Tuesday, November 7, 2017

PENTECOST XXIII 2017 (Proper 27)

Judgement Day - Victor Vasnetsov
On this Sunday the Lectionary offers us an unusually wide choice of Bible passages. Despite their variety, however, it is easy to identify some key themes  -- wisdom, final judgment, the life hereafter. In what way are these connected? It seems that different writers say quite different things about them. The prophet Amos is full of foreboding and paints a very gloomy picture -- "Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light". The author of the Wisdom of Solomon, on the other hand,  says that everyone who gives heed to wisdom's laws has an "assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God". Saint Paul appears to deny this when he tells the Thessalonian Christians, that it is not wisdom but the faith that makes the difference -- faith that "Jesus died and rose again". It is this, not their own prudence, that sets them apart and spares them the need to "grieve as others do who have no hope". Christian faith, Paul roundly declares, brings assurance of a glorious prospect -- that "the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first".  So is the 'Day of the Lord' a cause for fear or for hope, and does it matter whether we have lived wisely or not

William Blake -- Wise and Foolish Virgins
The Gospel reading consists in a single parable, and it throws light on this question. Traditionally known as 'the wise and foolish virgins', the parable recounts the eagerly anticipated climax of a great wedding, the moment when the Bridegroom arrives, a climax for which everyone is equally eager . Now wisdom born of experience tells us that any crowning moment can be delayed by some quite unexpected cause. We need no special learning or expertise to anticipate the unexpected. In the parable, however, we find some 'foolish' people who lack this modicum of wisdom. Consequently, when the moment comes, it finds some unprepared. They make a vain attempt to put things right at the last moment. This reveals that though they have been foolish, they have all along appreciated the importance of the climax. They have lost their chance not because of indifference, but because they lacked foresight. Wisdom, then, neither causes nor prevents the bridegroom's arrival. These things will take place regardless. Wisdom matters, rather, when it comes to preparedness.

The 'faith' of the Thessalonians, which Paul meant to reinforce, lay in the belief that Jesus is the focal point of the meaning and purpose of the whole creation. His Cross and Resurrection demonstrate this. So that is where their hope did, and where it should, lie. Still, they also needed wisdom to  prepare properly for the implications of this truth -- and they could foolishly fail to do so. Christians can hope, contra Amos, that the 'Day of the Lord' is indeed a day of light. Nevertheless, we can treat this hope carelessly or causally, and like the 'foolish virgins',  find ourselves when the moment comes, excluded from the light and left in darkness.

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