Staying Prepared for the Unknown

Matthew 25:1-13
25‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids*took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.


 

Live for today because you never know when your life will end. I have heard some version of this statement throughout my life, but the words sound too pessimistic, as if the end of life is the only thing we can look forward to. However, treating the end of life as our central goal is inconsistent with how life works. The truth is a person experiences many beginnings and endings throughout life.

One reality I have trouble accepting is the fact that I cannot see where the next journey will take me. Heck, I can’t even see what sort journey it is going to be. A human being can only see the present: it is as if we have been created blind to all future events.

The future is a vast unknown, and that would be scary enough, but the worst part of all is the waiting we have to endure between journeys. If you are project-oriented, then you may relate to what I am describing. You complete a major project, you feel confident that all of the tasks have been addressed, but there is not a new assignment anywhere in the horizon. Perhaps you have been in a job for a number of years and you are tired of that job. Perhaps you have just completed the coursework for a college degree but you have no idea what to do next. When I reach this stage of confusion I feel anxious, as if I am stuck in a forest without a map or a reliable GPS device.

Humans cannot see the future, but that does not mean we shouldn’t prepare ourselves. Whatever challenge awaits us in the future, we need to be mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared. Military images come to my mind. The most active groups within a military force do not stay docile when there is peace in the world. Instead, soldiers continue to train, warships continue to sail around the world, intelligence groups continue surveillance missions. In the same way the military must always be ready to act, we must always be ready for the challenges that await us in the future.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says, “When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.” Sometimes you know what challenges are in your future, but sometimes you do not. Even if you can’t imagine a reason to bring extra supplies with you, even if you see no need to start a regular exercise routine, even if devoting a half-hour each day to prayer and reflection seems pointless, it is a good idea to be prepared anyway.

That next project will come your way soon enough, and it may require a lot of energy. If you stay focused on God, the work will probably result in much good, but you will not give your best effort if you are not prepared. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

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Unexpected Hour

Matthew 24:42-51

42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day* your Lord is coming.43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

The Faithful or the Unfaithful Slave

45 ‘Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves* their allowance of food at the proper time?46Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.47Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.48But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”,49and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards,50the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.51He will cut him in pieces* and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

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I think it is very true that one’s real values come out most when an individual believes nobody is watching. There are those who will always take advantage of freedom—the boss or parent or anyone in authority being away. Those moments, however, are when we are most accountable to ourselves. I also am a firm believer that things have a way of working out for the greater truth in time. I must admit the little mischievous part of me has reveled in seeing the unfolding of those unexpected hours we are warned against in today’s reading. And I think that goes with the issue of being accountable to ourselves when we believe nobody else is watching. Those are the moments in which our deepest habits are formed.

I have always been a journal addict. I started writing very regularly in journals in my early teen years and never stopped. That left my early teen mind in quite a predicament regarding privacy with my journal writing. So I took the best step I could when I finished each journal book. I wrapped them carefully in plastic and sealed them securely with duct tape. I attached a note to the box admitting they were my private journals that should not be read. I then went on to explain that if anyone read them, it was a huge personal violation. I acknowledged that I might or might not ever catch the person or know—for one would never know when I might be in or out of my room—but that God would know for sure. And I warned any potential journal readers that they would have to live with themselves in that huge personal violation of my trust, not to mention being watched by the whole Company of Heaven.

I still like to think that this reading from Matthew validates the concept of that same philosophy. We are most accountable for our behavior, and our truest values, are shown in those moments we are alone. And as just a reminder, we never know when the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. We also should never forget that we are always in the presence of the whole Company of Heaven. Those moments when we think nobody is watching is when we must be truest to ourselves. We very well might get caught by someone walking in at that unexpected hour. Things have a way of unfolding that way! But more importantly, those times are when our habits, our values, and our core identities are formed.

How Can We Live in a World of Hypocrites?

Matthew 23:27-32

27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.


It seems hypocritical acts are so common in our modern world that we expect nearly every person to be a hypocrite.  A good test of this reality is to go to some large retail store in your area.  The television advertisements for the store present a place full of employees who are eager to both help you find what you need and help you save money.  A walk through the store, however, shows that the reality is very different.  All of the employees look depressed.  When one employee sees you, he actually turns to some other task, clearly hoping you do not bother him with a question.  If the employees feel any sort of joy in providing ways for the customers to save money, they do not show it.

