Sunday, March 19, 2023

Phil Kniss: Navigating the curve

LENT 4: Jesus reveals life in the meantime in God's realm
Matthew 25:1-13

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Today is another fascinating parable of Jesus
that makes for an interesting story on its own, in the abstract,
but is so much richer, and truer, and more useful to us,
when we read it in its actual context—
the context of Matthew’s narrative,
and the context of Matthew’s community in Antioch.

So let’s read it that way—this story about 10 bridesmaids,
5 foolish and 5 wise.
And let’s start with the context of Matthew’s written narrative—
where it shows up in the Gospel,
why it shows up in that spot,
and why it shows up at all . . .
because, incidentally, Matthew is the only one to tell the story.

Turn back one chapter and we have a clue.
All of chapter 24 is about the end of the age, so to speak.

Speaking to his disciples,
Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem,
and increasing warfare among nations,
With it will come suffering and distress, he says.
Torture, martyrdom, betrayal, false prophets, lawlessness.
He calls all this the beginning of the “birthpangs” of the new age.
Then, in 24:32, Jesus says “take a lesson from the fig tree.”
After a dark cold winter,
the branch gets tender and leaves start to push out
and you know spring and summer is on its way.
That is, the time when Messiah will set the world right,
and make the evildoers pay.

Jesus ends that chapter
with a series of short parables about being ready, or not.
He compared the end of the age to the age of Noah,
where people were not expecting the end,
and so lived as if there was nothing to lose.
Some will be ready, and some will not.
Then Jesus compares the end to the example of a thief in the night.
Always be ready and awake,
so the thief won’t catch you unawares.
Finally, he tells a short parable about
a master who went away for an undetermined amount of time,
and put a servant in charge as caretaker.
The expectation is that the servant will live every day,
as if that was the day the master returned,
so he would find his household in good shape.
But if the servant assumed the return would be delayed,
he might mistreat his fellow servants,
trash the house,
get drunk,
and if the master returned with all that going on,
it would be bad news for everyone.

Then immediately after those stories in Matthew 24,
Jesus tells the next one—today’s story about
the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
The wait was a lot longer than they expected.
Half of them were ready, in case the wait was long.
Half of them were not.

This story is obviously connected to the preceding ones,
and must be read in their light.

So why all this attention to the end times in Matthew?
Because that question was front and center in Matthew’s community.
It was on everyone’s mind.
And what you thought about that question
had immediate, real-life, social, financial,
and political ramifications.
Matthew couldn’t NOT write about the return of the Messiah.

Understanding why this question was urgent for Matthew,
and entering into Matthew’s social and religious context,
can guard us from making the interpretive mistakes
that result in strange and dangerous Christian movements
obsessed about the end-times,
that feed on fears of God’s judgement,
and promise escape from this world.

We have that in our Mennonite history, of course.
Some of us recently read Sofia Samatar’s The White Mosque,
telling of a Mennonite trek to central Asia in the 1800s,
where Claus Epp, Jr. predicted Christ would return.

But there are many other, less extreme, less colorful,
but equally ill-informed ways of reading scripture,
that spawned the Left Behind craze of the 1990s
and the 1970s movement inspired by Hal Lindsey,
that produced books and movies like Thief in the Night.
That film was shown in the Mennonite church of my childhood,
to bring wayward adults to repentance,
and to terrorize innocent adolescents like me
into making a decision for Christ,
so we could be assured of escape from this evil world.

I believe it’s no accident that movement coincided
with all the social upheaval in our country in the 60s and 70s.
Focusing on prophecy about Jesus coming back any day
distracted us from working at social change now,
like getting worked up about poverty, civil rights,
or the Vietnam War.
All that didn’t matter.
We would soon be whisked away to heaven.

So, as a guard against misusing scripture again today,
let’s look at the context of this parable.

So here is a quick review
of how the early church came to believe in
the “near parou-SI-a” of Christ.

ParouSIa is just a Greek word that shows up in our Bible
4 times in the Gospel of Matthew (all in chapter 24)
and another 10-15 times in the Epistles.
It’s usually translated “coming” or “appearance.”
So, “near parouSIa” is the belief that when Jesus told his disciples
he would return for them in the clouds,
they took that to mean a matter of days, weeks, or months.
The resurrection was evidence to them that the hope
of a political deliverance from Rome wasn’t over.
It didn’t end on the cross.
Instead, Jesus would return with the angels of heaven,
and take vengeance on those evildoers.
He would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, as expected,
and execute justice and judgement
against Herod and Caesar and everyone responsible
for his crucifixion.
The real world, here and now, would be made right—
for the Jews, and for everyone else.

