Bible Study: Proper 27 (A) – 2011
November 06, 2011
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
If we want to read this passage as it was originally intended, we have to replace “the LORD” with YHWH, the way of conveying the name of the One the author of this text understood to be Israel’s God, a particular God, “our God” among many Gods. This fierce particularity can be tough to read in our multicultural, multifaith, multireligious world. What do we do with a “jealous God” in a world where we have neighbors serving other gods, neighbors who we do and should love?
We must, therefore, remember that this is the story and cry of a dispossessed people, a people at the time of writing trying to find their place in a hostile world, a people at the time of the final editing dealing with empire and exile. Most of us are no longer dispossessed, we are now often either the powerful or benefiting from the actions of the powerful. We can hear in this text the longing of the dispossessed for the salvation of our God, remember that we too still need to turn to this God for guidance and salvation and perhaps, look to the dispossessed and pray for them, seek our way to bring this message of hope and salvation to them.
The great passing on of faith – telling the glorious deeds of God to our children, and their children – with all its ambiguity and complexity, remains one of our most profound callings. I wonder if the context has changed so much. The psalmist wants to be sure Israel can recount the glorious deeds of YHWH, as opposed to all those other Gods, those Ba’als. Today we speak of the glorious deeds of God in the face of an increasingly comfortable society, where salvation takes the form of a level of material prosperity reached by many and unseen in previous eras.
But the wonders and mysteries of God must be remembered, must be retained, must be passed on. Even in this rich world there remain many, a growing many, who do not see the material prosperity, who live a life closer to that of the wandering Israel, who climb atop freight trains bound for El Norte (the North, the US) and pray that God will keep them from falling off in the night. These, our brothers and sisters, need to hear of the glorious deeds of the Lord, of the making of the last first. And the rest of us need to remember that until we are all living in abundance, none of us are saved. How do we connect the “dark sayings” the “parables” of old in a world that is still in need of glorious deeds and wonders and hope?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Ah, Rapture! Paul’s road map to the end of the world! For Episcopalians uncomfortable with a more literal reading of the Bible, they can be reassured that scholarship has demonstrated that Paul is addressing specific questions of the Thessalonian community here regarding some of their members who have died and he is employing fairly standard Jewish apocalyptic imagery. There is no doubt Paul deeply believed what he told his community, but it is not clear that this passage reflects a particular divine revelation. Taking these passages as specific revelations and putting them on a bumper sticker is, in fact, a hermeneutical mistake, even if it does honor the seriousness with which Paul spoke them. It also raises the dangerous possibility of deciding that we are the elect, and that we can indulge in feelings of superiority over those who don’t happen to sit beside us in our particular pews.
I think it is worth looking at this passage in terms of the hope (c.f. 4:13) Paul is giving us. We hear of a God who is Lord of the living and the dead, who will leave no one behind, gather them all together. We should encourage one another, all the world, with these words.
I am always amazed in this story by the utter foolishness of the bridesmaids. They seem to have so many opportunities to ensure sufficient oil for their lamps or, failing that, still meet their obligation of celebrating with the bride and groom. As the waiting drags on, they continue to burn their scarce oil. And finally as the alarm is sounded that the bridegroom is “here” (verse 6), they run off, more concerned with their oil/lamp than making it into the party. In other words, it is more than just a bit of poor planning, the story seems to highlight that it is monumental failure to meet their duty even when they had many opportunities to do so.
But we can also be surprised at the bridegroom, who, for Pete’s sake, was so late that people fell asleep. Could he not be more understanding? Could not the wise loan just a little oil, could they not be a little more compassionate?
It is a world of frustrations and foolishness, oil and overreactions. Maybe for we who watch for Jesus keeping awake is to look not only to our selves, but to those around us, to find out who is tired, who is missing oil, to ensure they too have the hope we find in the coming of Christ.
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