Years back, I had a part-time job in one such store, and I hated the experience.  The shiny retail facade that was portrayed on television seemed like a lie compared to the suffering and despair I felt working in that place.  I felt like a hypocrite.  I was living a lie.  That is probably how most of the employees at such stores feel at their jobs today.

Television exposes us to a wide variety of hypocritical acts, but the exposure has intensified with the Internet.  Now that anyone can create videos and run his or her own video channel, a simple Internet search can yield hundreds of video “personalities.”  The topics they discuss can range from informative to conspiratorial and everything in between, but with many of these people it is obvious that they are projecting a facade.  We do not see the real person.  Instead, the video shows some fake person, some attempt at creating a different reality.

Now, I am mostly a fiction writer, so I have nothing against fiction, but when I tell a story I try to make it obvious that it is a story.  Even Jesus told stories (we call them parables because they are designed to teach clear lessons).  When someone makes up something and tries to pass it off as reality, however, that is harmful.  

I believe there are many truthful people in the world, and I think it is helpful to remember these people exist.  It might also help to reflect on what one needs to do to live truthfully.  Sometimes people do not like honesty; sometimes the truth is difficult for to hear.  Perhaps we have seen so many lies on television and on the Internet that we start to favor the lies over the truth.  

Jesus describes the hypocrites of His time as “‘whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.’”  In our modern world, much of what we see on television or the Internet appears “beautiful,” but it is not the truth.  I yearn to see the truth.

 

Hypocrites

Matthew 23:23-26

23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,* so that the outside also may become clean.

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The reading today strikes me as a powerful statement again hypocrisy. Our society can be very quick to judge while ignoring our own selves. I have certainly been guilty of going through the motions while ignoring justice and mercy and faith—those powerful issues that matter. And I have been part of many situations where we strained the gnat but swallowed the camel. It’s easy to focus in and pick apart tint details when huge issues—the elephants in the room so to speak—are ignored. In this passage, the Pharisees and scribes are cautioned that the outside of their cups and plates are clean, but the insides are filthy with greed and self-indulgence.

I read this passage as a statement on two fronts that go together. We can get focused on trivial matters and overlook the big picture of what matter—justice, mercy, and faith. Actions become meaningless real fast when they do not reflect what is referred to as the weightier matters. To me, the gnat and camel represent perhaps injustices in the world. Some will agonize over the little gnat—the tiniest issue—while swallowing the camel. This practice of picking apart imperfections and ignoring the larger situation prevents us from addressing true justice and mercy and faith.

The second image of the inside and outside of a cup and plate are beautiful representations of how we present ourselves. I know for me, I work really hard to seem professional and polished. That is especially true around students. In my education background, we are trained to be in control of the classroom and the course. We are expected to have expectations outlined and lessons planned and to be adaptable in an instant with our teaching methods. But oh how one should see our minds behind the scenes so to speak. That would be the inside of my cup and plate. It’s not always very clean. I don’t always have myself together very well or my priorities in focus. I am quick to pick out that gnat and swallow the camel myself at times. I do know things go much better for me when I do clean out my own cup and plate before I try to work with others. Today’s reading is a reminder to me to keep things in perspective and make sure I’m not guilty of much bigger things than I judge others for doing.

True Leadership: How to End Suffering in the Workplace

Luke 22:24-30

24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.

28 ‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.


 

The early disciples of Jesus suffered a great deal. This was true because they followed a belief system that seemed counterintuitive in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman communities around them.

It is not a fair comparison, but I would argue that many working people in the modern world are under constant threat. Often, your value to a company is based on whether or not you can outperform everyone else–a gladiator style of survival. If you lose the battle, then it’s possible that you will face unemployment.

Jesus offers a unique way to live that could eliminate much of the stress in our working lives. It’s essentially an attitude of giving.

Today’s Gospel passage shows an entertaining scene where the apostles argue over which one of them is the greatest. It is a childish argument but one that is no different from the competitive struggles for survival in today’s work environments. The apostles want to establish some sort of hierarchy within their small but growing organization, but Jesus sees this as inferior thinking.

He recognizes the standard levels of authority in their (and our modern) world—there is a ruler, followed by the average citizens–but then He says they should not follow that system; “‘rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.’”

To Jesus a leader is someone who serves the people instead of one who lords over them. This is how the early leaders of Christianity saw their role in the community. Under the constant threat of death, most leaders would go into panic mode. They would bark orders and rule with an iron fist, so to speak, to keep people in line, but a leader who “serves” acts differently.

