Last Judgment

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Six months ago I was doing my part to rail against the folly of doomsday predictions and the dangers of rapture theology. At the time, Harold Camping and his May 21 prediction were the epicenter of media frenzy, not only in The Rapture Gazette and late-night paid programming, but also in above-the-fold NY Times articles and primetime NPR stories. This truly bewildering sensation spawned billboards, talking head reports, and “end of the world” parties.

I still shake my head and wonder if the madness in May was not only Harold Camping’s, but also biblical eschatology’s proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Did the words we needed to speak six months ago have the unintended effect of making people sink more deeply than ever into living as in the days of Noah?

Whatever the cultural climate, we keep telling the Story. The New Testament readings for this Sunday speak of the suddenness and unexpectedness of the coming day of the Lord and call us to watch and pray and be prepared.

One commentator on I Thessalonians notes how faith, hope, and love bracket the entire letter (1:3, 5:8). However, in 3:1, hope is not mentioned along with the other two, so the remainder of the letter has to do with the hope the Thessalonian believers need to hear. On this All Saints Sunday, we will name our departed loved ones and confess our belief that because Jesus died and rose again, we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

We will also acknowledge that God is at work among us, preparing us for the day of the Lord through the works of love that characterize our common life together (3:12-13). Among the many things that instruct and delight in Thomas Long’s Accompany Them with Singing is the poignant tribute to his friend and editor who died as the book was near publication. Long writes, “I am somehow gratified that this project allowed us, in her final months, to converse so deeply about life and death.” We watch and pray and become prepared when our words and deeds allow us to converse deeply about life and death.

If there is any danger that we will confine hope to a “there, there now” kind of comfort, Jesus disabuses us of that in his parable of the ten maidens. Slamming doors. Stunned outcasts. With such sharp, even jagged, edges, this parable of the kingdom does not fit into easy moralisms (e.g. “share your stuff”). Richard Hays writes helpfully on the paradoxical tension in Matthew between rigor and mercy; between a transforming radical righteousness and the two love commands on which everything else in Torah “hangs,” that is, the filter through which everything else is read and understood (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 96ff). This parable is one side of that paradox.

The kingdom is as a wedding banquet celebration, but this does not negate the images Jesus gives in Matthew 24 – a flood, a kidnapping (of sorts), and a robbery. A basic definition of biblical eschatology is the pressure that God’s future exerts on the present; so, says the parable, be ready for the celebration with the returning bridegroom in every moment. Keep awake and prepared, in William Stringfellow’s words, “with extraordinary eagerness and with no less remarkable patience” (Conscience and Obedience, 9).

For those of us schooled in the kind of education that abstracts the Christian faith, preaching on these explosive passages can easily become domesticated, taking a form that novelist Clyde Edgerton calls “a string of dead mule generalizations.” It is wise, then, to pay attention to the poets and storytellers whose words not only explain but evoke.

The narrative world of Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away is full of overpoweringly visceral, sudden inbreakings. Old Tarwater is a backwoods prophet who

had been called in his early youth and had set out
for the city to proclaim the destruction awaiting a world
that had abandoned its Savior. He proclaimed from the midst
of his fury that the world would see the sun burst
in blood and fire and while he raged and waited, it rose every
morning, calm and contained in itself, as if not only the
world, but the Lord Himself had failed to hear the prophet’s
message. It rose and set, rose and set on a world that turned
from green to white and green to white and green to white
again. It rose and set and he despaired of the Lord’s listening.
Then one morning he saw to his joy a finger of fire coming
out of it and before he could turn, before he could shout, the
finger had touched him and the destruction he had been waiting
for had fallen in his own brain and his own body. His blood had
been burned dry and not the blood of the world.

Old Tarwater’s nephew, Rayber, tries desperately to hold on to “love in general” because he is absolutely terrified of the kind of love that overcomes him at times:

love without reason, love for something futureless, love that
appeared to exist only to be itself, imperious and all
demanding, the kind that would cause him to make a fool of
himself in an instant…and throw him to the ground in an act
of idiot praise.

Rayber’s orphaned nephew has been raised by Old Tarwater to be a prophet as well. This calling suits young Tarwater fine as long as it has to do with making the sun stand still or striking water from a rock. But when he realizes what he is being called to do, young Tarwater can only envision himself “trudging off into the distance in the bleeding, stinking, mad shadow of Jesus.” So he does everything he can to smother all the “madness” with which the old prophet has infected him.

Finally, after assaults of almost apocalyptic proportion, young Tarwater embraces the call to be part of those

whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would
wander in the world,strangers from that violent country where
the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.

The command that opens as seeds in Tarwater’s blood is the substance of our watching and praying and being prepared: “Go warn the children of God of the terrible speed of mercy.”

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