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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived
by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
But we do no want you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning
those who have fallen asleep, so that you don't grieve like the rest, who
have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even
so those who have fallen asleep in Jesus will God bring with him.
For this we tell you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who
are left to the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who have
fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with
a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with God's trumpet. The dead
in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, will be
caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.
So we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort one another with
Jesus told his disciples this parable. "The
Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins, who took their lamps, and went
out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.
Those who were foolish, when they took their lamps, took no oil with them,
but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. Now while the
bridegroom delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there
was a cry, 'Behold! The bridegroom is coming! Come out to meet him!' Then
all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the
wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the
wise answered, saying, 'What if there isn't enough for us and you? You
go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' While they went away
to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him
to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins
also came, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us.' But he answered, 'Most
assuredly I tell you, I don't know you.' Watch therefore, for you
don't know the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming."
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
* Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
** The Web link to Pax Christi is provided as a service to our readers.
from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is probably one of the most
spoken about and misunderstood passages in the scriptures. What Paul is
talking about there is what people call ‘the rapture’ -- people being raptured
into heaven when Jesus comes again.
This letter to the Thessalonians was written about the year 50, not very long after Jesus had died, and is the first of all the books of the New Testament.
The people, at that time, the earliest Christians, thought Jesus was returning almost right away. They were looking for Jesus to come back in glory at any moment. But then, as naturally would happen, some people began to die. So they were wondering, “Well, what happens then? They won’t be here when Jesus comes back.”
Remember, the Jewish people had no real understanding of an afterlife, so they thought that those people were being left out.
So Paul was writing to them to reassure them, “Look, don’t worry.” And then he uses terms that we call apocalyptic terms. They are taken from the book of Daniel and some of the other prophets trying to describe something that’s indescribable, the coming of Jesus, the raising of people from the dead and so on. And so he uses those terms about people being lifted up, people being carried with Jesus. But they weren’t literal. He was only trying to reassure them that, somehow, God would bring those who were living and those who were already dead together with Jesus. That’s the main message that he was teaching, that God would bring all of us together in Jesus in the fullness of life.
But then when you get to the gospel today, it’s probably two or maybe even three decades later. And, by this time, the Christians had come to realize Jesus wasn’t about to return right away. It had gone on now for forty or fifty years and Jesus had not returned and they began to understand it could be centuries as it has been.
And so what Matthew was trying to do was to instruct people. He wrote this book in the 80s or maybe the early 90s: How do you live in the in-between times? Jesus died, was executed, raised from the dead, and now lives in glory. How do we live then, on earth, as we wait for the final moment of all history, when indeed Jesus will return to establish, in its fullness, the reign of God.
How do we live in-between? That’s what this last discourse of Matthew is about. It starts today with this parable about the bridesmaids, the wise and the foolish.
Next Sunday, we’ll hear another parable about the people who were given a certain number of talents. Some used them and increased them. And one had one talent and buried it. And then, finally, we hear the parable about the last judgment.
And each of those parables has a very ominous ending.
Today, the bridesmaids who were foolish are told, “I do not even know you.” That’s pretty scary to think Jesus would be saying to us, “I don’t know you.”
The man who buried his talent in the ground is told, “You will be taken away where there will be grinding and gnashing of teeth. Horrible suffering.”
And then of course we know what happens to those who don’t see Jesus in the poor, the thirsty, the suffering, “Depart from me ye cursed.”
And so these are important lessons teaching us how to live now, as we wait for the day when Jesus will return or for the day when any one of us will be called to go to meet God.
Today’s lesson about the wise and foolish bridesmaids is a very important one for us to reflect upon. Probably, it helps us to understand this lesson a bit better if we remind ourselves of what was the custom for weddings at the time of Matthew when this book was written.
The bridegroom would leave his own home, where the marriage was to take place, and go to the home of the bride. There, they would begin to work out the contract and how much dowry there would be and so on. Sometimes, that took a long time before they could come to an agreement. Evidently, that’s what was happening in the story today, and so the whole thing was delayed. The bridesmaids are there at the groom’s home waiting to welcome the wedding party when it arrives. But it doesn’t get there until midnight, and the foolish bridesmaids have no oil and their lamps go out.
So what this lesson is telling us is that in the in-between times - now - when we’re waiting to meet Jesus, either at the moment of our death or final moment of time, we must have wisdom. We must be wise and we must be ready at any moment. Wisdom and readiness is what we need.
And this wisdom that we’re talking about is not just ordinary wisdom, it’s the wisdom of God.
In the book of Proverbs, chapter 8, we read: Yahweh created me first, at the beginning of God’s works. Yahweh formed me from of old, from eternity, even before the earth. The abyss did not exist when I was born. The springs of the sea had not gushed forth. The mountains were still not set in their place, nor the hills when I was born. Before God made the earth or the countryside or the first grains of the world’s dust, I was there. When God made the sea with its limits that it might not overflow, when God laid the foundations of the earth, I was close beside God. The designer of God’s works and I was God’s daily delight.
Wisdom is portrayed as a person, a woman, who is there at the very beginning of creation. It’s the wisdom of God from the very beginning.
And we must be careful and diligent in trying to make sure that we understand that the wisdom of God is not like what we might call ordinary human wisdom. It’s more profound, it’s much more paradoxical.
