32nd Sunday of the Year
Today’s Gospel reminds us that God’s surprising presence can come upon us at any time. It is unpredictable. Surprise or unpredictability is an important way that God has chosen to be associated when calling or sending or encountering people. God in Jesus has been returning in the unpredictability of our times with the call to keep awake and be prepared for encounter with God. Life presents us with lots of unknowns and we need to be ready for them. Maya Angelou says: ‘Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.’
So, in each and every moment, we must be ever concerned to build God’s reign by sharing the oil of justice, mercy, and all that makes the blessings so critically needed in our world today. The gospel focuses on doing things differently. The ‘oil’ in the gospel is not the commodity people fight over but about thinking and acting differently – looking ‘foolish’ according to the world whether business, politics or religion - because God is working whether we recognise it or not. There is a continual invitation to the banquet, to encounter, to receive God's hospitality.
Women are central in today’s first reading and Gospel. This is rare when so often they are marginalised, anonymous, silent or absent from biblical texts. The praises of feminine Wisdom contrast with the negative image of the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids but these unnamed, underrepresented women can be bearers of the gospel.
We tend often to focus on the ‘foolish’ bridesmaids as the losers in this story. But the ‘wise’ also lost when they hoarded what they had for fear of losing. They were tight fisted in what they had. Their response reveals the insidious assumption that there is only so much oil - so much good - to go around. Their vision is limited. Is this not how we deal with our resources in terms for foreign aid and caring for people in our community who seek our assistance - there is only so much water, so much land, so much space, so much housing, so much compassion available.
Our task is to make our community, our society, our nation, and our world where fairness and justice flourish. We have the responsibility to participate with God in creation by rectifying the imbalances we see around us by being in solidarity and present not only to those nearest to us but also to those who are ‘the least of these...’: those who lack the most, those on the lowest rung, those considered at the bottom of the social heap, those for whom there seems to be no justice at all – whether asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat, aged person, people living with mental illness, children, the sick and the outcast. It is up to us to ensure that all God's children have a fair share of God's gifts with which we have been blessed. It is a ministry of giving, not taking, of sharing and caring.
We are called to seize the moment. We cannot wait for others to act – otherwise it may be too late. We cannot wait for church leaders to speak out. We cannot wait for those in government to act. Waiting for them would be to squander possibilities and miss opportunities. The focus today is not aimed at the outsiders but towards the so-called ‘insiders’ who call Jesus, ‘Lord’ and consider themselves ‘disciples’. These ‘insiders’ are those who are figuratively ‘asleep’, those silent, not watchful, who ignore Jesus’ promptings today to produce in their lives the fruits of justice, peace and love. Justice begins with the recognition that all people are interconnected – all are our sisters and brothers. The gospel narrative is about encounter, not punishment. If anyone is being victimised and oppressed, we need to do our utmost to speak out against it. If others do not respect their rights, we cannot stand by as if it is none of our business. Our business is to be where there is pain and suffering and oppose injustice with all our strength. We cannot enjoy peace of mind and make peace with God if we do nothing. Some years ago, at a trial in Ireland when peace activists damaged some US aircraft that were part of the invasion of Iraq, the defense counsel said they attempted to prevent a more serious crime: ‘These people are on trial for what they have done, but we are all on trial for what we have not done’ – to stop evil and injustice.
The gospel does not intend to induce fear in us. It is not about insiders and outsiders or fencing people out. It is encouraging us to respond to the invitations of Jesus every day. Shutting the door on people because they were not prepared does not fit the image of Jesus in the gospels. It was more usual for him to go out of his way to include those who were not prepared and seen as ‘foolish’ by showing them that they were loved: the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Too often is assumed that the character in the parables who excludes, punishes, and is violent is God. Jesus came to change our understanding of God away from that.
Despair cannot solve problems, promote justice or bring life. The temptation to despair is ever-present given the overwhelming challenges facing our world. But our hope is in Jesus and it is in our commitment to him, that we discover the ‘oil’, the resources that give us the strength to continue. These resources include an ability to recognise God’s presence and activity and co-operate with what God is doing, the wisdom to know how best to respond to the challenges we face, and the strength keep going when it gets tough. When we remember that God’s reign arrives in the subtle, unexpected ways Jesus spoke of, we discover that these resources are exactly what we need to make the small, consistent commitments and contributions that effect change for the better in the world. The closed door is never the final act. There is always a renewed invitation to open the door. God does not close the door to us. The good news is that that just as God’s power burst through the stone door of the tomb, it can open the door of our hearts every day, and transform all our loving and just actions for the good of others. Christians have, sometimes even often, fallen asleep and forgotten to eagerly expect the transformation of the world. The church has often failed to express the radical inclusiveness of Jesus. Many leaders have often failed to articulate an alternative narrative as thousands of people recently took to the streets around the world to tell a new story about #BlackLivesMatter. It was people who were ‘foolish’ enough to proclaim the value of our coloured sisters and brothers; who challenged ‘white privilege’; who continue to proclaim that violence is not the way deal with our citizens or people of other nations; who continue to denounce the illegal detention of people who seek asylum; who challenge the neglect of the poor and marginalised at any time especially in this time of pandemic; who demand inclusion of women, children, the homeless or different sexual orientation in our circles of relationship. An alternative story to prevailing narratives seeks to create spaces that welcome the stranger, the outsider, and the marginalised.
The so-called ‘wise’ are ineffective and silent. So, it is possible that there is virtue in being ‘foolish’. Paul speaks of the wisdom of God being foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-24). Those labelled ‘foolish’ in today’s parable were foolish in according to the world’s wisdom that divides people into the worthy and the unworthy; those who are in and those who are out. The world’s wisdom depends on a culture of violence where violence seems to be the only way to solve conflict whilst those who proclaim active nonviolence are considered foolish. Those deemed ‘foolish’ refuse to see that hate as the remedy for hate or violence. They do not exclude or shut the door on people. These foolish ones see love as the remedy for hate and violence. Jesus raided the Temple because temple practices were without justice, and where organised religion was without substance. He was overcome by the lack of anger in people at routine injustice. Did no one see or notice the injustice? Was no one scandalised or saddened by it? Had everyone become so dull? Why no passion in these people? So Jesus' anger rolls down when worship and religion leaves us and our world unchanged and less compassionate; where the Good News is domesticated; where the teaching of the subversive Jesus is watered down. We do not need more ‘wise’ bridesmaids who keep their oil of mercy, compassion, nonviolence, to themselves. The gospel view is that all are invited whoever one is. There’s enough food. There’s enough oil. There’s enough love here for everyone. It’s up to us to trust that there’s enough, if we just share. If we are to stay awake or remain vigilant, or keep our lamps lit, it happens by loving and serving others and being open to receive others.