Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ten Virgins Meet the Boy Who Cried Wolf

Recently a well meaning acquaintance whose relationship I cherish asked me a question which took me off guard. On the eve of the Supreme Court decision to strike down DOMA, he asked me, and I paraphrase, "How important is it for you to get to Japan? If Jesus was coming back soon, would you forgo raising your full support amount and leave for Japan as soon as possible?"

I am not proud of the way that I answered--I immediately replied to him, without much thought, that the financial support that I was being asked to raise by Converge Worldwide was not excessive (in fact I recently had my support goal reduced by 30%!), and that in order to be an effective missionary in Japan in the long-term I would need to go through proper channels--having a sustainable amount of financial support, getting an appropriate visa, establishing good partnerships with local churches etc.

Before I could continue to unfold my answer, we were cut off, and I haven't had a chance to pick up the topic with this friend again since that time. However I could tell by his countenance and mannerisms that he was sufficiently disappointed in my attempt to address his question in a way which down-played the urgency which he felt given the recent political developments that, in his mind, pointed to an impending return of the Savior.

Right Answer for the Wrong Person 

In a different setting my answer may have been satisfactory--but I realize now that given the temperament of his metal state at the time it wasn't. In fact, my response wasn't emotionally neutral either. We are emotionally attached to eschatology--it is a hot button issue for many people. Everyone has their opinions on the end times: Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, Amillennialism... even Panmillennialism, the idea that 'everything will pan out in the end.'

Rev 6:9-11
As someone trained in the study of history, I have the benefit of perspective (which can also be a dangerous thing). When he asked the question my mind raced through the countless times that men and women in the church thought that Jesus was going to immediately return.

I thought of the suffering experienced by the early church and the expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, the fall of the Roman empire, the rise of Islam, the passing of the first millennium after Jesus' resurrection and the anticipation that that marked that important date. I though of the fall of Constantinople, the Plagues that ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages, the destruction of the church in Japan during the Tokugawa era--Attila, Napoleon, Hitler. Quote-unquote Christian nations warring against each other.

I thought of Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses and their false prophesies, I thought of Christians suffering under Mao's Cultural Revolution, Tutsis and Hutus perpetuating genocide on each other. The looming threat of global nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. I remembered Corrie Ten Boom's comments on the topic of the rapture--with all that as the background, the passing of DOMA doesn't seem all that significant in the broader history of the Christianity and the church.

Pray for the Chinese House Church Movement
Unfortunately because of this predisposition towards caution based on historical president, my reply to this friend played down his feelings of urgency--something in retrospect that I should have acknowledged and affirmed. At the same time, that urgency needs to be channeled into the right directions.

Urgency based on the feeling that Jesus' return is imminent is great in the short-term for mobilization and fervent service, but in the long-term it leads to burn-out and disappointment.

Jesus' Return a Parable and a Fable

Jesus talks a lot about his return and the coming judgement. For someone who is often billed and 'meek and mild,' there is a sense in which some of his stories and parables can be a little bit scary--and should be. Christian leaders throughout history have pointed at the signs of the end times (we are living in the end times), and used this to motivate urgency and action in their followers. With anything, there is a proper and improper use--and the abuse does not nullify the proper use.

Wise and Foolish Virgins by William Blake (1822)
Jesus talks about being prepared for his return in several parables--but one of the most vivid is contained in Matthew 25:1-13, the Parable of the Ten Virgins.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. 
This isn't the only parable that speaks to this topic--in fact it is a re-emphasis of the Parable of the Ten Talents/Minas.  It fits in quite well with the Parable of the Vineyard Workers, and the Wicked Husbandmen.

The purpose of these parables is to establish an attitude of readiness on behalf of the followers of Jesus. Instead of storing up our resources for ourselves, we are to leverage them on behalf of the kingdom--but as in the case of the parable of the Ten Talents, we are to do so seeking the greatest return on the investment for the King.

I would like like to contrast this with the The Boy Who Cried Wolf, one of universally recognized Aesop's Fables.
A SHEPHERD-BOY, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains. The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: "Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep;" but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.
There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.
Harold Camping
You could replace the shepherd-boy in this fable with a preacher... "Every Sunday the preacher promised that Jesus would be coming soon, he pointed to the latest cover story heralding some victory for the political left. Initially this prompted his flock to invest themselves in evangelism and live boldly for the Gospel--but as time went on, the message became a little tiring. The zeal and passion left the congregation as they settled into their live. Despite the preachers repeated claims that Jesus would return in 1989, 1993, 1997... Jesus didn't return, some people eventually left the church, some even walked away from the faith. The louder the preacher yelled the more it seemed to put his congregation to sleep, except for a few conspiracy minded outliers who continuously debated about whether believers would be raptured or not. Some laughed and mocked, others simply tuned out.--and The Wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated and destroyed the whole flock."