Maybe, you get the best description of the wisdom of God when Paul writes to the church of Corinth and says, “Look I was sent to proclaim the good news, the message of Jesus, and I have to preach a Christ crucified and I have to tell people that that’s the good news. Someone hung on a cross, tortured, powerless, but who is foolish enough to think that even as he is dying, if he loves and forgives, it can bring about the transformation of those who are putting him to death. Bring about the transformation of our world.”
That’s the message of the cross. And Paul says, “To the Greeks it’s foolishness, to the Jews it’s a scandal, but the foolishness of God is wiser that human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger of human strength.”
This is what God’s wisdom might seem to us to be foolishness. Love you enemy -- don’t just love those who love you, love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you. Who really believes that? Well Jesus did and he acted on it. He really meant love your enemy. Be the first to reach out in forgiveness.
Jesus taught us other things that seem foolish. Blessed are the poor? Who really believes that? Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the gentle and the merciful and those who hunger and thirst for justice. They’re the ones who are blessed. Blessed are the peacemakers. This is God’s wisdom and probably, if we search within our hearts, we’ll have a hard time convincing ourselves that we really accept all of that. Because it does seem foolish and it takes a great leap of faith for us to understand that the foolishness of God is wiser that human wisdom.
I think there was an extraordinary example of how we, as a people, our nation, our government, this past week, did something that most people would think was wise. And that is when we destroyed those five people in Yemen who were traveling in a car and we attacked them with a predator missile from outside the country. They had no idea that they were under attack and, suddenly, they’re all incinerated, they’re gone, nothing left but ashes. What a show of technology and power and might our country has that we can do that. And many people probably are proud. What a nation, we can do this kind of thing. We can kill people thousands of miles away, kill them without them even knowing that they’re being under attack.
And all of that is in response to what happened a year ago September.
Pope John Paul II, when he reflected on that in his Peace Day statement of this year, spoke about forgiveness when he spoke about the two pillars upon which real peace would be built, the pillar of justice and the pillar of love, the special kind of love we call forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness, in fact, always involves an apparent short term loss for a real long term gain.”
If you forgive, John Paul even suggests it might seem that you are weak. But he says, “Violence is the exact opposite, opting as it does for a short term gain it involves a real and permanent loss. Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it., It may seem in some ways to diminish us, but in fact it leads us to a fuller and richer humanity.”
And I think that applies very clearly to what happened last week.
We’re not willing to forgive. We’re saying, “No, we have to respond to that violence against us with violence.” And in the short term that seems to work. But in the long term it won’t work. We’ll be under constant threat of attack. Our leaders even tell us that. The head of the CIA tells us that we’re in as much danger now as we were on September 10, 2001. There could be an attack against us at any time, at any place, any kind of attack.
But we haven’t resolved anything.
Whereas, if we had begun to reach out in forgiveness and tried to understand what’s going on and tried, in fact, in this case, if we can destroy them outside the country, we could have found a way to arrest them and put them on trial. And if they’re guilty, imprison them. That’s how justice could be done. Instead, we resort to violence which seems so effective, but in the long term destroys our humanness and never makes us safe.
The same thing could be said now about the attack we’re about to take against Iraq. And it seems more and more certain. We’re deploying troops. Up to 250,000 are on their way. “We’re going to attack very quickly,” our president says, “We’re going to bomb and then invade.”
What if, instead of that, as a nation we took leadership in the world and said, “No nation should have weapons of mass destruction.” We should sit down with the people of Iraq, but also with the people from China and North Korea and England and France and Russia and all of us agree that we will abolish these weapons from the earth.
If we began to live up to what we agreed to 35 years ago in the non-proliferation treaty, we would be eliminating our own nuclear weapons. We would be making the whole world a safer place. But instead of that, we build up hatred and prepare ourselves to do violence through war. It will never bring peace. War can never bring peace. But the way of Jesus could. If only we really believed that.
That’s what I’m asking us to do today. Search in your heart. Try to discover, “Do you really believe that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, that the way of Jesus, forgiveness and love, could transform this world?” Or do we have to keep on using violence and killing and hatred.
I think that the answer probably is very clear of what we should be doing. But the question is: Do we have the courage and the faith to respond to what Jesus asks of us?
Matthew is telling us in today’s parable that those who refuse to be wise and to follow the way of Jesus can hear that terrible, “I don’t know you.” Rather, but if we follow the way of Jesus, Jesus is always ready to welcome us. “I know you and I call you to be with me forever.”
In our first lesson today, the author of the book of Wisdom reminds us, “Wisdom is luminous. She willingly lets herself be seen by those who love her, known by those who look for her. She hastens to meet those who long for her.”
Perhaps if we began to look for wisdom, to long for wisdom, the wisdom of God which may see foolish, if we really looked for it and longed for it, we would receive this gift from God and in these in-between times, as we wait for Jesus to come, we could make ourselves ready through practicing the wisdom of God.
We don’t know when that moment will be. All we know is that today is one day closer that yesterday. But the moment will come and we must be wise. So search for wisdom, look for it, pray for it and God will grant it. And then we can act according to the way of Jesus and change our world and change the hearts of each one of us.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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