Usually I am a great proponent of people helping each other, team work, group effort etc. There’s too much individualism! But there are times when you alone have to make a decision for it affects the way you live your life.
The reading from Joshua takes place after the tribes of Israel have established a hold on the Promised Land. Joshua, Moses successor, and the military commander of the people is close to dying. He’s led, and worked and advised, but now he is old, and he has one last chance to address the people.
Joshua says, Listen up folks, you have an important decision to make. You can revere God and follow faithfully, or you can choose the gods of your ancestors or the gods of your neighbours, but as for me and my house I will serve the God who brought us out of Egypt. They promise that they too will be faithful to God. Joshua tells the people of Israel `You don’t have it in you to choose God. You don’t have the strength. God is jealous and vengeful and if you say you will choose God, and betray the covenant, expect ruin.
It sort of reminds me of Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash the fence by telling them that the task is too difficult for them.
Joshua doesn’t pull any punches about the effect of their choice this day. What they choose will not only affect themselves, it will affect the future, and the generations who will follow them. It is not ourselves alone we betray when we break covenant, but those who have come before and those who will come after. There is a seriousness to this text that asks us to take ultimate responsibility for our actions.
David Suzuki’s recently said regarding the US report on Climate Change: “That people who profit from those outdated technologies would do everything they can to sow doubt and confusion is not surprising. That a government elected to serve the people would reject the findings of its own scientists and researchers from around the world to the detriment of human health, the economy and the environment is an intergenerational crime.”
How does serving God, the God of the Exodus, the God of compassion, the God lived out in the person of Jesus, shape our actions and our response to the actions and ideas of others?
Over a thousand years after Joshua’s challenge to the people, a new faith community is facing its own challenge. The people in Matthew’s community notice that the eyewitnesses to the “Jesus event” are dying, (remember the gospel was written about 50 years after Jesus’ death), and still the return of Jesus, which the church anticipated, is not occurring. The church is faced with the challenge of reinterpreting its own expectations in the middle of adverse conditions
The story in Matthew shows the importance the choosing how you live, while you live. My impulse in this parable about the wise and foolish maidens, even before the story is done, is to figure out ways that they can share – even if some were wise and some were foolish. I’m thinking, ‘Surely two women can share one lamp’. I’m thinking, ‘What kind of friend is this who says, “go away, I don’t know you.” when he himself was late, and that’s why the women ran out of oil and had to go to the closest 1st century 7-11 store and get some more.’
But you know this is not a story about sharing what you have. Although that is a major theme in the Bible, that’s not what this particular story is about. So…what is it about?
This is a “be ready” story. This is a `choose how you are going to live in the middle time between memory and hope,’ story. This is a `keep your light shining’ story. In Jewish tradition, oil is a metaphor for righteousness or good deeds (46). For Matthew, it is not a story about being alert or awake; all the bridesmaids fall asleep. It’s not about knowing when to be ready. It’s about faith in action. It’s not possible to give someone else your faith, just as you can’t do another person’s good deed. This story is a reminder to live the life that expresses the activity of God.
The early church lived with a strong sense of urgency; they believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent, and probably within their generation. Centuries later, at least in the circles I travel, we have lost this sense of urgency. Is there a cost to that? What might change in our lives and faith journeys if we believed that the fulfillment of God’s promises would happen within our lifetimes? How might our preparation change? How might our living change?
Some groups of people do think the return of Jesus is imminent but unfortunately, they don’t have a sense of responsibility for the wider world. They believe they have their personal salvation in order and that is all that matters. Others take a passage from the book of Revelations in Chapter 16 and read it to believe there must be a final earthly battle at Meggido (Armageddon), a field in northern Israel between the powers of good and evil; they also believe that for the final battle to happen (where God wins of course) all Jews must be living back in this geographical part of the world. This is why, in part, there is in the U.S.A. and Canada, so little condemnation of the illegal Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. These particular Christians support the Israeli Zionist movement which wants a Jewish only state, with no room for Palestinians.
What if there was a third way? What if we understood that the way we live brings the kingdom of God into fullness – or not. What if there is no waiting for something better? We have to work at the something better. We have to each carry our oil in our lamp, or we endanger present and future generations. We can lament the way things are or we can ask ‘What must I choose to do, to be, in order to make things better?’
I think of the young woman I spoke with last week who was clearly distraught; who had been kicked out by her roommate. She was in an unhealthy and unsupportive relationship. I offered to go with her and get her stuff, I offered to store her stuff, I offered to take her to the Women’s shelter in Salmon Arm which would provide her not only with a warm safe place to be, but skilled counselors who could help her take some healthy next steps. Although she insisted that she needed all these things, she would not take me up on any of my offers. I could not force her to go with me and, call me selfish – but I’m not going to take a stranger home with me after a half hour conversation. I’m not going to give her the oil in my lamp. But I’ll drive her to where the oil is.
It’s up to us to light our own lamp and keep it burning. Yes we can and must encourage each other in the faith journey, but we each have the possibility and the choice of shining brightly – or not. Let your light shine!