Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 6:12-16; Ps. 63: 2-3; I Thes. 4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13.
Last Thursday, Juan Gonzalez of “Democracy Now” provided the best post-election analysis of voting trends that I’ve heard. It sharply departed from the conventional wisdom that, he said, routinely wonders about the “under performance” of black and brown voters in the just-completed general election.
Instead, Gonzalez pointed out that African American, Latinx, Chicanx, and even Native American voters stepped up in an unprecedented way with more of them voting than ever – and most of them, of course, casting their ballots for the Biden-Harris ticket.
True, he said, there was a 2% increase in the number of them voting for Donald Trump. But he pointed out, it’s not percentages that win elections, but actual votes cast. Gonzalez asked, “Would you rather have 70% of 12 million votes, or would you rather have 68% of 20 million votes?”
The real surprise, Gonzalez noted, was in the increase of white suburbanites – and especially white suburban women – who voted for Donald Trump. If anything, that was the real “under-performance” calling for further analysis.
Why is it that Republicans are increasingly becoming America’s “White Party” with white women exhibiting decreasing difference in their voting preferences from white men who actually shifted a bit away from Trump? And why do so many Christians continue to support someone like DJT?
Gonzalez answer? There is a surprisingly significant number of Americans – white, black, Latinx, gay, straight, atheist and Christian – who are quite comfortable with Donald Trump’s imperialist message of “America First” global dominance. Whether they’re aware of it or not, they (at least subconsciously) don’t want the sun to set on the declining U.S. empire. So, they respond positively to imperialism’s conventional wisdom of maintaining “full spectrum dominance” over the rest of the world. It’s an American thing divorced from any “identity politics.”
I bring all of that up because today’s readings call attention to the difference between the conventional wisdom that Gonzalez decried and the radical wisdom of Jesus the Christ who had no time for empire or for making Rome or even Israel great again.
To show what I mean, here are my “translations” of the day’s selections related to Jesus’ profound wisdom – with a surprise twist in today’s Gospel parable of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.”
There, the anonymous and conservatively Jewish evangelist called “Matthew” turns the unconventionally wise Jesus into a teacher of the world’s conventional wisdom of taking care of #1. In effect, he transforms Jesus from what we might call a “progressive” (or what I would call an anti-imperialist “radical”) into something like a contemporary Republican. No wonder today’s Christians feel comfortable supporting Donald Trump!
Please read to original texts here to see if I’m exaggerating. The first three readings reflect Jesus’ approach to wisdom. The last one seems to contradict it.
Wisdom 6: 12-16
Goddess-like Wisdom is easily encountered by those who seek her out. In fact, she lovingly looks for us even before we start our search for her. She is nearer to us than our jugular veins. Honoring her is actually the height of informed intelligence. You might say that human beings are naturally wise.
Psalms 63: 3-8
Whether we know it or not, wisdom is our shared quest. It’s more valuable than life itself. Without wisdom our lives are parched, meaningless and deprived. Wisdom’s nourishment brings us gladness and everlasting joy.
I Thessalonians 4: 13-18
But what about those who die before achieving the full enlightenment offered by wisdom’s goddess? Have their lives been wasted? “No,” says St. Paul. Mysteriously, even they will be enlightened by the same cosmologically irresistible powers that were manifested in the person, life and teachings of the master of wisdom, Jesus the Christ. This is no idle fantasy, though the hopeless claim it is.
Matthew 25: 1-13
Even the evangelist called Matthew found Jesus’ unconventional wisdom about sharing to be a bit much. So, in his version of Jesus’ parable about the wise and the foolish bridesmaids,” he turned Jesus into a teacher of a conventional wisdom that the world could more easily endorse. “Take care of yourself first,” he has Jesus teach in his story. “Your selfishness will be rewarded,” Jesus seems to say. ‘Foolish people – especially thoughtless women – will be shut out of God’s kingdom, just as they deserve.”
Let me say a bit more about the parable that tries to domesticate Jesus. It’s about those who embody the characteristics of wisdom described in the first reading – the wise virgins. It is also about those who lack such qualities – the foolish bridesmaids. The wise ones brought enough oil to keep their lamps alight while they waited to escort an unexpectedly delayed bridegroom to his ritual rendezvous with his intended. The foolish ones made no such provision.