I think that’s a fairly accurate summary
of what the first Jesus followers thought “salvation” meant.
But that definition of salvation only worked
if they thought Jesus’ return was very soon,
before winter turned to spring and summer.

But then life unfolded in a way they hadn’t expected.
There was a curve in road they didn’t see coming.
Decades passed.
And Jesus still had not come back for his political revenge.
The bridegroom was late.
And the conflict between Rome and Judea got even worse.
Life got harder for them.
It culminated, ultimately,
in the siege of Jerusalem of 70 A.D.
when Rome laid waste to their city and temple,
a killed a million of the Jews.

So during this time,
there was an evolution of thought.
Their theology shifted.
You can actually see this shift happening
in the different writings of the New Testament.

The radical actions of Christians selling everything,
moving into community and abolishing private property,
was not done for some abstract long-term philosophical reason.
It was a short-term survival strategy that made common sense,
for people who had suddenly lost their jobs and economic security.
When the world turned against them,
they had to turn to each other, in order to eat and live.

Books have been written about the early church,
and how they evolved from expecting Jesus to return very soon,
for the political salvation of the Jewish people,
to a longer view, where salvation by the Messiah
was less about Israel, or any one nation,
and more about putting the whole world back on course,
bringing both spiritual reconciliation to God,
and social reconciliation for all, in a wide world of shalom.

After the temple was destroyed, and Jerusalem lay in ruins,
and Gentile believers started coming into the church,
well, that fundamentally changed the lives
of Christians in Antioch—Matthew’s community—
and everywhere the church was growing.
They developed a broader understanding
of what Messiah’s agenda was.
They let go of their belief that Jesus was soon coming back
to set up a new political dynasty in Jerusalem.
In other words, they encountered a major curve in the road.
And they navigated that curve.

Some more successfully than others, of course.
Because conflict in the church, intense conflict,
continued for a very long time,
as they tried to sort out what the Messiah’s agenda really was.
And how Jews and Gentiles fit into that.

See, for the early church,
what you believed about Jesus,
and how and when he might be returning,
had major practical and ethical implications.

It made a difference how invested you were
in the community where you actually lived.
If you were a Jewish Christian in Antioch,
and you were just biding your time
until Jesus the political Savior came back and punished the Empire,
you would have little motivation
to work for the shalom of your city,
or to care about the well-being of your Gentile neighbors,
or about your Jewish neighbors who didn’t follow Jesus,
and who no longer worshiped with you.
For that matter, you had little motivation to minister to anyone
who was poor or hungry or threatened,
if they weren’t in your tribe of believers.

But if you took the long view, and broad view,
of Jesus’ saving agenda,
then you lived as if every relationship mattered.
You lived as if the bridegroom could show up at any moment,
or millenia from now.

It seems to me, friends,
that in this way, the parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins,
even though it was aimed directly at Antiochan Christians
after 70 A.D.,
is also aimed at us.
Its message today, is just as potent.

Yes, in a way, Messiah has already come and been among us,
and already showed us the way to live.
And in another way, the Messiah is among us now,
through the Spirit that is at work in each other.
But just as importantly, we continue to wait for Messiah.
The cosmic saving mission of God through the Messiah
is not yet fulfilled or accomplished.
Messiah is late in coming.
And there is work to be done . . . while we wait.
How we live, every day, matters while we wait.
We need, as the old spiritual tells us, 
to “keep our lamps trimmed and burning.
And “children, don’t get weary,
the time is drawing nigh.”

Because life does not unfold for us exactly as we expect.
There are surprises—some joyful, some deeply painful.

The road of following Jesus today
still has unexpected curves.
We need to stay alert.
Keep our eyes on the road.
And be ready for what we weren’t expecting.

We’re not alone on the road.
There are others with us to help us navigate the curves.
But neither can we afford to be complacent.
God is in it for the salvation of the world,
and has chosen us as partners in that work.
So the stakes are high.
But when we see the curve, and navigate it with God,
the rewards are great.

Let us join in a prayer of confession.
one O God, we didn’t see you coming.
Forgive us our unreadiness.
all Open our eyes to your coming. Lord have mercy.
one We thought we knew your plans.
We thought we knew our duties.
But there came a curve.
Life did not unfold as we expected.
We did not see you in the curve.
Forgive us our unreadiness.
all Open our eyes to your coming. Lord have mercy.
one God the Patient One waits on us,
without coercion or compulsion,
forgives us and welcomes us to the feast.

—Phil Kniss, March 19, 2023

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