23 Pentecost A—11/8/20
Pr. Scott Kramer
Well, what do you make of this story?
It all seems pretty straightforward. “Then the kin-dom of heaven will be like this,” Jesus says, and he tells the tale of ten bridesmaids who are waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Five are wise, five are foolish, and the foolish ones are shut out of the wedding banquet. Near the end of the church year we can expect to hear stories about the end times, and this is one of those stories.
But, friends, what’s wrong with this picture?
The final word in Jesus’ story is, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And yet, all the bridesmaids had become drowsy and slept. And–about those “wise” bridesmaids: How did they respond to those who had no oil for their lamps? “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
Wow. Me first! Maybe you’ve heard the saying—or have used it yourself—“God helps those who help themselves.” Jesus never said that, but it sounds good if we believe we are entitled to what we have. There are many variations of the same thing: “With hard work anybody can succeed.” “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Jesus never said these things, either.
There are other details of this story that don’t add up. When the bridegroom does show up, he goes into the banquet hall and the door is shut. When those outside plead with him to open up, he says, “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.”
If the bridegroom in the story is supposed to be Jesus, does this sound like the God you know? Well, maybe so–if you believe in a God who in the end judges and punishes. But if you believe in a God of patience and compassion, a God of mercy and love, how can this bridegroom be the Christ?
I’m not saying there’s no value in the traditional interpretation. But it does sound suspiciously like how the world works. Not the expansive, all-inclusive embrace of God, but the human world of winners and losers, inclusion for the privileged, exclusion for those who aren’t. It does sound like a convenient story for those of us who consider ourselves to be church-going, religious insiders. Safely inside the banquet hall.
Jesus concludes his story with this advice: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” “Keep awake!” is right. There may be more to this story than meets the eye!
Let’s have some fun with this story and use our imaginations! What if the bridegroom in the story is not Jesus but Donald Trump? The year is 2016, he’s won the presidency, and welcomes his supporters. The rich, the successful, the privileged, the angry and the fearful follow him into the banquet hall. The door shuts, and to those outside he says, “Too bad, losers!”
What if the bridegroom is Joe Biden? The year is 2020, he’s won the presidency, and welcomes those who have supported him. It’s a celebration for the victors, and time to reverse all the rollbacks of the Obama presidency. Too bad, Trump supporters!
This election, too, is about winners and losers. Isn’t that what an election boils down to? Isn’t that the way…the world works?
And yet, Jesus says, the kin-dom of heaven will be like this. What are we missing?
What if the kin-dom of heaven is not about winners and losers, insiders and outsiders? What if this parable is teaching us something else? What if this story is not so much about the life to come but the life we have, here and now? What if those in the story who are trying to elbow their way into the wedding banquet, both the wise and the foolish, are missing the point? What if Jesus isn’t on the inside of the banquet hall but on the outside?
The prophet Amos has something to say about this–about banquets and festivals, insiders and outsiders:
21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even 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.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Interesting, isn’t it, that this Hebrew scripture reading for this Sunday makes it seem like the wedding banquet isn’t such a good deal! Maybe not the place to be at all.
Dear friends, as a troubling four years draws to a close, especially this year; as an exhausting election season winds down and we wonder what new drama lies ahead, the word of the Lord comes to us and asks, Whom are you following? Presidents and politicians? Banquet halls and insiders? Is the God we worship really about winners and losers? Is this where we place our faith?
Who we choose to lead a nation, a state, a county, or a city matters a great deal. Lives, dignity, well-being and justice are at stake. To be Christ to the world, as the prophets say, means to practice mercy, right relationship, compassion. But the living Christ is not locked away in a banquet hall from anyone who longs for God. He is here among us: on the street, in the shelter, at the food bank, on the playground, at the senior center, the grade school, the high school, the grocery store—even online!
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour when you will see him there, face to face.