The Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1–13)
From Celebrations, November 2002: “This parable is clear and simple. The time for choosing Jesus is now; therefore, the time for preparedness is now; the time for ‘packing’ whatever faith, grace, repentance, conversion of heart, good works, and loving responsiveness to God . . . is now. This parable is “not about mercy but about being decisive and prepared. God’s gift is offered, but we must take hold of it, do something with it. Even the message of unconditional love does not override our free choice to ignore God’s intentions for us. Real foolishness is possible . . .” This is not a parable about caring and sharing. It’s a parable about responsibility; about doing our job of being a Christian . . . no one else can do our job for us.
What does the ‘oil” represent? William Barclay says that “the oil signifies
1) a relationship with God; a person cannot borrow such a relationship, he/she must cultivate it himself/herself;
2) character, a person cannot borrow character . . .
3) Others simply say that the oil represents the wisdom and preparedness necessary for recognizing and welcoming the coming Christ . . .” We must be ready “to love the ways and will of God,” (The Gospel of Matthew, Vol II, 320, and Celebration, Nov. 2005)
From Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew:
This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel although there are ‘hints’ of it in Luke 13:25. It certainly reflects the community’s struggle over Jesus’ delay in not returning in ‘glory’. Matthew does not want the delay to be the cause of the people not truly living their faith in the here and now. “When Jesus calls on his disciples to keep watch, he is calling on them to take the reality of God so seriously that they can come to terms with its sudden appearance at any moment in their own lives . . . (467).”
Some points made by Pheme Perkins in Hearing the Parables of Jesus (104-110):
- It may be tempting to separate ourselves into the wise and the foolish. Note that the wise don’t resolve the situation or make a big effort to fix it. The foolish are simply caught in their habitual type of behavior.
- The foolish servants do not have any idea of what their real situation is. They persist in showing their attempts to bail themselves out at the last minute. Those attempts fail because it really is the last minute. (And see how Jesus uses humor to portray the wrong way to go about things as opposed to “wailing and gnashing of teeth”.)
- The foolish are excluded due to their own decisions and actions. They fall back on their old patterns. They might have done better to wait outside until morning rather than call attention to themselves by their banging on the door. Reflect on this situation: What if they didn’t go get the oil and waited without lit lamps? Would they have gone to the feast despite their “darkness”? Perhaps Jesus is calling us to be ready for relationship, not necessarily for perfection.
- We all know good, responsible employees who seem to waste vast amounts of emotional energy lamenting the behavior of others who are not performing their job as they should. The parable does not suggest that we should always bail such people out. It suggests that maybe we should voice ways to them of shouldering their own responsibility.
The Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20: 1 – 16)
This parable (again, unique to Matthew) is another illustration of the surprising and unsurpassing goodness of God and His kingdom. It was probably quite a challenge to Matthew’s community, whom no doubt struggled to understand the place of Gentiles in their community – and God’s kingdom. This was a highly Jewish group of people who were being stretched to accept and welcome ‘the late-comers’, the Gentiles. The ‘same wage’ is extended to all. Of course, it is not about wages at all, but about salvation. No one can get ‘more salvation’ than another. Can there really be ‘higher places’ in heaven, if it is really heaven (There are many dwelling places…)? All who work in God’s vineyard, God’s kingdom, get the same wage: fullness of life with God for all eternity – incredible generosity = truly Good News! (“Working with the Word”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
In Jesus’ culture, workers had to be invited to work; they could not apply or go looking for work. That was seen as dishonorable since you might be taking what belongs to someone else. To have a ‘patron’ was a particularly great blessing. A patron is someone who freely chooses to treat other people (always of a lower class) ‘as if’ they were family members. This is how God acts in this parable.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
It is important also to notice that the owner calls the ‘complaining worker’ at the end a friend, even though the worker never even addressed the owner with a customary title of respect. Discipleship is serious business; we need God’s insight and grace. Justice is only possible through love. This parable is a clear call to conversion for all of us. There is only one God, and we are not it! There is a place for us in God’s kingdom, but it is not on God’s throne! Our conversion is about seeing anew, considering a new world view. God is kind and faithful, but also surprising. We must stay alert and in relationship with our loving Lord if we do not want to miss what God is doing. Prayer and Scripture are ways for us to do just that. (Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 516-519)
Some questions to reflect upon…
What would be a modern example of the Ten Virgins? The Laborers? Why do you think Matthew’s community is so concerned about being prepared? Both parables seem to play at odds with one another…what are the underlying truths?
