bible blog 1372

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:


Pope Francis does his sums

Pope Francis does his sums


Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps, but took no oil with them; 4 while the prudent ones, besides taking their lamps, took oil in their jars. 5 As the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy, and slept. 6 But at midnight a shout was raised — ‘The groom is coming! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all the bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps, 8 and the foolish said to the prudent ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the prudent ones answered ‘No, There may not be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell it, and buy for yourselves.’ 10 But while they were on their way to buy it, the groom came; and the bridesmaids who were ready went in with him to the banquet, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other bridesmaids came. ‘Sir, Sir,’ they said, ‘open the door to us!’ 12 But the groom answered ‘I tell you, I do not know you.’ 13 Therefore watch, since you know neither the day nor the hour.

by William Blake

by William Blake

Many modern translations use the word “bridesmaids” for the Greek “parthenos” which literally is a virgin or girl. It seems a little inappropriate as they only relate to the bridegroom and the bride is nowhere mentioned. Are they welcoming the groom on behalf of the bride? Or are they all engaged to the groom and waiting for him? Some ancient commentators thought so, seeing in them an image of the church (the virgin bride of Christ) awaiting his return. The details in the parable are so brief and our knowldege of first century Jewish wedding customs so sketchy that wise interpreters tend to admit they may be mistaken.

It looks to me like an allegory, possibly developed by Matthew to express the right advice for those who believe Jesus will return. He the Messiah is depicted as the awaited bridegroom; the girls represent believers, some of whom are prepared and some unprepared for the Lord’s return. I guess that the oil stands for continuing faith and obedience to Jesus’ teaching. The wise are prepared for a longer wait than the foolish. If the lapse of time seemed excessive to some in the early churches, what should believers think 2000 years on? It would seem that in the modern era individual encounter with the Lord after death has taken the place of the expectation of Jesus’ return to transform the earth.

The parable simply encourages a sober readiness for Christian living without giving up faith in Jesus’ return and the rule of God on earth.

But certainly the church to which I belong has more or less given up that sort of faith; I don’t know any believers who actively expect the return of Jesus as God’s ruler on earth. On the other hand, I am aware of a bunch of nutters who have fabricated a complete industry on the back of that very expectation: those who have fostered the theology of “rapture” (believers taken up into the sky to meet Jesus) and of “left behind” (the doomed life of those who miss the beaming up). So would it be better if the church simply admitted that Jesus and the first believers were mistaken; that He will not return; and we should not expect any final intervention by God in the life of the world?

At first sight, that may seem the right option. For surely the biblical versions of the end of the present evil age and the coming of God’s new age, including the specifically Chrstian versions, are through and through mythological and ready for the trash bin?

But then if we look at how much of the story of Jesus and his followers is told in terms of that vision and what a large proportion of Jesus’ teaching is devoted to it, we realise that we’d be consigning a huge chunk of the bible to oblivion. If indeed a major part of the story of Jesus involves beliefs we can no longer hold, shouldn’t we jettison the whole shebang and get ourselves a life?

My answer is that if we cannot make any sense of faith in Jesus’ return to inaugurate God’s rule, then we probably should abandon Christian faith. But I think we can make sense of it, provided we can abandon a linear view of time. Biblical faith in God’s rule and Jesus’ return is expressed in terms of successive eras. But if we can imagine multiple interpenetrating dimensions of time, then we can think of the present age and the new age as overlapping, both part of our present experience. In the midst of so much violence God’s peace is already available; already, in the midst of so much death, God’s new life is offered; in the face of so much tyranny, the saving justice of God is already on its way; in the least of his brothers and sisters the King has already returned to his people; already, from the cross, Jesus rules. Everyday the bridegroom arrives and looks for a welcome. There, at midnight, in the darkness where all worlds meet, the banquet has begun.

where all worlds meet

where all worlds meet

There’s some evidence, particularly in the gospels and the book of The Revelation, that this method of interpretation had occurred to some of the early believers. The expression of this biblical faith is one of the urgent tasks for contemporary believers.


The late Professor Murdo Ewan MacDonald told the story of a student of ministry who for the day of his examination as a preacher chose this passage. After giving a learned exposition of the text and an eloquent demand that his hearers wait on the Lord, he finished with the words, “And so dear friends, I have to ask you the all-important question: would you rather stay awake with the wise virgins, or sleep with the foolish ones?”

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