Scripture for this Sunday:
Wisdom 6.12-16; Canticle (Wisdom 6.17-20); 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13
There’s an episode of Midsomer Murders in which a character played by Maureen Lippmann says, “The only thing that is certain about life is that it will end in death.” How we approach this inevitability illuminates how we live our lives. Clearly the apostle Paul felt obliged to spell out to the Thessalonians a vision of life and death to encourage them in their faith.
Because faith leads us to approach death – and therefore life – with hope and a sense of investment. Fear leads us to approach life in quite a different way. We become possessive about this life and the things of this world.
Franklin Roosevelt said at his inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Sadly, there are many who have discovered – including the Daily Mail in the UK since its very inception in 1896 – that fear and mistrust sells papers (and television), and are quite happy to act as merchants of fear. The result is an irruption of all sorts of human vices, leading eventually to violence – and war. Jesus would not, I feel, have regarded this as wholesome nor consistent with his message. Beating the gospel into other people was never his way. Rather, he encouraged his followers to listen – first to him, then to one another – and to prepare themselves for a better world.
The parable about wise and foolish bridesmaids told by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel speaks about preparation and readiness. It also leads to questions about sharing. Both wise and foolish bridesmaids fell asleep while waiting for the bridegroom, the only difference being that half of them were better prepared, with spare oil for their lamps. In the end, neither looks very good; why not share oil, for the full complement of people to be able to share the celebration?
Undoubtedly, Jesus was pointing a finger at those who had been invited to prepare the way for Israel’s Messiah – but like the bridesmaids, had all fallen asleep waiting. In telling this story, we have to wonder whether Jesus was contrasting his disciples as ones who were willing and ready to celebrate his arrival while others wanted to run off into the night to prepare themselves. But how much better is a wedding where all ten bridesmaids are able to participate in illuminating the arrival of the groom?
We read this gospel on a Sunday (Remembrance Sunday in the UK) when we remember that being ill-prepared has at times cost many lives. We also read it at a time when compassion and sharing more equitably might actually make a difference in a world and defuse mistrust, anger and violence. As we ponder the reckless expenditure of human life in two world wars, and the cost of making and keeping the peace between those who look to violence to solve problems, we might consider also whether there are ways in which we can reduce the sources of aggravation that initiate human violence.
We might also ponder ways in which we can remember the victims of war without glorifying it. 100 years ago the battle of Passchendaele ended after 100 days; a buffoon recently described it as “a wonderful battle,” an opinion probably not shared by the half million dead (on both sides), or their bereaved survivors, or their companions who survived the horrors of mud and death.
On the first day of Passchendaele a young Welsh shepherd who was a gifted poet, Hedd Wyn, was killed, leaving only his poetry: “Why must I live in this grim age / When, to a far horizon, God / Has ebbed away, and man, with rage / Now wields the sceptre and the rod?”
The best way to remember is to do all we can to turn swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks, challenging the merchants of fear and mistrust, promoting reconciliation and seeking peace through justice.
Because the bridegroom-messiah for whom we should be ready is not like the one who I’ve seen depicted as a muscular Jesus, clad in battle-fatigues, wielding a couple of AK-47s, intent on exacting revenge on all who are not part of some inner circle of Revelation-reading, rapture believers. No, the bridegroom-messiah for whom we should be ready is the one whom we will meet on our death beds, more than likely with a sad look of disappointment for all that we did not do that we could have done, and all that we could have done better.
And then will love us anyway.