The Sower (Matthew 13: 1–9, 18–23 but also found in Mark 4: 3-9 and Luke 8: 5-8)
“We come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures.” Wendell Barry
- HISTORICAL: Consider other scripture passages and compare: Isaiah 55: 10-11, 1 Corinthians 3: 6-9, Sirach 6: 18-21.
In Palestine, the field is unplowed, people have trod a path or paths through it, here and there rocky ground or limestone rises through, and thorns and stubble have been growing out of it. The farmer broadcasts the seed atop the earth before he plows it under. Planting proceeds plowing. That’s why seed sprays on pathways, rocky ground, among thorns and on good earth, (Fichtner, Many Things in Parables, p. 15)
Considering the audience of this story, these early Christians were a persecuted people. The oppression they experience and the cares of the world are not to be allowed to dampen their faith, (Perkins, Hearing the Parables of Jesus, p. 81).
- LITERARY: This is more an allegory than a parable, since it has more than one point of comparison, (Fichtner, p. 15).
- AESTHETICALLY: There will be severe problems: frustrated starts, failures, smothering opposition and trials galore. Yet, despite all the obstacles met in sowing the seed on various kinds of soil, the farmer’s work will succeed,” (O’Collins, Following the Way, p. 88). The emphasis on our response to that seems to be the point of the parable. It is the SEED that has to deal with what it is given, not the sower. Consider this quote from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” What kind of seed are you? Perhaps circumstances have changed you as a seed over time? What are other influences in your seed life? Do the various soils bring other examples of people (seeds) to mind?
The Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13: 24 – 30)
- HISTORICAL: The weeds, or tares, were known as bearded darnel. When it is sprouting, it looks very much like wheat. It does not look different until it is at a more advanced stage. At that point, it is too late to pull it out because the roots have intertwined with each other. A grain of darnel was slightly poisonous, caused dizziness and sickness and was bitter in taste. Because of all the problems with the darnel, it was against Roman law to sow it with wheat, (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 72-74). The landowner knows the wheat will tolerate the weeds and so he is willing to be patient; but this is not to be underestimated. Everyone would be able to see that he had weeds in his field. What shame! BUT, the landowner would have the last laugh. Not only would the wheat still be collected, but also the weeds would be burned as fuel. In a sense, the weeds would be put to good use too. There is no retaliation toward the enemy in this story. There is only satisfaction in the goodness that resulted from the situation (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A, p. 113).
- LITERARY: There is an irony in this story that makes the listener pay closer attention. It is unexpected that the landowner would allow the weeds.
- There will always be weeds. Evil exists and so we must stay alert.
- It is hard to know who the weeds are and who the wheat is. It is easy for us to judge first and ask questions later.
- God judges people on their whole life, not an individual act. Leave the judging to God.
- Judgment will come for all of us in the end.
- Let God be God, (Barclay, p. 73-75).
On this earth, there is good and evil. Both are present among all people and within all people. Wheat and weeds grow together. There is a sense of hope in this. Richard Rohr says, “If we have to eliminate the weeds before we can love the field, you know what? You’ll never love anything!” Although we have sin, all are welcome to be part of the kingdom that is God. It is not a select group of ideal people that are called. It Is up to us to see God’s grace in our lives and know God means for us to choose the good. Just like the landowner, we must be patient with each other and ourselves.
Some questions to reflect upon…
What do you like about the directness and common touch of Jesus’ preaching?
Is there any connection to be drawn between the gran that grows in abundance and Jesus himself as ‘the bread of life’?
