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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Parousia: Be Prepared!

Matthew 25:1-13

Many of you may know the Boy Scout motto: “Be prepared!” Growing up my brother and I were in the Boy Scouts. I’ll never forget my first year at summer camp. I think I was 11 and I spent a week away from home. My dad was an assistant scoutmaster and he stayed with our troop for the week. One of the requirements for a certain rank was to do a 5-mile hike. And one of our college aged camp counselors volunteered to take us on one. He was supposed to meet us for the hike one afternoon, but he apparently forgot. My dad and one other adult were with us, so we decided to take the 5-mile hike anyway without the counselor and ventured off into the woods. Only problem was none of us were familiar with the trails or had any idea where we were going. We were just trying to make it a 5-mile loop, but after a while we realized that we were completely lost. We couldn’t find any trail markers and what we thought was a trail was turning into deep woods. We wandered around for hours, hoping we’d find some sign of civilization.

Finally we saw a clearing, a field. That would bring us back to somewhere. As we stepped out onto the field, we heard a man yell as loud as he could: “Hold your fire!” We had stepped out onto the rifle range. Good thing all the scouts were prepared and awake and attentive, or else our little adventure could have ended terribly wrong.

I share that story because it reminds me of the importance to pay attention, to be awake and attentive, to be prepared for anything. And if Jesus wants us to remember anything from this parable it seems to be that we should always “Keep awake!” and “Be prepared!”

Be prepared for what is the question. What is this wedding banquet that we’re preparing for? And what does spiritual preparedness mean anyway? The Greek word in question here is parousia. It’s commonly translated “second coming”. Parousia most literally means “the state of being with.” The word “presence” may be a good translation. “Coming” and “arrival” are slightly inaccurate but often used translations. The word “second” never precedes parousia in the Bible, it’s not until later readers started adding that whenever the word appeared.

Hollywood has helped play up a certain interpretation of the parousia because it’s the most dramatic and exciting. But the preferred theology of movies and televangelists didn’t even become a thing until two hundred years ago. “Rapture theology” as we know it today was developed in America in the 1800s. It’s been popularized in books and movies, but it’s a latecomer as far as theology goes. There are other more theologically sound ideas of what God has in store for the world’s future. The world is not headed for catastrophic destruction. The biblical view taught over and over again is that the world is headed toward a new creation.

While there are several ways of understanding the parousia, perhaps the one with the most biblical support is the utopic vision of the Hebrew prophets, an expectation continued by Jesus and Paul. Instead of the parousia involving some kind of catastrophic worldwide destruction, they see the parousia as the fulfillment of all things. The transformation into a new humanity. The new hearts promised in Jeremiah. The new earth Isaiah foretold. The revealing of the children of God that Paul talks about. Christ being all in all. A time when God’s kingdom has come, and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

This may involve the literal reappearance of Jesus in bodily form. Or it may not. Many scripture passages support the idea that it will be more of a worldwide realization of Christ consciousness. What parts of the New Testament call “theosis” that is, living in alignment with the divine nature. Some theologians describe this as a kind of spiritual evolution where humanity grows up into the divine image we were created to be. Thus manifesting the kingdom that was such an important part of Jesus’ message.

What we heard in the second reading this morning from First Thessalonians reflects a belief in the early church that the end of the world was near and that this would involve Jesus returning in bodily form. They believed they would see it in their lifetimes.

Now Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is considered to be the first New Testament book written. As our confirmation students know, Paul’s letters were actually written before the Gospels. First Thessalonians was probably written around 50AD. The earliest Gospel was likely Mark written about 70AD. And Matthew is estimated to have been written around the year 90AD. In First Thessalonians, it’s clear that people were confused and worried that Jesus hadn’t returned yet and that some Christians had died before the parousia. Paul writes this to reassure them that they shouldn’t worry about those who have died, because they will meet the Lord first.

Whatever the parousia will be like, many in the early church thought it was coming in their lifetimes. And as the years turned into decades, those early Christians continued to wrestle with the delay of what they thought would be Jesus’ imminent return. By the time Matthew was written we see clearly in this parable that the church was starting to understand that it might be a long wait. That’s why the lesson of the parable seems to be patience and preparedness. It’s going to be a longer wait than expected, so be prepared!

Matthew wrote the parable we heard this morning to an audience that misunderstood the timing of the parousia and needed to hear that it may be a long wait. It was in this context that Matthew included this parable and addressed this specific issue in the early church.

However when we look at Jesus as a wisdom teacher, someone who taught spiritual transformation, I think we get a clearer picture of this parable. You see, while Christians usually interpret the bridegroom as Jesus, it’s very likely that when Jesus first told the parable the bridegroom was God.[1] So when he originally preached this parable, Jesus was probably not thinking of what’s become known as the “second coming,” he was most likely thinking of the parousia in terms of the fulfillment of all things. The coming of the Kingdom of God he so often preached about. The new creation Paul described. The transformation into new heavens a new earth that Isaiah foretold. The new hearts that Jeremiah proclaimed. The realization of the Hebrew prophets’ vision of shalom. It is within that theological framework that we should read this parable.

And when we do, we see things a little differently. Instead of the parousia involving some kind of catastrophic worldwide destruction, we see the parousia as the fulfillment of all things. When we understand the parousia this way, we see this parable is actually about being prepared for this new state of being. It’s about mindfulness and a higher spiritual awareness to God’s presence in all things. It’s less of an allegory about the end time, and more a call to attentiveness here and now. Because God can break through in any moment. Break through not to bring some cataclysmic disaster to end the world, but to shine through the mundane and ordinary to reveal the divine presence in all things. Jesus is saying we can participate in this reality now, as long as we have the preparedness of mind. As long as our flasks are filled with oil of spiritual awareness.

And so I hope this parable presents the good news that God is on our side. Not slamming the door on us if we’re not prepared. But inviting us to be ready, because if we’re not we’ll keep missing it. We’ll keep being trapped in sin and selfishness. We’ll keep feeling disconnected and distant. But Christ invites us to keep awake, to be prepared, and to be ready for his presence in our lives every day.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pastor Brian, November 12th, 2023.

[1] Bruner, Frederick D. (1990). Matthew: A Commentary Part 2 Matthew 13-28. pg. 544

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