12th November 2017 - Hugh Perry
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
We have looked at the end of the Moses Saga and the succession of Joshua. Now this passage moves to the end of the story of Joshua and in particular his second farewell speech. Joshua gathers all the people together and challenges them to choose their God—Yahweh or the other god they have worshiped in the past. The people choose Yahweh and Joshua reminds them of the implications of that choice, it is a choice of total commitment without any extra gods for good measure or even extra god’s to keep up past family or tribal traditions.
Historian Judith Binney writes
In the nineteenth century, faced with loss of land and an inexplicably high mortality among their people, many Maori leaders had turned to the story of the Israelites, desolate and lost in their land. The essence of their identification with them was the pain they shared: ‘O God. If our hearts arise from the land in which we now dwell as slaves…Do not….cause us to be wholly destroyed’.
Maurice Andrew suggests that if Israel could face a challenge for the future through earlier times, it may be possible for New Zealanders to do the same by looking back.
Matthew 25: 1-13
This reading follows on the warnings and predictions in the previous chapter about the time between Jesus’ death and his return. Warren Carter writes that this parable contains allegory that ‘variously scares and bullies disciples into obedience, persuades them to live for this desired future, or provides models of faithfulness which they imitate so as to participate in God’s future.
Robert Funk sees the message hammered home unsubtly, like a commercial—there are no surprises, the wise who take extra oil are rewarded and the foolish are punished and we know that will happen right from the start.
Robert Capon takes a different tack and analyses the parable from a contemporary perspective commenting on this and the following parables, under the heading ‘the talents’ and ‘the great judgement’.
He says ‘they base the judgement solely on faith or unfaith in the mystery of the age-long presence in absence—the abiding parousia, or second coming.’. Of the parable of the bridesmaids he says ‘But the point of the story—the point that ultimately makes wisdom of the apparent folly—is that, in this world, something always does go wrong., It is a parable of the world where the unexpected does happen, the bridegroom comes late. All the bridesmaids prepare adequately for a daytime wedding with lamps full of oil, but then the bridegroom comes late so only those who make extra preparations get to the wedding.
A contemporary piece of popular wisdom is Murphy’s Law which suggests that ‘Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.’
Steve Tobak, management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry suggests that the Peter Principle is essentially Murphy’s Law for the business world. The Peter Principle, says that everyone eventually rises to the level of their own incompetence, and Tobak notes that Laurence Peter’s book was titled The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong.
Our Parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids gives much the same wisdom to a different age. ‘Don’t be caught out by unexpected changes and lack of extra preparation for the events you don’t expect to happen.’
We certainly spend a lot more energy preparing for earthquakes since our Christchurch earthquakes and the catastrophic tsunami in Japan alerted us to that reality. However there was confusion when we actually had a locally triggered tsunami which thankfully did little damage.
Being prepared and taking action to prevent climate change seems to be a lot harder because of the powerful industrial interests depending on things remaining the same. However on the 2nd of this month the high court of New Zealand found that climate change presents significant risks and government actions on climate change are subject to judicial scrutiny. What will have a greater impact is likely to be the impact of rising sea level on low lying Pacific Islands. In preparation for rising sea level Kiribati has bought land in Fiji as a promised land for their future. However they face the same problem that Joshua faced, there are already people living in the Promised Land.
Joshua and the Israelites had spent forty years in the wilderness preparing themselves for new beginnings and new beginnings are fundamental to our Christian faith.
Helping people change for the better involves being prepared for the unexpected and transforming lives can take a very long time indeed.
One of the things I learned in the pastoral theology paper I studied was that in giving pastoral care to someone who needed to make major change in their lifestyle was a long patient process in which Murphy’s Law was a constant companion.
I enjoyed the Country Calendar programme last Sunday, particularly the positive attitude and excitement about learning useful skills exhibited by one of the prisoners. I also gave thanks for the prison officers who taught the skills and hunted out employment for him. But I quietly prayed as I watched that a future employer will give him a fair go. I also hoped he won’t meet up with his old mates or celebrate with too many beers and give someone a whack over the head.
Our world is a dangerous place and Earthquakes, tsunamis and global warming are all calamities that it is obviously wise to prepare for. Furthermore the Prosperity Gospel that promises endless health, wealth and happiness to those who are faithful to Jesus and give sacrificially to their church and pastor, is at best a delusion. ‘Everything that can go wrong will go wrong and in the worst possible way’ and those who maintain that faith can protect us from the harsh realities of life appear to be promoted beyond the level of their own incompetence.