Why Do I think that these two stories are such a strong juxtaposition? The Fable is not the inspired word of God, but it does help us to understand why we need to be careful about setting proper expectations when it comes to the Lord's return. Anticipating the Lord's return and telling others about it requires wisdom and preparation--in fact, this is the opposite of abandon and recklessness!

On the other hand, the fable of the boy who cried wolf shows someone who is not wise--he excites people to action and because the boy's early claims are proven false, the people are lulled into a false sense of security and jaded to the boys later cries for help. The pastor or preacher who cries wolf does a disservice to his congregation--and the broader body of Christ. The contrast between these two stories is the difference between wisdom and foolishness!

Do you think these Ten Virgins would have been well served if periodically throughout the day there had been a boy that came along announcing the Bridegroom's return in error? Just imagine if the five that had been prepared had lit their candles early rather than waiting for their Master's coming? Ultimately these stories break down when stretched too far, because they are just that, they are teaching aids--but this parable points us towards the truth.

Posture is Everything

Jesus is going to return--that is a given. He will return at an hour that we least expect him, yet all of the signs point towards his return. The signs were as true to the early Christians meeting in secret for fear of persecution as those meeting today in house churches in China for the same reason. Jesus did not fail those that had earlier trusted in his imminent return--he did not specify a date for his  coming but said it was in his Father's keeping.

Go Hawks.
The parables affirm his second coming and encourage us to be ready. The difference between the wise and unwise virgins was their readiness and preparation--not their urgency. This readiness is a posture, not an action (it does involve actions though, like the buying of oil for the lamps). I earlier said that having a training in history is beneficial and dangerous--because seeing historic precedent can also have the effect of lulling a person into a false sense of security, it can lead to a reclined posture, this is something I need to be careful to avoid personally--a posture of readiness is not an action, but it is active, it is a battle stance.
If there is one take-home point I would like to make from all of this it is that preparing for the possibility that Jesus will come back today means preparing for the possibility that he won't. This is something we need to hold in tension--both being faithful to this generation, but also planting seeds so that the next generation or one years from now will see a faithful stewardship of the Gospel to theirs.

Today's Christian institutions by and large owe their existence to past generations who in faithfulness planted seeds the are still bearing fruit today. They prepared for the possibility that Jesus would return immediately, but also for the eventualities that would occur if he did not. This is the difference between the wise and unwise builder--we are working to expand the frontiers of the Kingdom of God, and it does matter what materials we build with.


And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. Matthew 24:14

There is still a lot of work done until we accomplish the great commission of reaching all peoples with the Gospel--We need to live every moment as if Jesus' return is imminent, but also use discretion and wisdom to establish a legacy which will point others to Jesus for generations should he tarry longer.   That is going to look different for different people--it is going to affect how we perceive our callings, how we invest in building up the Kingdom, both in our local church and globally, it is going to affect how we raise our children and grandchildren.

This I think is the best way to understand the parable of the Ten Virgins/Talents in light of history. Not only should we be interested in our own individual Christian faith, and the faith of our generation, but also that it be preserved for future generations--through establishing and maintaining Christian institutions such as colleges and seminaries, charities; through the translation of the scriptures and publishing of faithful Christian literature; through an investment in global missions and reaching the unreached with the Gospel; and through a strong emphasis on imparting faith in Jesus to future generations.

For this reason, I think that it is wise to invest in the eventuality that I may have 25-35 years of fruitful service among the unreached peoples of the world, particularly the Japanese. It is worth spending an extra year now to make sure that I have a solid foundation on for the future of the Gospel's advance among them. This is why young men still go to seminaries to train for the ministry, this is why missions agencies by and large still require bible education and training. There have been many short-lived apocalyptic movements, let us build with materials that will stand the test of history. Carpe Diem is a distinctly pagan idea--we are to live every day unto the Lord, whether I live another fifty years or meet my Lord in the sky in the next fifty seconds. "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (Phil 1:21)

Maranatha! (1 Cor 16:22, Rev 22:20)

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