Why does evil have to exist even when we fight against it? (It is a truth in life. There will always be evil. But it will never have the final answer.)
Considering the wheat and the tares, what did the slaves do when they discovered the weeds? When they got their answer from the landowner, they still may not have understood the answer but allowed the mystery. (Perhaps the kingdom of heaven will be like that…a final knowing.) And note, what do the slaves say about how well the wheat is growing? We are always quick to see what is going wrong…
Thank you for this time together.
We gather so we may learn from you,
so that we may practice what you teach.
Help us to hear your words, and hear each other.
Lead us to put your words into action. AMEN
How do we approach a parable?
- HISTORICALLY: What is behind a parable? How does it fit into the teaching of Jesus and later into the teaching of the early church?
- LITERARY: How is the story put together? Where does it focus our attention? How does it compare to other stories in Jesus’ time?
- AESTHETICALLY: How do we respond to it personally? Does it evoke conversion in me?
The Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 37)
- The lawyer: In the Mediterranean world questions are rarely perceived as requests for information. The hope is that the person who is asked a question will not know the answer and be shamed by ignorance. Jesus responds in a consistent way-insulting his questioner!
- The victim: Since the man is stripped and left half-dead, his ethnicity cannot be identified. Helping him carries a risk.
- The priest: If the victim is dead or non-Judean, the priest would be defiled by touching him and have to return to Jerusalem for purification (Leviticus 21:1-3).
- The Levite: He may have seen the priest’s reaction and so didn’t want to insult by stopping. And Sirach 50: 25-26 calls Samaritans degenerates, so perhaps he thinks he’s doing what he’s supposed to do.
- The Samaritan: Generations of hatred have been built between the Jews and Samaritans. He is an unlikely character for the story, for the lawyer would have thought the choices would be priest, Levite or Judean lay person. What do I do with a hated enemy? The Samaritan takes great risk that the victim may hate him upon wakening; the oil and wine he uses may be considered unclean. Or if the victim dies, his family may come looking for him (Pilch, The Cultural World of Jesus, p. 109-111).
- Consider Luke’s audience too. This is a Christian community that has people from lots of different backgrounds. They may have lots of questions about who a neighbor is too.
The story is designed to provoke anxiety over whether or not the man will be rescued. But the long-standing hostility between the two groups might still make it difficult to imagine being aided by a Samaritan. The reversal in this story’s plot really takes place because of that identification with the victim. It leaves us with many questions, (Perkins, Hearing the Parables of Jesus, p. 120).
Luke’s writing often features doublets, two passages that match each other and clarify each other. See verse 28 and 37. Both are versions of, “Go and do likewise,” (O’Collins, Following the Way, p. 118). They highlight that Jesus wants us to hear what he says and then do it.
Personal cost and personal risk belong right in the story Jesus told. The good Samaritan’s kindness cost him some oil, wine, clothing and money – as well as the loss of time caused by the unforeseen break in his journey. The bandits could still be around too, so there is the possibility of danger (p.119). It begs us to consider at what cost are we willing to help? Are we willing to break down divisions to help our neighbor too?
Who is Jesus in this story? He is hospitable like the innkeeper, saving others at all costs like the Samaritan and a victim in how he was left to die on a cross (p. 121).
Israel has been anticipating a messiah. In fact, favor and expectation were at a fever pitch around the time of Christ. Due to the political and economic difficulties of the times, the messiah became an expectation of their own fashioning. The awaited messiah had been reduced to hopes for a victorious warrior who would crush their enemies. Luke’s Jesus shattered this illusion. Jesus was not that kind of messiah. Destruction of Israel’s enemies was not part of Jesus’ plan. In listening to this parable, hearers are forced to ask: If the old structures are no longer adequate, then, who is in and who is out? Who is first in God’s reign? Who is my neighbor? All are equal before the eyes of God. All are deserving of the same love that God gives to all people (Birmingham, Word & Worship-Cycle C, p. 424).
