1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
On the face of it, the Gospel story we’ve read today appears to be about being ready for future events, planning ahead, being prepared, just like the scouts. But, it’s a parable. Parables are stories which are meant to lead us beyond their surface to a deeper meaning. There’s always something odd about them, something that doesn’t quite fit, for example in today’s story there are ten bridesmaids – but no bride. What is that about? Parables interrogate our consciousness and ask us if we are understanding things right.
This parable is told at a very particular point in Jesus’ ministry. As Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, it is Tuesday in Holy Week. Jesus has entered Jerusalem and in two days he will celebrate the last supper with his disciples, and then be betrayed and crucified and raised from the dead. And just before these tremendous events happen he concludes his teaching ministry with three parables, a “triptych” of stories like three related panels on an altarpiece, the altar indeed of Christ’s final sacrifice.
The first of these stories is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids that we heard today. The other two we will hear over the next two weeks: the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and goats.
What these stories have in common is a theme of being caught out and exposed by the arrival of a figure of authority. In this case it is the bridegroom.
The image of bride and groom is a very important one in Israel’s history. The Old Testament prophets spoke of Israel as God’s “bride”, the one whom God had chosen for himself and married, so God is the “bridegroom” of his people. But his people, like an unfaithful wife, had constantly gone off after other gods, and not kept God’s covenant. And the result had been exile and other calamities.
But the prophets always insisted that God would not abandon his people. The bridegroom would bring his bride back again, make her his own once more. In other words, God was not going to forget his people, no matter what they did. God would once again “marry” his people and restore them to a right relationship with him.
So the image of the bridegroom is that of God returning to claim his people as his own once more. And it’s an image which elsewhere Jesus applies to himself. The message of the gospels is that Jesus is God returning to restore his people Israel, and in fact all people, to a right relationship with him.
What the Gospel is saying is that the arrival of the bridegroom, God reconciling his people to himself, was something happening right there and then. It was through the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s self-giving love was about to be revealed, God’s reconciliation enacted. So this is not a story about a second coming of Christ in some remote future. It’s much more urgent than that: this is happening now, watch, stay awake.
What then does the parable mean when it says that some of the bridesmaids had oil and could light their lamps, and others couldn’t? Well, the most important function of a lamp is to shed light, so you can see what’s going on. It’s about perception. The message of the parable is, make sure your lamps are lit so you can see what’s happening.
But most people didn’t see. They had a different perception, a different mindset. They thought that God would return in power in a great final catastrophe, to punish the wicked and reward the good. And the wicked, of course, were always other people – Romans, the ritually unclean, the mentally ill, women – always the marginalised and the outsider, who were finally going to be thrust outside for ever, whilst only the pure and good, “people like us”, would be allowed in God’s kingdom.
What people were not expecting was that God was coming to die on a cross. God was coming to take the place of the marginalised and outsider, the place that the religious people allotted to the wicked. God, in fact, was coming to be the victim of the catastrophe, instead of inflicting it on others.
In order to see that, you need God’s light to switch on in your mind, so you can perceive things differently. You need a changed mind. The teaching of Jesus in the Gospels was constantly about repentance, metanoia in Greek, which literally means, change your mind. Not in the sense of deciding to have a jammy dodger instead of a custard cream with your tea, but in the sense of taking out your old mind and putting in a new one. St Paul says, in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. If our minds are transformed by Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, then we will see truly. We will see that God is in the place of the victim and not the victimiser. The lamp of our consciousness will be lit, we will be awake.
When we read this parable, then, we are not hearing a warning about something that will happen in a distant future that we don’t need to worry about yet. We are hearing that the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ, is the principle of transformation in the world and in our lives right here and now. Christ is present, if only we have eyes to see. The coming of Christ is not about an absence that Jesus is going to fill, but about our minds being transformed, our lamps lit, so that we can see him present now.
Father Basil Jellicoe was one who saw, whose lamp was lit. When he was the parish priest here he saw the slums that were here then, and the terrible degrading poverty in which people had to live. And he saw Christ. Christ in the place of the marginalised and the outsider, Christ in the victims of social injustice. And because he saw truly he was transformed himself and became an instrument of transformation to the world around him. He campaigned tirelessly and successfully to demolish the slums and rehouse the people of his parish in a setting worthy of their human dignity, worthy of the Christ whose image they bore.
In our own day, housing is once again an issue and many people are suffering through inadequate housing, and the threats of changes to rent and benefits which may see many people driven out of the city centres to places on the edge where they will struggle to commute to low paid jobs. And that is on top of people who are actually homeless on our streets.
And the Church responds, through initiatives such as London Citizens and the winter night shelter. We respond because by God’s grace we see Christ in those on the margins of society. We respond because we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds.
The Lord who is present in the Mass we are celebrating together, who is present day and night in the tabernacle here, is one and the same Lord who is present in the asylum seeker, the single mother struggling to make ends meet, the drug addict, the man sleeping rough because he hears voices telling him his home is evil.
The great words of Bishop Frank Weston are as true and as urgent today as they were when he spoke them at the Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923, when the slums still stood round here:
If you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.
Let us then, before Jesus in this tabernacle, with Jesus in this Mass, turn to him once more for the renewing of our minds, that we may see him and serve him in all who are in need, in our parish, our city and our world.