As I have said before, Beloved, it all depends on who you understand God to be. If God is the supreme Judge who decides who gets into heaven after we die, deciding who is unworthy and therefore condemned to that other place (you know, h-e-double hockey sticks), then what you will hear in today’s reading from Matthew is that very thing: Jesus telling folx that if they don’t get their act together, when their time comes to meet their Maker, the door will be closed to them and God will not even know who they are.
I get it. This was my understanding of who God is for most of my life. In the past, this was all I could hear when I read this parable.
Beloved, a parable is a story that is held up to our lives so that we can learn a truth. It’s Truth, after all, that Jesus tells us will set us free. So where’s the truth—where’s the Good News—in this parable that can set us free rather than trap us between the crosshairs?
First of all, let’s talk about the kingdom of heaven since this is what the parable is supposed to illuminate. Just what is the kingdom of heaven? It goes by a lot of names: God’s Kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, and sometimes, just heaven. I have referred to it as Kingdom Living.
Again, for most of my life, this wondrous place was where all would be right and good, and it was a place to arrive at after one’s death if one had lived a life worthy of such a place, if one has pleased God enough in one’s lifetime.
This is certainly a possible interpretation. One I no longer hold, but perhaps, you do and, perhaps, it is right. But what we should remember is that Heaven, according to Hebrew scripture, is where God dwells. Where God, aka Love, reigns. Heaven is not a place, a “where”. Heaven is a “when.” When Love controls the actions, when Love is the font from which words flow, when Love is the driver—then heaven is present. The Kingdom is come. God is with us. Heaven isn’t a future destination or a reward. Heaven is a present reality; it is all around us, within us, right here and now.
And if we begin with this understanding of the kingdom of heaven as we attune our ears to the parable, and if we begin with God as Love instead of God as Judge, maybe we can hear new truths in this parable, rather than the ones we have carried around for so long.
And there is more than one possible Truth. For example, Lutheran pastor and writer Nadia Bolz-Weber has heard Truth in the parable this way: what makes the five young women foolish is that they listen to a voice that is not God’s. They listen to the other women who tell them to go and get their own oil. But, do they really need to? After all, 5 of them already have lamps, isn’t that light enough? And the Bridegroom typically arrived with a torch; isn’t there sufficient light for all to see? I mean, who are these wise young women and why do they get to go in to the banquet when they are not even nice enough to share a little oil? Bolz-Weber reminds us, in chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus told folks to “Give to everyone who begs from you,” and in Chapter 19 Jesus tells us to “give to the poor,” and in Chapter 23, just 2 chapters ago, Jesus proclaimed “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven…”
Nadia Bolz-Weber makes the point that the foolish young women fail to trust their own relationship with the Bridegroom, and they question their own actions, and much like Adam and Eve who listened to the snake, they listen to the other young women (who are not acting according to what Jesus has already said) and so they run off to try and make themselves worthy and, in doing so, miss the bridegroom all together.
How many times, Beloved, have we, have you, decided we weren’t enough or that you didn’t have what was needed, so you missed the chance to witness love, to accept love, to give love, to midwife love intp a situation, a relationship, a conflict, a chance opportunity? How many times have we listened to our voices of shame inside our heads and have turned away instead of walking through the door being held open before us? This Truth Nadia Bolz-Weber asks us to consider invites us to recognize that God provides the light and the door is open if we don’t forget to remember who we are and whose we are, if we don’t make ourselves strangers to Love and love’s great desire to welcome us in.
What I love about Nadia Bolz-Weber is she almost always helps me to see and hear the Good news in the Gospel in ways I hadn’t considered before. But this past week, when I contemplated the Good News, and when I talked with the ladies at Dwelling in the Word on Tuesday, another possible Truth arose for me. It came about for some of the same reasons and questions:
Why are those wise young women so not nice and refuse to share?
What is the oil, anyway? Why is it so important that each young woman has to have her own?
Let’s start with: What is the oil anyway? Of course, in this story, the oil is what keeps the lamp burning. And the lamp is the light needed to see, presumably, the light that is needed to see the bridegroom (aka Jesus) and the open door to the banquet. For us, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus is the light, the light of the world. And what makes this light shine is the life and love Jesus lived. Our gig is to carry that light out into the world. As Matthew wrote in chapter 5: In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.
When we understand the lamp in this way, then the oil is our lives— lives that are modeled after, and that follow in the footsteps of, Jesus. Our lives—our actions, our trust in Love, our words, our choices—fuel the light. And that is not something we can give to another person. I can’t give you my life of faith; you have to have your own. Go…and buy some for yourselves Maybe this understanding is what made the young women wise. It’s what brought them into the presence of the bridegroom and allowed them to see and know the open door. When we live love out loud, as Jesus does, we are already present at the banquet—it is all around us. Living love wakes us up to more love. Living love is what empowers us to see Jesus right in front us. As a Facebook meme that is going around states “We don’t come to church to find God. We come to church to learn to find God everywhere.”
And if we listen to God through Amos, living love means that justice is enacted and righteousness is lived out. Righteousness, of course, is living in right relationship with all others—-or in Jesus’ words: Loving God and loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us. You know: the Kingdom come, heaven on earth, right here, right now. If only we can wake up and stay awake to this truth instead of listening to the snakes. Instead of, as Amos warns us, thinking our worship is what heaven looks like, thinking our worship is what God wants from us instead of lives of justice and right relationship. Beloved, when I listen to Amos, sometimes I think worship is the costume we put on, hoping God will recognize us when we knock on the door, but instead, Jesus says: Truly, I don’t know you. I think when we put our trust in worship as God’s desire instead of justice and lives of right relationship with all others, we can become pseudo-disciples rather than actual followers of the Way of Love.
So there you have it Beloved. For me, God isn’t the supreme judge but, instead, the supreme lover, so I hear different truths in this parable than I used to hear. Truths that echo Amos’ prophecy thousands of years ago. God wants our love—which is what justice looks like in public—God wants us to recognize our one-ness with all of humanity, all of Creation, with the one, holy and living God. And that, Beloved, that truth, that light—changes everything.
Beloved: what phrase or question from today’s Word or Reflection will linger with you this week?
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.