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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

CHOICE AND CONSEQUENCES—THOUGHTS ON THE LECTIONARY PASSAGES FOR THE TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (NOVEMBER 9, 2014)---BY JIM OGDEN

 

Lectionary Scriptures:  Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 AND Psalm 78:1-7 OR Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 OR Amos 5:18-24 AND Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 OR Psalm 70:1-5, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13


During my adolescent years, in the early years of television, I enjoyed a show called “Truth or Consequences.” Contestants received roughly two seconds to answer a trivia question correctly.  Failing to do so meant facing a consequence, usually a zany and embarrassing stunt.  Not all consequences were negative, sometimes involving a reunion with a long-lost relative or with an enlisted son or daughter returning from military duty overseas, particularly Vietnam.  During Bob Barker’s tenure as host, he ended each episode with the phrase, "Hoping all your consequences are happy ones."  This seemingly trivial memory is not much more than a passing cultural phenomenon, except it reminds us that there are consequences in life, not all of them happy. 

Choice is a theme we run into repeatedly in the Bible.  The classic choice text is found in this week’s lectionary reading from the book of Joshua.  Joshua has led the people across the Jordan into a new land where they have been sorely tempted (and sometimes yielding) to follow after other gods.  Now, nearing death, he has “gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel.”  (Joshua 24:1)  His message from God?  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  (vs. 15)


Sometimes in the Bible (or in the way we interpret various biblical stories) the consequences of choice have to do with heaven and hell.  I’m sorry, I just don’t find worrying about heaven and hell (at least as some other-worldly destination) has much place in my theology. 


On the other hand, I find the consequences of choice very much a part of my life experience.  In my older years, I look back and am keenly aware of how I could have lived in a way that would have delivered this body to this time in better shape.  It’s not that I was dissolute, but I could have eaten more healthily and exercised more.  Now I am paying the consequences.  Some of the consequences of our decisions (if not all) can be described as “eternal.”  We get married and have children.  It is true that we are not assured that a marriage will last, but the emotions and experiences have affected the very fabric of our lives.  And if there is a divorce, whoever makes the decision by whatever process, everyone involved lives with those consequences for the rest of their lives.  We can try to counter the effects of a choice, but the consequences can never be entirely erased.


Al Krass, described in his obituary in 2010 as a “pastor and social activist,” wrote a book in 1978 entitled “Five Lanterns at Sundown.”  It is a detailed study of Jesus’ parable we sometimes call “The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.”  Krass rewrites it in contemporary terms as “The Parable of Ten American Suburban Women.”


We spent most of our weekly breakfast discussion time on this parable, one which we all find troubling.  It is clearly a parable about being prepared, having a tone which reminds us of those who warn of the dangers of being left behind.  Jesus tells the story of ten bridesmaids who go out to meet the bridegroom.  (Matthew 25:1)  The bridegroom is delayed and five of them run out of oil for their lamps.  (vss. 5-8)  They run off to buy some more, at the 7-11 in Krass’ clever contemporary rendition of the tale.  When they return the banquet has begun and they are excluded, all because they were not prepared.  (vss. 9-12)  The parable ends with the exhortation, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” 


The story stokes the flames of fear in those who live mostly to avoid eternal damnation and gain the promise of heaven.  Al Krass treats it as a parable of lifestyle choices we have made along the way of life in which we fail to face the urgency of the crises of the political and economic systems in this world, ending with a “Prologue” on “Re-Imaging the Church for the Long Night Ahead.”  In his version of the parable, Helen (one of the five) is remembering and retelling the story of being excluded from the wedding.  She concludes her story this way:  “The essential things---the decisive things---had happened before sunset, before that day even.  The events of the night were only the logical conclusion to the deep decisions the five of us---that the five of them---had made long ago.”


Choices have consequence.  I wonder how many live without much awareness of that.  How many of us take into account the impact of our decisions on our families and neighbors, on the poor and oppressed in our own country and other lands, on the environment?  It turns out that the women in Al Krass’ take on the parable were too busy looking after their own needs to take account of anything else.  Helen speaks of “the price of oil the way it got to be in those last months---who would willingly buy more than was needed?  I mean, you’ve got to eat, too!  And you’ve got to buy clothes and if you put all your money into oil, it’s not going to leave you with very much on hand for necessities, much less emergencies.”


It’s a parable for much pondering.  Our breakfast group was troubled by the unwillingness of the first five bridesmaids to share.  If this is a parable about the way the church draws boundaries---an issue in the early church, and today, Margie and I wondered, on our way home from breakfast, whom the two groups of women represented.  Is it possible that the focus of the parable is upon the five doing the excluding, maybe symbolic of the religious leadership of the day who drew lines of exclusion and placed heavy burdens on people?  We also wondered why the bridegroom was delayed.  Is there a suggestion that instead of spending so much time waiting we need to keep the light burning in the present?  In fact, the parable seems as much concerned about the women’s drowsiness and sleeping (vs. 5) as it is about the oil.  Remember the punch line is about staying awake!  (vs. 13)


Whatever interpretations one places on the details of the parable, it is still about choice and consequences.  There are hints of connection with that theme or closely related themes in the other texts.


Psalm 78 speaks about consequences passed on to children.  We are to “tell the coming generations the glorious deeds of the Lord . . . that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn . . .”  (Psalm 78:4 & 6)  We are called to think about future generations when we make today’s choices.


Although not included in the Protestant Bible, The Wisdom of Solomon (from the 1st or 2nd century before the common era) is regularly used by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches as well as Jews.  Like the book of Proverbs, it depicts wisdom as a feminine expression of the spirit of God.  The readings included in this week’s lectionary might be seen as a call to seek such wisdom in our decision-making.  “To fix one’s thoughts on her is perfect understanding . . . The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction . . . the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.”  (Wisdom of Solomon 6:15, 17, 20)


Amos rants against worship which is empty because it takes no account of the condition of the world around.  Even though they got into worship this time---unlike the five bridesmaids, there is no oil in their lamps.  Amos delivers God’s message:  “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies . . . Take away from me the noise of your songs . . .”  (Amos 5:21-23)  So what consequences is God looking for?  “ . . . let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  (vs. 24)  Psalm 70 gives voice to those in need, an important voice to hear in our decision-making.  Although addressed to God, the words, “But I am poor and needy,” are addressed to God’s people as well.  (Psalm 70:5)


The reading from I Thessalonians has fed many debates about the details of the end times.  These words were written as assurance to those worried about the fate of their deceased loved ones.  (I Thessalonians 4:13)  The final word is that we will all be with the Lord forever.  (vs. 17)  And what are we to do in the meantime?  “ . . . encourage one another . . .”  (vs. 18) 

May our choices build up (encourage) rather than tear down---today, tomorrow, and forever.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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