Saturday, November 8, 2014

Empty Lamp Religion

Empty Lamp Religion
A sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds
First Presbyterian Church of Vallejo (CA)
November 9, 2014

Matthew 25:1-13 NRSV
 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall...
There's a battle outside
And it is a ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a changin'.
--Bob Dylan

Our country last week finished with its semi-annual national vote,
electing congresspeople and Senators to serve society. 
The question we all have is just what kind of society they will serve. We live in momentous—and I might say dark—political times. Change is needed. Whether these elections bring about the social change this country needs will be seen. 

Perhaps you are like me and saw a few glimmers of hope:
our sister city Richmond stood up and voted down the slate of candidates put up by its resident megalo-corporation Chevron. 
And Proposition 47 passed in the state,reducing some of the harsher sentences for non-violent crime. Harsh and mandatory sentencing has been enacted more and more in the last generation,
seeming to reflect a sour and punitive mood in this country, attempting to use the prisons to solve social problems.  Proposition 47 may change that trend.

Also this week, it was reported that religious groups in Israel are intensifying their advocacy to demolish the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in order to build the Third Temple to Israel’s Religion.[1] Such a move risks World War III, but that does not stop some Zionist Christians from enabling such an act of destructive political theater.  The intent is fanatical: it would structure the performance of rituals mooted by Christian sacraments and innovations introduced by the Jewish synagogues. 
Yet the Hebrew Scriptures never speak of a third temple. I think this is a foolish virgin’s task spoken of in today’s parable for Christians whatever their politics. It seems destined to be a project to restore the public performance of ritual that shows others how pious one is, without necessarily acting for justice or mercy.

Also this week, a 90 year old man in Ft. Lauderdale, Arnold Abbott, was jailed and faces 60 days in jail and a fine for feeding the homeless in a public space,[2]
and certain people began claiming that feminism requires imprisoning men who catcall women in public.[3] 
This punitive mood of criminalizing poverty and bad manners gives us Christians who are tasked with visiting those in prison and feeding the hungry more to think about and more to accomplish. 
God, hear our prayers that we are up to that task ordained by your son, Jesus Christ, to be a light for the dispossessed, the imprisoned, and the hungry.

The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ living ministry that detail his instructions to his followers. For Luke, Jesus’s first public act is to proclaim release to the captives,
good news and light to the poor, healing for the sick, sight to the blind,and relief to the oppressed (cf Psalm 146).

Luke’s Jesus teaches through parables of the Kingdom a subversive politics that call to account both economic injustices and the worship and privileging of accumulated wealth that have been keeping the oppressed poor, sick, and imprisoned. 
Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom complement Luke’s concern with the poor and oppressed by naming his opposition to the empty and formulaic concerns of ritual and body purity in certain sectors of Judea's religion located in Herod's temple. 

Matthew’s Jesus engages in a book long polemic against his opponents the Pharisees who were concerned with washings, sacrifices, and exclusion of the impure from community.
For Matthew’s Jesus, the Pharisees represent  a failure to bring in what the prophet Isaiah noted was the task of Israel to act as light to the world (Is 49.6).  Israel’s task was to bring the message of God’s Law of love to the gentiles. 

At earlier times, the Israelite Temple had a redistributive function: it took the submission of grains, herbs and animals for sacrifice and then redistributed the nourishment.  
But in Jesus’ polemic against the Temple, he condemns the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles, where outsiders to Jewish faith were admitted to learn of Israel’s witness to the One God of Creation. The Court of Gentiles had by Jesus’s time become a den of thieves and money changers, an alternative method of distribution of resources. 

Matthew is not quite as explicit as Luke about the economic injustices tolerated by the Jerusalem establishment,
but today’s parable about the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids I believe demonstrates a powerful critique and judgment about neglecting the weightier matters of bringing the Law of love to Light in the World at large.

Just prior to our Parable of the Bridesmaids, Matthew has made explicit who Jesus’s opponents are and how they are subject to being driven from their place in the dawning Kingdom of Heaven. 
Two chapters earlier, Jesus proclaims a series of Woes against the scribes and Pharisees who tithe at the temple, fulfilling the ritual without fulfilling the Spirit of justice.

