I am happy to be here this morning. If things had gone differently in the US this week it could’ve been otherwise. Instead of feeling like an anvil has been removed from my chest, I might be instead in a psychiatric ward on suicide watch or, more likely, in the back of my closet in a foetal position sucking my thumb. The only good thing about that is I wouldn’t have been alone. Looking at footage of people around the world celebrating the 4th of November, Barack Obama isn’t just America’s new president. It would’ve been a crowded ward or closet if the change we were waiting for had been not this time.


However, as happy as I am, I wish I wasn’t the preacher this morning because I’ve drawn another of Matthew’s (quote) parables (unquote) to preach on. With the world a very different place than it was last week, it is a little difficult to get excited about ten virgins worrying about a first century energy crisis while waiting for the same bridegroom. In such times, how irrelevant can the Gospel be? When was the last time anyone here lit an oil lamp? For that matter when was the last time you went to a wedding that had even one virgin? Frankly, it sounds a little like the beginning of a bad joke: “Ten virgins walk into a bar…”


There are other problems with Matthew’s parable. First, unlike some of his others where he at least bases the story on one Jesus might have told, Jesus never told this one nor would he have ever told it. It was not his style. Matthew is obsessed with the end times and all the wonderful divine wrath and judgment that come with it. He portrays Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet carrying a placard on street corners telling people to repent. But Jesus was into the fierce urgency of now not later. The kingdom of heaven is at hand was more his style. Carpe diem was his battle cry. Grab it. It is here for the taking. Matthew and some in the early church seemed to think he was speaking of a worldly kingdom, and since the Romans were still occupying their land a generation after Jesus’ death, they had to choose between Jesus being wrong or put a spin on his words. Matthew chooses to spin like right-wing Fox News, attributing the parable of the ten virgins to him. In truth it was either Matthew’s own literary invention or he appropriated it from the common folklore of the region. Its purpose was to reassure his readers, anxious for freedom from oppression, God’s kingdom was coming.


There are other reasons we know Jesus didn’t tell this parable. His were WAY better. He used humour, exaggeration and paradox. Think camels going through the eye of a needle. Matthew’s is mundane, unimaginative and moralistic. His message of “being prepared is a virtue” is hardly groundbreaking and headline grabbing. Every Boy Scout knows that.


But the most important reason Jesus had nothing to do with this parable is that it is a story that applauds building barriers. Matthew’s story creates insiders and outsiders. The closed door to the unwise virgins is a definitive boundary. Jesus’ whole ministry was about breaking down social and religious boundaries, not creating them. He was about “good” Samaritans and welcoming back errant children with fatted calves. He wasn’t into dividing people into paddocks of sheep or goats (one of Matthew’s favourite past-times). This parable is an illustration of Matthew’s gospel not Jesus’ vision of God’s realm.


If Jesus were to edit Matthew he would start by tossing this parable or better yet he would use it as a foil to tell a better one. He might begin this way, “You have heard from Matthew that I think the kingdom of heaven is worth waiting for, but that is old thinking used to control and manipulate you with fear and shame. Shame that you might not be worthy and fear that you will miss out if you don’t do as you are told.


But I tell you the kingdom of heaven is exactly the opposite. Once there was a skinny black man who was half white who felt called to be president in a land that feared his colour and foreign name. But because he had been blessed with big ears and a golden tongue, he decided to give it a go anyway.


His was the most powerful country in the world, but followers of Matthew ruled it. They used bigotry and even religion to divide the people against one another. Hatred and fear flourished in the land. They became a warlike people and built an empire despised around the world in the name of their God, greed. And darkness was on the face of the earth and the people despaired.


Using his big ears to listen before opening his mouth, he let loose his golden tongue to light a small lamp. He asked the people to hope. Hope because as bad as it is it could change. It could change because we are all accountable for the way things are. If we change, the world changes. “We are the change we seek,” he suggested. It was a small, but audacious lamp but others began lighting their small lamp as well. And if some were out of oil, others shared theirs and the darkness was pushed back, powerless against it.


The Mattheans tried to extinguish the lamps by asking, “What kind of change is he offering? Be afraid, change is scary.” In their desire to cling to power, they did not notice that the people were growing less afraid, less angry; less divided and more compassionate, more respectful, more peaceful; more hopeful. So the unthinkable happened. They lost.


And the skinny black man with big ears and a golden tongue, in accepting the presidency, told the Mattheans, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand and always has been, you just have to light your lamp to see it.” He then added with a wry but kind smile, “I will be your president too.”

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