Some questions to reflect upon…
Is this a criticism against the clerical?
What do you think the victim did when he got well enough to realize what had happened? Did he leave and go on his way to Jericho? Did he wait until the Samaritan returned in order to thank him? What did he tell his friends? Did the incident have any effect on his views of Samaritans later?
What can be said of the innkeeper? He trusts the Samaritan and follows his request despite being a hated outsider
What Good Samaritan stories do you have to share?
To love you is our destiny and life itself.
Open our hearts to all who need our concern and help.
Help us to minister to those who do not belong to ‘our’ group,
And make us always compassionate
to the wounded and suffering. AMEN
1st Reading; Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Ezekiel is among the first people of Israel that the Babylonians take captive in 597 B.C. He is well known for his insistence upon individual responsibility for sin. Children are not responsible for what the previous generation did. We are free to turn from wickedness to good at any time; we will then be judged by the new life that we have begun. (Sunday by Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005, vol. 14, #54; “Scripture in Depth” http://liturgy.slu.edu)
Ezekiel speaks of metanoia, from the Greek meaning a change of mind. Even the term, “turning away” gives the feeling of a physical change of direction. This is not only about our sinful ways. Believing in God is life-changing. It is “an interior transformation that comes about when God’s Spirit breaks into our lives with the Good News that God loves us unconditionally,” (Catholic Update on The Sacrament of Reconciliation, 1986). What is our response to this unconditional love?
2nd Reading: Philippians 2: 1-11
William Barclay makes this important point: Paul is never just interested in intellectual speculation and/or theological guess work. To Paul theology and action are always bound together. Any system of thought must necessarily become a way of life. The purpose of these thoughts on Jesus’ humanity and divinity was to persuade the Philippians to live a life in which disunity, discord, and arrogance had no place. Jesus did not desire to dominate people, but to serve them. So we as followers must have the same desire. And, in the end, the humble service that Christ lived won for him greater glory, even if the glory was not the goal. Jesus gains our hearts not by blasting us with power, but by showing us an irresistible, faithful love. (William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 37-39)
“Emptied himself” suggests humility. Humility was a big part of what St. Teresa of Avila wrote about in her Interior Castle. She says, “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble,” (p. 38). She goes on to say, “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good,” (p. 51). Hope connects with love!
The Gospel: Matthew 21: 28 – 32
Parables can shock us as they can lay bare the truth with great simplicity. We cannot really argue with a parable; we must either accept it or reject it. It is a challenge, but it is also an invitation. Mary Birmingham says that “Living in the reign of God demands that I acknowledge my sinfulness, my reluctance to serve God, and forge ahead anyway.” (M. Birmingham, W&W, Yr.A, 525, 527)
In Jesus’ culture the son who answered yes to his father even though he did not go to work would have been considered the honorable son. His reply was respectful; it was what the father wanted to hear. Obedience was important, but the honorable appearance was more important. Notice: Jesus did not ask which son behaved honorably. He asked: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus’ own honor is being questioned by the chief priests and elders. But Jesus rubs salt into their wounds with this very counter-cultural parable and its challenge. They recognize this challenge: 1) Jesus is making them family with harlots and tax collectors (sons of the same Father) and 2) the chief priests and elders are the ones who may behave honorably, but they are not the ones who are always seeking to do the will of their Father. They care more about appearing to be honorable than about truly being about the good that God wants.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context,” http://liturgy.slu.edu)
Sometimes we can love humanity with great conviction, but find it extraordinarily difficult to love people in particular. For most of us, God is not the problem. The problem is those humans that God created, especially the creeps who don’t seem to deserve to take up our time and patience. When people draw near, they bring trouble. Yet, as Paul was emphasizing in his passage, it is our very relationships to each other that embody our relationship to God. Paul says we will only find joy and peace when we die to ourselves: an unwelcome prospect. Too often we want love, but not its cost. Love is more than logic and practical advice. It is a risk of the ego, an emptying of the self, a desire to serve rather than be served. This is at the heart of the Good News: first, God loved us with utter graciousness; second, we are called to love others with this graciousness. We jabber of love, but the living of it is a great shaking down of our pretense. Love in dreams can be easy; the reality of it can be a dreadful assault . . . (“The Word Embodied”, http://liturgy.slu.edu)
1st Reading – Isaiah 55: 10-11
In this ‘biblical world’ rain is precious. The total rainfall averages 20-24 inches (Mobile, Alabama, gets about 65 inches.) Certainly then rain was eagerly awaited as a vitally necessary commodity. It was seen as a ‘gift of God.’ Isaiah saw the idea of rain as a far greater reality, as an image of the loving, creative, redeeming Word of God whose utterances could transform even the most hardened heart. The rain of grace could soften and bring life. (Celebration, July 14, 2002) We must be open to receive this grace so that it can transform our life. How do you know and feel this to be true in your life?
