“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’” (Matthew 25:10-12)
“Judgment in our time may well be the despised doctrine,” writes Klyne Snodgrass, professor of New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and author of a recent magnum opus on interpreting the parables, entitled Stories with Intent (p. 491). All you have to do is read recent non-evangelical feminist and liberationist parable exposition to find examples. Vicky Balabanski, in an essay entitled, “Opening the Closed Door: A Feminist Rereading of the ‘Wise and Foolish Virgins’ (Mt. 25.1-13),” in The Lost Coin: Parables of Women, Work and Wisdom, edited by Mary Ann Beavis, objects to the ending of the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Imagine, half of these naïve young women excluded from the wedding reception for something as innocent as not accurately estimating the amount of oil they needed to have for their lamps for the evening. Exactly what one would expect from the heavy-handed patriarchal God of Jews and Christians. Balabanski insists that we shout back that we do not know such a God. For the Bible to be truly liberating, especially for women, the story must be rewritten so that the foolish bridesmaids are forgiven and welcomed in to the party!
You can imagine what critics from this perspective do to other parables that actually have harsher metaphors for final judgment than just a shut door, such as weeping and gnashing of teeth. Snodgrass is right. In an age of demanding one’s rights, of entitlement, of self-actualization, and even at times of religion that calls itself Christian but centers on me-first rather than others-first attitudes, the idea that God would ever finally exclude someone from his blessings is anathema. Hyper-Reformed formulations and/or misunderstandings of the biblical doctrine of predestination can exacerbate the situation more.
But here is a telling quotation from Ulrich Luz, liberal German commentator on Matthew, leader of many interfaith ventures and hardly a spokesman for soteriological restrictivism. After acknowledging that he longs for God’s love to have the final word in this parable (as we all should if we have tender hearts), he adds, “However, there is also the question whether a story of God’s pure love [such as the ending Balabanski demands] would not cause people to depend on the love in their own calculations and thus not take the holy God seriously. That is indeed what the foolish women have done.” To go a step further, if no beliefs or behaviors can ever damn a person, then there really is no finally compelling reason to pay any attention to God at all.
The wording Jesus has the bridegroom use in this story is telling. He insists he does not know the late-arriving bridesmaids. At the level of a wedding party, this makes no sense. The young couple deliberately chooses attendants who are close family members or friends. At the spiritual level, however, the reply makes perfect sense. These are not naïve young women innocently making a miscalculation; they are those who have claimed to be God’s people without really knowing God. One is reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to those who masqueraded as his followers, even as church leaders: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
It may not be biblical to say, “God helps those who help themselves,” but it does seem to be fair to Scripture to say, “God excludes those who exclude themselves.” Anyone who shouts in God’s face that they will not know him unless he abandons all forms of final judgment should be recoiling in terror of what they are creating for themselves on Judgment Day. Conversely, with Daniel Castelo in the Journal for the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (2008: 160), “Fearing God is the only viable theological modus operandi, the only adequate ‘foundation’ that suggests conditionedness, tentativeness, and a terrorizing yet joyful disposition to refuse ‘control’. In this respect, theologians would be wise to follow the example of the two Marys, who unlike the guards, were able to leave the tomb with “fear and great joy” (Matt 28:8), and in doing so, they came face to face with Jesus himself along the way.”
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
I had read the verse countless times. Probably due to messages I had heard, my attention was always drawn to the first half. Timothy was comparatively young and inexperienced in ministry, but that was no reason for others not to respect him or for him to be afraid even when others didn’t. But I hadn’t reflected on the second half of the verse nearly as much—not nearly enough.
How do Christian leaders follow God’s leading and call in difficult situations where fundamental biblical principles are being violated by others, whether doctrinal or ethical? How do they stand the best chance of succeeding when others are self-centered, demanding their own way, cantankerous, divisive, misled, jealous or troublemaking? Paul gathers together three key terms here that most people don’t naturally think of as belonging with each other. Any one of them by itself is usually not enough. Two of them together are much better. But all three are necessary for a full-orbed personality of godly leadership.
My father was the best teacher I ever had of any subject at any level of my schooling. He was a lifelong Spanish teacher, with most of his career spent in the public high school in Rock Island, Illinois. I had him for third- and fourth-year Spanish in the early seventies. He modeled all three of these character traits, most of the time, in a very excellent blend. The same was true of him as a parent. It took an awful lot to get him mad, either in the classroom or at home, but no one ever doubted that he was in charge or that he cared deeply about his children and his students. His power was balanced by love and normally kept in check by self-control.
