Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-24; Psalm 78:1-7; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.
After God’s great redemptive acts, the faithful live on in the world, challenged to keep the faith and be prepared.
The Lectionary texts for this Sunday share a concern for the continuity of the generations — the present with both past and future. The texts speak to human situations when God is absent, either because God’s work in the past is done, or because it is still ahead.
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-24.
If the farewell speech of Moses (the book of Deuteronomy) does not yet represent the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Jacob (the giving of the land), the farewell speech of Joshua does declare that the promise is fulfilled, and states the consequences for the fortunate people.
Joshua 24 is a great hinge passage. It presents a time of turning, when the mighty acts of promise and deliverance are done and the Israelites are challenged to live from now on by faith in the God of those past redemptive deeds. Joshua makes it a time of radical choice: choose the gods by which you will live (and take the consequences)!
There are three alternatives: the ancient gods of the ancestors (from whom Abraham separated himself), the gods of the natives of the land (keepers of local lore and customs), and the God who brought them out of Egypt and gave them this land (verses 14-15). Joshua then utters his great ancient equivalent to Luther's “Here I stand!”: “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (verse 15, NRSV).
At this point, God's works of redemption are done. The Israelites have only to live faithfully to this God in order to dwell securely as the heirs of the divine promise to Abraham and Jacob. The people avow emphatically that they will so live. “…we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. …The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (verses 18 and 24).
An impressive avowal!
However, we know that following Joshua there is a book of Judges. We know that the original story of Israel came to have sequels, stories of failure, judgment, and entangling involvements with the power structures of the world. We know that the Torah and Joshua were followed by all the later prophets.
The Psalm reading is the introduction to a long psalm of historical review, looking back at past generations. This introduction is explicitly directed to the succession of the generations, affirming a divine ordinance that the past deeds of God be transmitted to each new generation (verses 5-8). The sage who speaks, representing the current generation, celebrates this tradition process.
The sage also claims to speak in "a parable" and in "dark sayings" about that celebrated past (verse 2). The full body of this long psalm makes clear what it is that is puzzling and "dark" in Israel's history with God — the inexplicable and irrational rebelliousness of the Israelites after God had done his mighty deeds.
This psalm, more effectively than any other, dwells on the mixture of mighty deeds of deliverance by God with rebellious responses by Israel. This radical alternation of grace and rebellion is a puzzle and a dark saying. It is the kind of ominous wisdom it is urgent to make known to future generations!
I Thessalonians 4:13-18.
After celebrating the faith and perseverance of his fledgling assembly of God’s people in Thessalonica (chapters 1-3 of the letter), Paul turns, in our reading, to their concern about members of their generation who have died (using the euphemism “fallen asleep”).
The people of this church expect the mighty coming of the Lord in glory almost immediately, an expectation apparently shared by Paul at the time. But some family members and close friends have died before the end has arrived, and the present members do not want to be separated in the glorious future from their loved ones.
Paul assures them that Jesus’ triumph over death means that the “dead in Christ” will be united with him in his glorious coming, even before the living believers. Paul, by “the word of the Lord,” gives details of the amazing events that will mark that end time — more details than the occasion seems to require.
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (verses 16-17, NRSV).
The details of this passage have contributed much to Christian eschatology — belief about the end times. It eventually provided one of the keys to the “Rapture” that dispensationalist Protestants have fantasized about so widely in the last hundred and fifty years.
In the letters that have survived, Paul does not often go into such details about the end things, though II Thessalonians 2 and I Corinthians 15 are impressive highlights alongside our passage. In general, his expectation that the end would come before his own death seems to evolve toward his view of life in the Spirit, in which also death is overcome (as in Romans 8:18-39; see also Philippians 1:20-24).
In any case, for Paul life in Christ gives the assurance of communion among believers that transcends the generations!
The Gospel reading is a parable from Matthew’s impressive supplements to Jesus’ discourse about the last things.
Following Mark, Matthew has Jesus deliver a long private address about the last things while he and the disciples sit on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Jerusalem temple (Matthew 24, following Mark 13). In Matthew only, this “little apocalypse” is followed by three long parables about the waiting time before the final judgment. These parables make up chapter 25, and will be the Gospel readings for the last three Sundays before Advent.
In the parable for this Sunday, the foolish and wise bridesmaids (“virgins” in older English versions) are charged with the responsibility of welcoming the bridegroom at his return with the new bride. The parable is about how these maidens spend their waiting time, the time when the bridegroom is still absent. As the night wears on they fall asleep. However, when the alarm is sounded, the wise maidens are prepared. They have reserve oil in flasks separate from the lamps they all carry. The foolish maidens have no reserve oil and their lights go out. They are excluded from the wedding banquet.
The “wise” maidens here are not sophai, wise women in a religious sense. They are phronimoi, prudent, practically-wise persons. What makes them wise here is that they do not count on the bridegroom’s return in a short time. They allow for a much longer wait than do the “foolish” servants. The joy of the bridegroom’s coming is certain – but it may be further off than thoughtless people recognize. The wisdom of these bridesmaids is their preparation for their service to extend over the long haul.
(The “foolish” bridesmaids are like the seeds that fall on shallow soil in the parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21 – they receive the word joyfully but have no depth and fall away before the harvest comes.)
At the coming of the “bridegroom,” a new age begins for those who have had foresight to prepare for the contingencies and uncertainties of its coming.