Obviously, this is a women-oriented story. And that’s quite fitting for exploring the topic of wisdom traditionally identified as feminine – almost as a goddess. The story is full of wisdom symbols: not only wise and foolish virgins, but wedding feasts and bridegrooms, sleeping and waking, lamps, oil and light, closed and locked doors. All of these are archetypes. Their richness suggests an enlightened storyteller; it suggests someone like Jesus.
And yet there are also elements in today’s gospel that suggest a voice that does not belong to the prophet from Nazareth. For one thing, this is perhaps the only instance in the gospels where women are presented in a negative light. Here I’m thinking of the foolish bridesmaids. Throughout the Gospels, women appear consistently in a positive light. It seems Jesus took care not to reinforce the prejudice against them that so endemic to his deeply patriarchal culture – and to our own.
For another, this parable doesn’t contain any of the reversals or “unconventional wisdom” that we’ve come to associate with Jesus’ teachings and method of story-telling. Parables, you’ll recall, are stories which present a problem meant to engage their audiences. They do so by addressing a real-life concern (often expressed in a question presented by one of Jesus’ opponents). Typically, Jesus’ answer turns the tables on the questioner surprising him with some version of Jesus’ great dictum: “The first will be last and the last first.” Think of the “Good Samaritan” or the “Prodigal Son.” We don’t find any of those kind of surprises in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.
On the contrary, instead of unconventional wisdom and surprising reversals, we find that this story concludes with a highly conventional moral. It’s embodied in the strange refusal of the wise virgins to share their oil with the foolish ones. Again, the lesson seems to be “Be prepared and take care of #1. Let the improvident take care of themselves and reap the consequences of their ‘foolishness’.”
Of course, that runs counter to a theme that earliest Gospel traditions firmly centralize, namely that of sharing even in the face of scarcity. As you recall, that motif appeared in the feeding of the 5000 in Mk. 6:30-44 and in the feeding of the 4000 in 8:1-10. Both instances embodied a “miracle enough” made possible because Jesus inspired people to overcome selfishness and share the little they had. The surprise was that in sharing scarce resources (five loaves and two fishes) there was more than enough for all.
The bottom line here is that Matthew seems to have domesticated Jesus – as I said, making him very Republican-like.
Last week in OpEdNews, RJ Piers wrote an extremely insightful article called “Letting Go of Christianity During the Trump Era.” There the author recalled years of commitment to a Christian faith that required faithful observance of conventional morality centered around avoidance of drinking, drugs and premarital sex.
In the light of his abstinence, the author found it more than disappointing to see Christians rallying around a character like Donald Trump with his three marriages, assaults on unsuspecting women, and separations of children and babies from their mothers and fathers. For Piers (as for so many of us), Christian faith was all about conventional morality. And to see Christians deserting that morality to endorse someone like Trump was enough to suggest his own abandonment of Christian faith itself.
Personally, I found the argument intriguing.
However, even a casual reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus was not about such conventional expectations. His focus wasn’t drinking, drugs, or premarital sex. On the contrary, he transgressed community moral standards at every turn. He repeatedly broke the sacred Sabbath law, forgave a woman caught in flagrante with an anonymous man, was accused of being a drunkard and friend of prostitutes, intermingled with despised foreigners, heretics, and n’er do wells. He finished his own life completely disgraced on death row, a victim of torture and of a form of capital punishment specifically reserved for enemies of Roman imperialism.
Remembering all of that is important not only for helping us see how churches have followed Matthew’s lead in domesticating Jesus. It also helps us see Jesus for who he was despite that process of normalization that began less than two generations after his assassination.
Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids is a case in point. Ironically, its domestication of the radical Jesus juxtaposed with the rest of today’s readings calls us to return to the master’s unconventional wisdom. That wisdom rejects obsession with conventional morality.
Again ironically, Matthew’s attempts at taming Jesus remind us of the master’s more important focus. As shown by his crucifixion, it must have been on politically radical rebellion against the kind of imperialism that Juan Gonzalez correctly suggests has seduced so many of our fellow citizens despite their claims to be followers of Jesus the Christ.