But every once in a great while he would “blow.” You didn’t want to be around when he got angry. Yet his positions were almost always justified. When he unleashed his invective at someone else, he would often explain to me afterwards, “Sometimes you just have to turn up the volume!” What he meant was that sometimes people needed to see how upset they had made you; it wasn’t good enough just to keep your emotions under wraps. Somehow, carefully choosing his times to “explode,” my father would almost always get what he wanted.
Over the years of my adult life, I have occasionally tried to imitate Dad. For whatever reason, the process has seldom worked as well for me. Maybe it’s because he taught in a secular context and I teach in a Christian context, where people are far less used to seeing leaders get visibly upset. Maybe it’s because we don’t think long and hard about what occasions triggered Jesus’ and the apostles’ anger. (Answer: when legalistic insiders to the faith made a sham of their religion and deserved rebuke; the evangelical world, in contrast, tends to kowtow to such people and reserves its rage for non-Christians when they discover them acting like non-Christians!)
Maybe there’s a third reason as well. I have known leaders, with whom I’ve worked closely over a prolonged period of time, who just never get visibly mad. There is no question they are in a position of authority and know how to exercise it, but their self-discipline is so honed that even when they have to mete out unpleasant consequences to persistently intransigent people defying the policies of the institution, they do so calmly, exercising self-restraint. And meting out such consequences is always a very last resort; meanwhile, they consistently look for “win-win” situations when people under them are ensnared in division or simply can’t agree with their own views. I can’t confirm that these people have never gotten visibly angry in their entire Christian lives; if that were true they’d have done better than both Paul and Jesus! It’s just that it’s so rare that I’ve never seen or heard about it.
The older I get, the more I aspire to that model. I still blow it, more often than I care to admit, but not as often as I used to, so I think I’ve made some progress—power balanced by love and both held in check, with proper boundaries, by self-control. Why hadn’t I noticed that earlier in 2 Timothy 1:7?
Today's Americans may be the worst prepared people in the history of the world for suffering. Are American Christians any better prepared than their non-Christian counterparts?
My professional counselor friends have often told me this is the area their clients are least equipped to deal with, irrespective of their religious affiliation.
At an international evangelical consultation on contextualizing the gospel this summer in Oxford, the Asian representatives agreed that one of the biggest theological differences between Asian and American Christianity was that Asians assumed suffering was a normal part of life, especially if you were a believer, whereas Americans were always trying to avoid it or end it. One Chinese theologian explained, "The typical Chinese Christian, when suffering, asks, "How may I acquit myself in a God-pleasing way as I suffer?" The typical American Christian asks, "How may I get rid of the suffering?"
When was the last time you heard a public list of Christian prayer requests that included prayers for people to be good witnesses in the midst of their suffering rather than for God to take away everything from terminal cancer to the common cold?
A graduate of Denver Seminary of only a few years ago had some prolonged conversations this summer with me from out of town. A "failed" church plant and the suicide of a family member left him barely believing if there was a God any longer and it certainly sounds as if he's abandoned Christianity. Without denying the immense pain of his experience, I confess seeing an utter theological disconnect here. Imagine Paul saying after his horrific catalogs of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 4, 6 and 11, "So I gave it all up." Instead he describes Christ's direct word of comfort on how God's power is made perfect in weakness and his grace is sufficient for him (2 Cor. 12:9). Apparently, we failed our grad at the Seminary, as did his previous churches and parachurch ministries. Or else he blew us off. Most likely, it was some of each.
The so-called prosperity gospel (a.k.a. "health-wealth," "name it and claim it," etc.) only makes matters worse with its truncated, one-sided message that leaves countless people around the world believing that if a person just has enough faith God will heal them of whatever hurts they currently suffer. Yet, the death rate is still 100%. Sooner or later, there is something every one of us doesn't recover from and it has nothing to do with the amount of our faith or obedience! Billy Graham has had Parkinson's disease for several years. By some people's theology, if anyone should live to 200, it would be he, but he won't.
