Biblical Words 
After God’s great redemptive acts, the faithful live on in the world, challenged to keep the faith and be prepared.
The Lectionary texts for this Sunday share a concern for the continuity of the generations — the present with both past and future. The texts speak to human situations when God is absent, either because God’s work in the past is done, or because it is still ahead.
If the farewell speech of Moses (the book of Deuteronomy) does not yet represent the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Jacob (the giving of the land), the farewell speech of Joshua does declare that the promise is fulfilled, and states the consequences for the fortunate people.
There are three alternatives: the ancient gods of the ancestors (from whom
Abraham separated himself), the gods of the natives of the land (keepers of
local lore and customs), and the God who brought them out of
At this point, God's works of redemption are done. The Israelites have only to live faithfully to this God in order to dwell securely as the heirs of the divine promise to Abraham and Jacob. The people avow emphatically that they will so live. “…we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. …The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey” (verses 18 and 24).
An impressive avowal!
However, we know that following
Joshua there is a book of Judges. We
know that the original story of
We know that the Torah and Joshua were followed by all the later prophets.
The Psalm reading is the introduction to a long psalm of historical review, looking back at past generations. This introduction is explicitly directed to the succession of the generations, affirming a divine ordinance that the past deeds of God be transmitted to each new generation (verses 5-8). The sage who speaks, representing the current generation, celebrates this tradition process.
The sage also claims to speak in
"a parable" and in "dark sayings" about that celebrated
past (verse 2). The full body of this
long psalm makes clear what it is that is puzzling and "dark" in
This psalm, more effectively than
any other, dwells on the mixture of mighty deeds of deliverance by God with
rebellious responses by
It is the kind of ominous wisdom it is urgent to make known to future generations!
I Thessalonians 4:13-18.
After celebrating the faith and perseverance of his fledgling assembly of God’s people in Thessalonica (chapters 1-3 of the letter), Paul turns, in our reading, to their concern about members of their generation who have died (using the euphemism “fallen asleep”).
The people of this church expect the mighty coming of the Lord in glory almost immediately, an expectation apparently shared by Paul at the time. But some family members and close friends have died before the end has arrived, and the present members do not want to be separated in the glorious future from their loved ones.
Paul assures them that Jesus’ triumph over death means that the “dead in Christ” will be united with him in his glorious coming, even before the living believers.
Paul, by “the word of the Lord,” gives details of the amazing events that will mark that end time — more details, one would think, than the occasion seems to require.
Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the
sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will
rise first. Then we who are alive, who
are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord
in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (verses 16-17,
The details of this passage have contributed much to Christian eschatology — belief about the end times. It eventually provided one of the keys to the “Rapture” that dispensationalist Protestants have fantasized about so widely in the last hundred and seventy years.
In the letters that have survived,
Paul does not often go into such details about the end things, though II
Thessalonians 2 and I Corinthians 15 are impressive highlights alongside our
passage. In general, his expectation
that the end would come before his own death seems to have evolved toward his later view of
life in the Spirit, in which also death is overcome (as in
In any case, for Paul life in Christ gives the assurance of communion among believers that transcends the generations! (Believers can expect to share a consummation with their loved ones who have passed.)
The Gospel reading is a parable from Matthew’s impressive supplements to Jesus’ discourse about the last things.
Following Mark, Matthew has Jesus deliver a long private address about
the last things while he and the disciples sit on the
In the parable for this Sunday, the foolish and wise bridesmaids (the Greek is literally “virgins”) are charged with the responsibility of welcoming the bridegroom when he returns to preside over his wedding banquet. The parable is about how these maidens spend their waiting time, the time when the bridegroom is still absent. As the night wears on they fall asleep. However, when the alarm is sounded, the wise maidens are prepared. They have reserve oil in flasks separate from the lamps they all carry. The foolish maidens have no reserve oil and their lights go out. They are excluded from the wedding banquet.
The “wise” maidens here are not sophai, wise women in a philosophical sense. They are phronimoi, prudent, practically-wise persons.
What makes them wise here is that they do not count on the bridegroom’s return in a short time. They allow for a much longer wait than do the “foolish” servants. The joy of the bridegroom’s coming is certain – but it may be further off than thoughtless people recognize. The wisdom of these bridesmaids is their preparation for their service to extend over the long haul.
(The “foolish” bridesmaids are like the seeds that fall on shallow soil in the parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21 – they receive the word joyfully but have no depth and fall away before the harvest comes.)
At the coming of the “bridegroom,” a new age begins for those who have had foresight to prepare for the contingencies and uncertainties of its coming.