Thursday, March 25, 2010

Five were wise, five were foolish ...

I feel a bit sad now that the Lenten Bible Studies have finished.  I have enjoyed studying the five parables over the past five weeks.  On Wednesday, we studied the Parable of the Ten Girls, five of whom were wise and five foolish.  As I said on Wednesday, I don’t remember having spoken on this parable before.  There is indeed a first time for everything!

The context of the parable is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 about the destruction of the Temple and the Coming of the Son of Man.  At the beginning of chapter 24, Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple.  His disciples say to him:

‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24:3)

I think in their mind this was really one question.  The Temple was so important and of such significance that its destruction must surely signal the end of the age.  We now know that it should have been two questions: the first, when will the Temple be destroyed? and, secondly, when will you return?  The Temple was destroyed in AD70 possibly accidentally (from a human point of view, that is).  It is not clear that the Roman General and future Emperor wanted it destroyed.  If it was an unintended destruction it makes it all the more poignant.  No matter how terrible and how much of an end of an age it was, it was not the end and the Son of Man did not return.

Jesus taught that, in fact, no-one knew when his return would be, not even Jesus himself.  What was certain was that it would be sudden and unexpected.  It was vital, therefore, that people were ready for it.  There then follow in Matthew 25 three parables: this one about the Ten Girls, the one about the Talents, and the one about the separation of the sheep and goats.  They each address how we should live in the time before the Son of Man returns.

In the Parable of the Ten Girls, five are wise and five are foolish.  The foolish girls are not prepared for the delay of the bridegroom and run out of oil.  The wise are prepared and bring extra oil.  The foolish have to go looking for oil and suffer exclusion from the wedding banquet as a consequence.  The message is clear: we are to be prepared for the coming of the Lord.

What has struck me this year as we have been studying the parables is how strong the theme of judgement is in them.  The Tax-collector went home from the Temple justified, but the Pharisee did not.  The King sends his army to destroy the city of those who refused to come to the wedding banquet for his son.  The Unforgiving Servant is tortured for failing to forgive.  The Rich Man is tormented after his death.  The Foolish Girls are excluded from the banquet.  And it is not just in these parables that the theme of judgement is to be found.  It runs through all Jesus’ teaching. 

All this suggests that many of us need to revise our understanding of the message of Jesus.  We have gotten away from the Victorian sentimentalized picture of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, but in its place have put the liberal Jesus who accepts everyone and is always there for us.  This replacement Jesus seems just as false and unreal.  Jesus announces the judgement of God and calls upon people to repent.  Those who do so he accepts unconditionally.  But those who don’t are excluded and have to face their fate.

This is not the picture of Jesus that we readily recognize and it certainly is not one that is often portrayed in our Churches.  We find it hard to believe that Jesus would exclude anyone.  If, however, the parables of Jesus are anything to go by we need to wake up soon or we are in danger of finding ourselves amongst the excluded!

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