*But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.*
Amos 5: 24
*Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'*
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
I used to fly fairly often, in another time in my life. That was before airplanes became weapons in and of themselves, so flying was pretty much a matter of going to the airport and getting on the plane when they told you to. Not so any more, as many know better than I.
I had a chance this week to fly to Chicago to hear two lectures by Amy-Jill Levine, a wise (and very funny) Jewish scholar whose teaching focuses on how, when Christians interpret the life and teachings of Jesus, we often forget – or simply do not know – the Jewish context of his life and culture. When we don’t pay attention to this, we often, almost without thinking, end up portraying Judaism as being somehow spiritually inferior to Christianity; we tell the stories in a way that suggests that Jesus came to replace a broken, defective religion. He didn’t.
If justice is to roll down like water, as Martin Luther King Jr. challenged us so eloquently with this quotation, we are obliged, among other things, to repair the way we tell and understand our shared sacred stories. We’re invited to discover not just what the story means to us today, but what it meant to those who first gave words to its teachings, and the first ones who heard them. We cannot do the former without doing the later. It is difficult, sometimes bewildering work.
But back to flying. Someone at the airline determined that I could pay far less by flying to Chicago by way of Atlanta – and returning by the same… shall we say… indirect route. So, between the bewildering, humiliating security procedures of today; the circuitous path I took to get to Chicago and back home; the unfamiliar world of the modern airport, where I see more people in a day than I see at home in a year –most of them with their faces buried in their cell phones; a deeply challenging lecture by a woman whose scholarship and spiritual life I deeply respect; and a Gospel parable that I have probably been misinterpreting for as long as I’ve known of it, it was a week of wonder. Good wonder, but unsettling. Out of my comfort zone by about, say, 3200 miles.
In Jesus’ parable, a group of bridesmaids prepares for the wedding. The bridegroom is late. The bridesmaids fall asleep waiting. When the bridegroom arrives, they wake up and some of them discover that they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. The other bridesmaids won’t give them any of theirs, so they rush off to buy oil. By the time they return, they are too late; they are refused entry to the wedding. And Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven will be like this.
Where’s the justice in this? Aren’t we supposed to share stuff – like our lamp oil? I sort of wish Amy-Jill Levine had come home on the same plane as I did. She didn’t cover this one in her lecture; maybe she’d cover for me tomorrow. But one thing she said that was both hopeful and helpful is that these stories are not simple. They aren’t like Aesop’s Fables. We are meant to wrestle with them. Jews have been wrestling with them for even longer than we have; we are meant to wrestle together – yes, even with our spiritual cousins, for there is something sweet and hopeful to be found in so doing.
Maybe the kingdom of heaven is found in the holy wrestling itself. We wrestle… um… worship at 10 AM.