Mt 23.13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them…
Mt 23.23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe renders the Hebrew word applied to a person or group who are being judged by God.  Woe is what you receive when you may anticipate wrath and isolation. The Pharisees “lock out” the people from the Kingdom of Heaven, yet in a reversal this is the very fate of the Foolish Bridesmaids in today’s parable. The Foolish Bridesmaids run out of oil, then the Bridegroom arrives while the foolish bridesmaids leave their posts to purchase oil for their lamps in the marketplace, and they themselves are then locked out of the Wedding Feast, symbolizing the onset of New Kingdom of Heaven.

I think to understand this parable it is important to identify themes and statements in this parable and contrast them with other statements of Jesus which seem elsewhere to conflict.
For the English translation “Bridesmaid,” the Greek uses Parthenos, which is a young virgin woman.  
David Henson gives a useful summary of the polarities and antimonies in this parable compared with other New Testament teachings: [4]

“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.”

(1 Cor 3.18)— “But if you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”

The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

(Mt 26)— In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus came to his disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”

Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”

(Is 42.3) — A smoldering wick he will not snuff out

“No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you.”
(Mt 5.42)— Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 

“Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
(Mt 19.21) – Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived.

(Rev. 22.5)– In the city of God, they will not need the light of a lamp, for the Lord God will give them light.

The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet.

(Mt 19.30)–– But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

And the door was shut.

(Mt 23)– “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. –
Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!”

But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”

(Prov 21.13)— If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.

You can see as we read the parable of the Foolish Virgin Bridesmaids that the story contains language and examples opposed to the wisdom of Proverbs and Jesus’s instructions elsewhere in Matthew. The squabbling by the Bridesmaids does not reflect Kingdom of God values.  The Bridesmaids are caught in an ethic of religious competition, self-justification, and the scarcity of moral goods.

How do we make sense of this?

I think to make sense of this parable,
we have to situate it in Matthew’s polemic against the Pharisees.
Note that the authentic church is not being addressed, but rather the Bridesmaids or Virgins.  Israel saw itself as the Bride of Yahweh, the Lord, and the Church has from its earliest the tradition of identifying itself with the Bride of Christ. 

But the Bride is not a character in the parable. It is the Bridegroom who is noted as being late by virtue of the expectation of the bridesmaid virgins. The Bride is not in view. This parable is not intended for the authentic bride—authentic Israel or the authentic church. Instead, this is a story of Wisdom and Foolishness displayed by the Bridesmaids who are the servants of the Wedding Party—the virgin bridesmaids are the purity obsessed Pharisees.

Pharisees back then like Christian pharisees today were motivated by issues of competitive personal and ritual purity, yet Jesus noted earlier that some neglected the weightier matters of the law like justice, and shut others from the Kingdom of Heaven by their foolish emphases.  Yet some Bridesmaids in this parable are called wise--they have attended to wisdom: they are the ones with oil enough to bring light to assist the way of the approaching Wedding Party. 

I think it is clear that these Pharisees have done works of light so that they have light for their task of welcoming in the Kingdom of God.  The wise bridesmaids are servants of the Wedding Feast enjoined with alighting the path for the welcome invitees of the Bridegroom.  They are servants of the Bride, and they are subject to being let go and shut out if they foolishly neglect their task.

The foolish Pharisees have neglected their task to give light,
which are the good works that enable the invited people of God—the excluded and oppressed-- to welcome the Bridegroom.  
They have hypocritically kept the empty and futile lamps of their ritual service and have neglected their duties to be prepared to give light to the wedding guests.  They are foolish not only in that they have neglected their task to provide light  but foolishly think that they can obtain that light by a marketplace or commercial action. 
By leaving their posts to enter the marketplace, they are shut out from the Wedding Feast, the inaugural of the Kingdom.

This parable, then, is a parable of reversal and judgment. 
The scarcity ethic of the squabbling bridesmaids leads the foolish to seek a remedy in the marketplace, where scarcity ethics and false consciousness run even hotter. This is not a parable where we in the church lose our salvation by a loss of our faith in sleeping, but instead teaches us that empty ritual without the good works that enable the religious to shine as a light to the outcasts is foolish.  This is an illustration whereby those who seek justification by ritual or sterile religious performance  and ritual purification neglect the weightier tasks of mission. The foolish bridesmaids will be excluded on the basis of their own ethics of scarcity and exclusion. 

By the measure we judge, so too will we be judged. (Mt 7.2). This is a message for today, not fighting the battles of 2000 years ago.