Second Timothy 3:12 declares explicitly that whoever would live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted. This is more than suffering; this is suffering for one's faith. How many of us are persecuted for our faith and, if not, is it because nobody knows that we have any? There are enemies aplenty, even in the good old USA, even when we are as winsome and tactful as possible, who are ready to blast us for our Christian perspectives. Sadly, a number of them are in evangelical churches. Just check out the blogosphere for examples of both kinds! More out of curiosity than anything else, I replied as kindly and matter-of-factly to a King James Only supporter in the blogworld recently to correct what were almost entirely factual errors in a recent post, and he told me I was of the devil! At least the aggressive atheist bloggers don't say that to me, since they don't believe in God or the devil!
Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Luke 6:28). And both of those commands are clearly predicated on the assumption that we will experience hostility for our faith. Some of us are experiencing that as we share our political convictions, whether "red" or "blue," this fall. And again, winsome as we may try to be in expressing those convictions, the attacks may just as likely come from inside the church as outside. The "culture wars" have made our country a pretty dysfunctional place in which to try to engage in convicted civility in public discourse. And they have made many churches, on both the right and the left, even more tragically, equally if not more dysfunctional.
When we suffer for our faith, let's make sure it's in spite of every best effort to follow 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 in being all things to all people, and not primarily because we are tactless, misinformed, or both. When we suffer in other ways, let's turn back to Paul and let God remind us that when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10). And let's flee (and help others to flee) every hint of anything that calls itself the Christian gospel that denies these precious, central truths of the faith.
Is this easy? Of course, not. I can often be a real wimp when I experience chronic pain. Just ask my wife, who more closely resembles the great martyr-saints! But our sustenance always comes by turning to Jesus, not away from him, and imitating his model of responding to suffering, drawing on his comfort, strength and grace.
“But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-- justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23b).
I hear the comment so often, in one form or another. It boils down to the question: “How can I judge someone else for what I think is their sin, when I commit plenty of sins myself?” There are numerous ways the Christian should respond. One answer is because Jesus told us to do so—see Matthew 18:15-18. A second involves definitions. If by “judge,” someone means being unnecessarily harsh or “judgmental,” then no, I shouldn’t act that way. That was Jesus’ point in Matthew 7:1. But Christ and the apostles regularly “judged” in the sense of analyzing what was right and wrong and declaring what fell into which category.
But in this blog I’m more interested in the issue behind this question which seems to suggest that all sins are somehow equal. One person commits adultery, but probably all of us lust. So how can we criticize the adulterer or engage in church discipline with them? After all doesn’t Jesus equate lust and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount? No, not exactly. He says that both bring us in danger of judgment. Every sin separates us from God, and every sin requires forgiveness. So in the sense that every sin creates a problem that needs to be dealt with, yes one can say that the Bible equates various sins.
But that hardly makes all of them equally bad! I would vastly prefer that my wife harbor inappropriate thoughts about another man but never act on them than that she commit adultery! I would even more prefer that people who dislike me think hateful things about me but not act on them than that they murder me! In terms of the severity of consequences for oneself and for others, especially in this life, there is a huge difference as to how bad different sins are.
And that is no doubt a big part of what Jesus meant when he criticized the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23 for scrupulously tithing, even down to the tiniest garden herb, but neglecting what he calls the “weightier” or “more important” matters of the Law. He immediately adds that they should have done the one without neglecting the other, thereby showing that he is not challenging any of the Law, at least not before his crucifixion, resurrection and sending of the Spirit at Pentecost would fulfill and thereby do away with the need for his followers literally to obey the civil and ceremonial laws of Israel. But even while the whole Law of Moses was still in force, there were issues that were much more important than others. Echoing the language of Micah 6:8, Jesus could sum these up with the terms “justice, mercy, and faithfulness.”
An older fundamentalism often seemed obsessed with railing against inappropriate sex, drink, and drugs. Today some Christians seem to revel in the degree to which they tolerate others who overindulge in any or all of these areas or actually themselves have sexual partners to whom they are not (heterosexually) married, or get drunk or are addicted to non-prescription drugs. But I wonder, have both groups overestimated how “weighty” these matters are compared with the neglect of social justice, concerning which Micah berated Israel?
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.
In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians and James, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions; Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions; Preaching the Parables; Contagious Holines: Jesus' Meals with Sinners; and Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
For more, visit Denver Seminary.