Thomas Merton had no religion growing up. His father was an artist that travelled extensively, although a spiritual man. His mother was a Quaker who died when he was still little. He lived for himself, had fun…yet little nudgings from God would occur in him. He finally made a decision to go to a Catholic church, he began spiritual reading, spoke to Catholics about their faith and before you know it-he wanted to be baptized into the faith. It was only a couple years after that he wanted to become a priest. In his book, The Seven Storey Mountain, he speaks of the peace that came over him as he got to know the Lord. This is ‘giving seed to the one who sows’. Not that we should all become priests, but what is it that God is planting in YOU?
2nd Reading – Romans 8: 18-23
Paul is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die’ kind of guy. On the contrary, Paul regarded the struggles of Christian living as productive, necessary and inherent part of the process whereby we are saved and even all creation is transformed. We are a part of the struggle, but we are also people of hope who live with a joy-filled anticipation of the fullness of life to come. Even in the world of nature we see transformation and struggle as part of the whole process: Butterflies strain to use their new wings as they emerge from their tomb-like cocoons. Salmon swim incredibly long distances in order to spawn and bring forth life. Seeds must crack open and trust the ‘earth-grave’ around them to sprout forth with growth. (Celebration, July 14, 2002) Brene Brown says hope is a function of struggle.
“Hope is realistic…Hope simply does its thing, like that spider in the corner of my bookshelf. She will make a new web again and again, as often as my feather duster swooshes it away – without self-pity, without self-congratulations, without expectations, without fear…On my level the stakes are higher. But I bow to that spider,” said by Brother David Steindl-Rast. To learn a little more about this hope and being open to the unimaginable, watch this 6 minute clip of him: Spirituality for the Future series.
The Gospel – Matthew 13: 1-23
When we hear this parable, we often focus on ourselves as the various types of soil. Are we rocky, hard soil? Are we choked by the weeds of our life? How do we become good soil, receptive to God’s planting and bountiful care? Things to think about . . .
- What if we focus on ourselves as the sower? As the seed?
- Parables are certainly open-ended. They invite us to sit with mystery awhile – to allow time for its secrets and power to penetrate our minds and hearts. Isn’t it true that sometimes we are not sure we have much – or even that there isn’t much there? As Louie Armstrong said once: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell ‘em.” Perhaps, Jesus was trying to say something similar: “To anyone who has, more will be given . . . from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Exploring the Sunday Readings, July, 2011, & Living Liturgy, Year A, 2002, p. 197)
- Imagine! Our God is willing to put up with a 75% failure rate! This parable certainly asserts that the kingdom will not be found by those who are afraid to waste – to ‘waste’ their time, energy, and love. God’s reign is fostered not by carefulness but by openhandedness – not by scrupulously measuring but by generously giving – not by the small gesture of micro-management but by large motion which allows seed to fly from our hands and to land where it will. If we give freely and love generously, a lot of our effort will be wasted. But the few things that do work will more than compensate for our losses. The harvest is worth the waste! God assures us. Jesus promises us that the growing seed will produce a harvest of 30, 60, and a 100 fold. (Living w/ Christ, 7/11, p. 4-5)