I wonder, like Henson, whether the foolish virgins who had run out of oil, if they had not removed to the marketplace but had instead stayed in the dark by their posts, would have found mercy and access into the wedding feast. If religious performance is justified apart from charitable service, perhaps indeed. If faith without works is dead, as the Letter of James states, perhaps not. But works in the marketplace devoid of merciful acts of charity and neighborliness is clearly shut out of the Wedding Feast Kingdom of God.

I think, however, that this parable has much to instruct us in hope. 
I have family members who deny having faith but who practice politics and acts of charity and good will to the poor, homeless, and oppressed. They do not recognize Jesus as their Lord, but they recognize the Wisdom of the Proverbs exemplified by Jesus:
Prov 19. 17      Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD,
    and will be repaid in full.
Prov 28.    26      Those who trust in their own wits are fools;
    but those who walk in wisdom come through safely.
    27      Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing,
    but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.

Perhaps these family members and others who practice a politics of inclusion and sustenance for the poor and oppressed will be admitted into the eternal Kingdom of God for their commitment to the Bridegroom’s wisdom and preferential invitation to outcasts.
Perhaps in their visitation of the imprisoned and their feeding of the poor, they have supplied the lamps of their life with sufficient oil.  They may not be confessionally of the bridal church,
but they are bridesmaids of the wisdom who have prepared the way for the wedding guests to arrive. For that, they for their wisdom and good works may themselves be ushered into the Wedding Feast as they have lived lives of wisdom and service. 

It was once asked of Christian missionary, E. Stanley Jones:
Will Gandhi be in heaven?

But this is also a parable of warning for those confident of their invitation but foolish in the preparations for it. For those Bridesmaids-Virgins who are obsessed with ritual body purity without the purifying oil of mercy and kindness to the displaced and oppressed,  they will be shut out of the Wedding Feast just as the Super Religious currently shut out of our churches those whose sexual and performance standards don’t match their own practices. For those pharisaic fools for purity lacking charity and restorative acts of justice, this parable suggests to me that Matthew felt they should expect a reversal on the day of judgment.

I think of the foolishness of some in government who posture in the rituals of the church by attending prayer breakfasts prior to voting the defunding of food stamps.  Who turn away poor, oppressed, and homeless children at the borders while invoking their supposed purity of Christian family values. These are political cruelties camouflaged by politicized religiosity.  Pharisees of the Christian kind give religious cover for oppressive politics.

Jesus told us that the sexually impure prostitute and vocationally impure tax collector were entering into the Kingdom of Heaven prior to washed on the outside, dirty on the inside ritual religionist.
The career of the Apostle Paul gives us evidence of this need for conversion of attitudes with regards to the inner condition versus the outer ritual of performed purity. Note how Paul changes his attitude to his Pharisaic purity and considers it the “rubbish” (Greek has sense of "dung") of his preconversion life.

In Phil 3, he writes,
4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

After his changed inner conviction, Paul ceases to be concerned with the ritual purity, but instead is focused on the poor and to those he must bring the light of the Gospel.

In 2 Cor 8 he speaks of his task to organize a collection for the poor saints of the Kingdom.  He provides not only the light of wisdom, but the light of sustenance for the impoverished. Paul has gained a purity of wisdom, having left behind his devotion to the ritual purity of outward posturing. 

Once a bridesmaid Pharisee serving the death dealing Ritualistic Temple that served the fatted sheep in neglect of the starving (Ezek 34), Paul leaves foolishness behind with his discovery of the wisdom of serving God’s Kingdom, a wisdom that reverses expectations:

Keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now might be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'

Paul’s times were changing. His politics and ritual changed with it. 
From self-justifying foolishness to other-directed wisdom. 
From ritual oppression to radical inclusion.

Have you been given an empty lamp by your religion? 

Fill it with wisdom, which is not just knowledge, but made true and real by the acts of bringing light to those on the way--
light and strength for the displaced and oppressed to find their way to Jesus our Lord. "Knowledge is a rumor until it lives in muscle."[6]

Purity is not about scrubbing our faces obsessively until they shine in the sight of others, purity is about emitting light to those in darkness so they can find their way to the promised land.  It is a relational act.

Purity is not a scarce resource.  It is not a competitive ethic. 
It is not about being admired for our inner light, but for our willingness to share with others Christ’s light that we have been given as a gift.

May it be so for our leaders.

May it be so for you and me.         

[1] See eg.
[2]  For Ft. Lauderdale's mayor's response to criticism, he is quoted at
[6] Proverb attributed to African Guinea.

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