Nevertheless Matthew’s community, and other early communities of followers of Jesus, appeared to have been expecting the Resurrected Christ to return in their lifetime. They also expected that to be an apocalyptical event that upstaged any supreme natural event they had ever experienced. In today’s parable Matthew is not denying the possibly of a dramatic return of Christ but he is telling his people that the main thing is not to try and predict such an event. Nevertheless they should be prepared because the fact that Jesus has not returned does not mean it will not happen.
But however prepared to be tolerant we must be of the mistakes and backsliding of those we mentor and walk along side when it comes to our own transformation the time for change is always now. Unforeseen circumstances and procrastination can close the door for transformation and opportunities can be lost in a moment. Often it is us that close the door.
Two pieces of wisdom have stayed with me from my early adulthood. The first was a contemporary wisdom statement about the young man who hated his job and wished he could study to be an accountant. He didn’t take up the study required because by the time he was qualified he would be forty. The wisdom is that if he didn’t study he would still be forty but wouldn’t be an accountant. The other came from an American motivational speaker, Denis Waitley who had a mythical metaphor of a tropical paradise called Someday Isle. That procrastination paradise is similarly expressed in the words, ‘when I win lotto.’ A phrase often expressed by people who never even buy a ticket.
All of those sayings are self-limiting but procrastination can allow other people or unforeseen circumstances to close the door on opportunity. According to my mother I came close to never existing. Apparently my Mum and Dad had been seeing each other for some time when Mum suggested she was getting bored with her job in Wellington and might go to Australia. Apparently my Dad immediately mumbled a number of reasons why that was a bad idea and muttered that he might never see her again. Mum said she responded by saying, ‘If you are trying to say that if you had two pennies to rub together you’d marry me, here’s tuppence’. They then went out and got married in the lunch hour.
Apart from the reality that we have no idea how long we are likely to live disastrous accidents to ourselves or those close to us is a reality of life. That concept is often expressed at weddings with the suggestion that disagreements should be resolved and loved ones forgiven. That is sound advice indeed.
Abandoning addictions and bad lifestyles are obvious issues that should not be deferred and contain a high potential to revert back to the point that despair and ill health may make transformation impossible. Often overlooked however is procrastination that prevents us doing good which firmly fits into the Someday Isle syndrome. Not all of us have magical mystic mountain top experiences but I am absolutely convinced the Spirit continually puts opportunity in front of us and our calling comes through responding to those opportunities. Often our oil runs out before we respond and the opportunity is taken up by others. Nevertheless I believe our God is a God who never closes a door without opening a window but free choice means we can barricade the windows of change.
Perhaps that’s the reason that the Risen Christ in John’s Gospel appeared a locked room. But regardless of their readiness the Spirit of Christ got into those disciples just like the ink gets into the chalk on Mrs Marsh’s toothpaste commercial.
What the disciples in the locked room had that allowed for their meeting with the risen Christ was the experience of being with Jesus and learning how to be truly human from Jesus. That is the oil that followers of Jesus continually need to keep in reserve and regularly replenish. That is what church attendance, bible study and prayer is all about, replenishing the Spirit oil that allows us to keep the Christ light burning.
Robert Capon makes the important point that ‘Unless there is something other than the wisdom of the world to help it, there is nothing for the world to do but to lie down and die’.
The wisdom of the world is based on logic and there is nothing wrong with that up to a point. The wisdom of the world is about hard edged economics, working hard to guarantee success and survival, making sensible decisions and suffering the consequences of bad decisions. Jesus’ wisdom asks questions about those people the wisdom of the world discards. Empathy for the Christ dying on the cross awakens our empathy for all those in our world who are, executed, marginalised and discarded. Alcoholics, drug addicts and thieves regularly bring disaster on themselves but the empathy of a crucified Christ seeks out ways to transform lives and pleads for a fair go for the children of such people.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus came from his wilderness wandering and strategic planning saying:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’. (Mark 1:14)
‘The kingdom of God’ or ‘God’s Realm’ is always at hand but to keep the Christ light burning and fulfilling that promise means being continually confronted by the Jesus tradition. To make God’s realm real means replenishing the gospel oil of our faith and putting aside the wisdom or false gods of our world and choosing Christ’s wisdom.
The Gospels continually stand, as Joshua stood, and asks us if we will choose the gods of our world or the God we image in Christ.
 J. Binney et al.,Mihaia, p.17. The quotation is from a prayer of Te Kooti. As quoted in Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.190
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.190
 Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) p.484-485.
 Robert Funk, Funk on Parables: Collected Essays (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2006), p.133
 Robert Farrar Capon Kingdom Grace Judgement: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002) p.491.
 ibid., p499.