That’s Snooze to Me
copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: November 6, 2011
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
These are two scripture passages that probably do not come up very often in devotional books and bedside Bible reading. I think you’ll agree that they are troubling passages, especially the parable about the ten bridesmaids. What is the deal with this story? The 25th chapter of Matthew starts out with the 5 wise and winning bridesmaids who do not share with the others, and they are held up as models of faith, and then the chapter ends with Jesus’ famous sheep-and-goats speech in which those who fail to share are sent off packing. People seeking easy consistency are never at home in Matthew 25!
Both passages make some passing reference to sleeping, and all references to sleeping in the Bible are fraught with mystery, wonder, and the invasion of the holy into our otherwise plodding lives, as when Jacob slept and in sleeping wrestled with an angel, or when Peter dreamed a disturbing dream which sent him off with good news for the previously despised Gentiles, or when Daniel interpreted the dream of the king.
Our translation of the words from I Thessalonians uses the direct language of our modern everyday conversation: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brother and sisters, about those who have died...” But the Greek words for “those who have died,” literally translated, actually mean, “Those who have fallen asleep.” It strikes us as a sort of gentle, funeral parlor euphemism for death, which puts just a bit of space between us and our unavoidable end. But death is an ultimate sort of thing, from which there is no turning back, no waking up back in Kansas with Auntie Em. And the sleep-visions of the Bible are likewise ultimate sorts of experiences from which there is never any going back. Peter, once committed to bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, found he could not go back. Ananias, informed in a dream to minister to Paul, who up to then had been violently persecuting the church, did as he was told, and the church was never ever the same. Joseph, informed in a dream about the true nature of Mary’s son, married her, and there was no turning back. In each case, things which transpired during sleep suggested the coming of something of tremendous and world-changing significance.
So, it pays to be attentive when we encounter sleeping in the Bible – if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. Stories involving sleep suggest something mysterious, that something to do with the presence of God is going on. So the maidens of Jesus’ parable: When they became drowsy due to the delay of the wedding party, as readers who know our Bibles, we know that when sleep time comes in stories in scripture, the presence of God is very near… so when those maidens are sleepy we should understand their drowsiness as a lively signal that something significant is in the offing! In this case, the very last time anyone expects a party to break out is at midnight. Midnight is when everyone is more likely to be going home, if they are not at home already. Midnight is the unlikeliest of times for the shout of celebration to begin the party.
Similarly, the congregation at Thessalonica, among the first of the new assemblies of faithful people ever to gather around the good news of the resurrection of Christ, could not fathom how some of their friends could already be dead when Jesus had not yet returned. What was to become of them? Paul, in his own wise way, referred to them as sleeping, not in order to deny their deaths, but to heighten the awareness that in sleeping the sleep of death, they were not at the end of the line, but rather, on the cusp of something incredible beyond their – or our – imagining.
Now, many people read the parable of the wise and foolish maidens in Matthew and assume it is about being prepared, a sort of Boy Scout Bible reading. The illustrations of that sort of sermon on the text are legion:
Bill Keene’s Family Circus cartoon a decade or so ago has the little girl walking out the door and saying to her brother, “I’m gonna make a lot of friends right now – before I need them.”
Two old school Quaker elders were traveling once under a religious concern to a small rural meeting. On the way back it began to snow heavily and their carriage became stuck in a snowbank. The two elders finally made it to a farmhouse just as it became dark, and were welcomed for the night. But the house was cold, and their attic room was like an icebox. The older of the elders stripped to his underwear and jumped into a feather bed, pulling the blankets over him. The younger elder, feeling a bit embarrassed said, “Excuse me, Friend, but does not thou think we ought to say our prayers before retiring?” The other elder stuck one eye out from under the covers. “Son,” he said, “I keep prayed up ahead for just such situations as this, and so should thee.”
The well-prepared maidens remind us all of the sort of people who falling in the lake and beginning to drown, cry for help. You throw them a rope, they seize it, and then thank themselves for having been smart enough to have grabbed hold of it. That is like people who are self-congratulatory about their wisdom at having thought to follow Jesus.
The logic of such “Be Prepared” interpretations of that parable usually concludes by saying that we need to ready ourselves for the return of Jesus. But I have to ask, how does one prepare for such a thing? More than that, though, really, it is a bigger question, more like, “How does one adequately prepare for such a thing?” How would we know we were now prepared enough for the return of Jesus? This “Be Prepared” interpretation seems to conclude that the wise maidens, by bringing an extra quart of kerosene to the wedding, had been adequately prepared. But that’s a long leap of logic from saying that we can find some similar measure by which to determine that we are satisfactorily prepared for our airborne meeting with Jesus, to use Paul’s imagery.
In the parable, “notice how Jesus deliberately stands things on their heads. The five supposedly foolish girls, knowing they have been invited to a daytime wedding that will only last until the early evening, reasonably assess their needs … But the other five insist upon dragging along … bottles full of kerosene, just in case. Nothing could be more idiotic: they have complicated their lives by preparing for an utterly unlikely contingency.”
As analogies to dragging extra kerosene to an afternoon wedding, I imagine a child wanting to take 300 pencils to school, in case everybody in school breaks theirs; or a friend invited for dinner who drags along his sleeping bag and a space heater just in case of a freak storm and a power outage; or an overanxious new driver stopping to fill her car up with gas every fifteen or twenty miles, in case there is a leak in the gas tank. It is an image of people who are hell bent on self sufficiency. And the point of the gospel is that self-sufficiency breaks down, along with our need for it, in the presence of the Lord who has come to save us from having to try to save ourselves.
All of these things, the deaths of the saints in Thessalonica, the preparedness or unpreparedness of the maidens going to the party, all these stories make absolutely no sense unless we realize that they involve first the disciples’, and then the church’s recognition that the physical presence of Jesus was no longer going to be available to them, and, more than that, was going to be taken from them for a very long time: And it has been a long time, as we now stand at 2011 years and counting.
These stories remind us that if we were listing the ten worst problems in our church, every one of them is related to the delay of Jesus’ coming again. If people knew for certain that Jesus was coming tomorrow morning, we wouldn’t argue over the color of the church carpet or the size of the parking lot, would we?
A grace which spares us from a judgment which wouldn’t have happened anyway is not grace but just a sentimental sort of divine permissiveness. Either grace or judgment becomes distorted without the other. Jesus didn’t die to save us from a distant possibility that we might not be able to save ourselves. He died because it is a dead certainty, that like a five-year-old who falls into the river, we’re done for already and our only hope is to throw ourselves on the mercy of someone quite beyond our control to snatch us out of our predicament. Today’s parable functions on one level to remind us that our salvation, joy that it is, is quite serious business. Salvation can only be real if it saves us from an alternate, certain fate that is equally real.
But the parable functions on another level as well, on the level of the wedding banquet and the bridegroom’s presence at the party. We are reminded that “what we are watching for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether her wedding-present china has been chipped. He is a funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”
 Genesis 32:24-32
 Acts 10:1-48
 Daniel 2:1-48
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans Press, 1989, p. 161.
 Glenn David Macdonald Morison (United Church of Canada), Hazelton, British Columbia.
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment, Eerdmans Press, 1989, p. 166.