In I Corinthians, Paul describes himself and the other apostles as beaten, homeless, and reviled. “We are weak, but you are strong.”

He is weak, but all of the people who follow him are strong?

How often have you heard your boss say that you are the strong one? How often have you heard your boss say that you are doing far better work than he ever could? That is how a leader “serves” others. Jesus tries to show the apostles that a good leader serves his followers just as a good parent would always lift up his family.

Imagine how different our communities would be if all leaders followed this style of leadership. Perhaps a focus on serving does not erase all of the stress in an organization, but it keeps the community (or the company, or the team, or the project, etc.) together. Christianity survived, and that is at least secondary evidence that the Jesus style of servant-leadership works.

Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

Matthew 22:34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

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The end of Chapter 22 follows a long series of questions designed to test Christ and force him in a lose/lose situation. Finally, he is asked which commandment in the law is the greatest. His response, in turn, is a challenge to them. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul and your mind. That kind of love is the deepest kind of love imaginable. It is a love with your whole being. We are to love God with all of our emotion and logic and actions. Loving with our whole being means making God central to everything.

The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. We are to love each other as ourselves. I take the word neighbor as everyone, meaning each person known and unknown to me. We are to love all as ourselves. The caution against arrogance and grandiosity is certainly reflected in that commandment. In a strange paradox though, we cannot neglect the full context of that idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Loving our neighbor as ourselves means we are to love our neighbors and ourselves equally.

Loving equally means we cannot love ourselves more than others; nor can we love ourselves less than our neighbors. If we do not love ourselves equally to others, we cannot live fully into ourselves. If we love ourselves less than others, we make ourselves less in God. And living apart from all that God means for you is sin. If we are all truly equally God’s children, we cannot love ourselves less than others. That’s a lesson I fight hard every day to remember.

 

The Guest List

Matthew 22:1-14

22Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’


Today’s Gospel passage ends with Jesus saying, “many are called, but few are chosen.”

I am not one to disagree with any of the red type in my personal Bible, but from what I can tell, the parable of the wedding banquet calls for a different word than “chosen.” It seems that the king in the story invites a number of people to come to his son’s wedding banquet (first a noble guest list, then a guest list full of common people and sinners), but the invitees are the ones actually doing the choosing.

Jesus tries to explain through the story that everyone is called to follow His new way of living, but the reward is not automatic. The people still need to do something in order to receive all of the joy that the wedding banquet offers, and, surprisingly, many of them do not accept the invitation.

Of course, Jesus is telling a story, and stories are not quite the same as real life. It’s easy for the audience to think, “who on earth would turn down an invitation to this wedding banquet?” I mean, it’s the wedding banquet for a prince. Not only will there be food, but it is certain to be the best food. Not only that, but Jesus invites everyone, not just the wealthy, not only the Jews. Who can say no to that?

In real life, however, this spiritual calling is not like a wedding banquet. Following Jesus can bring you joy, but the path requires new thinking.

In the United States, many Christians forget who is on the guestlist. People from all backgrounds and all religions are invited. This should be an equalizer, but Christians tend to put each other back into categories even after they realize that heaven is for everyone. Choosing to live a Christian life ought to mean that you accept everyone as your equal, but many people who call themselves Christian do not adopt this mindset.

Tara and I do our best to follow what we call a “moderate” Christian philosophy, and the way we interpret the word “moderate” is we accept all spiritual views as long as they favor peace and love. The world probably considers this thinking more liberal than moderate, but we also keep away from joining public protests or debating with those who disagree with us. We have no ill feelings toward other faiths because we believe all people are welcome in heaven. What matters is not a person’s religion, race, economic standing, or place of origin–this indiscriminate acceptance is an easy concept, but few people can think this way.

And what happens to those who cannot accept such a diverse guest list? The parable turns violent when people ignore the banquet invitations, and I am not comfortable with this violence. Aren’t there worse crimes to commit than to refuse a party invitation? I can only hope that Jesus uses the violence as a storytelling device to help the audience understand that one’s spiritual path is of vital importance.

Do you want to attain that perfect state of peace referred to as heaven? You must accept the reality that all people are invited. Embrace this sort of diversity and you will find eternal life. If you reject the different people on God’s guest list, then your soul is as good as dead.