The Lord’s coming in final judgment is a thread that unites Sunday’s three readings, (Amos 5:18-24, 1 Thes 4:13-18 and Matt 25:1-13) albeit in very different ways.
In the first reading, Amos, who wrote in the middle of the 8th Century BCE, warned the corrupt and exploitative leaders of the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel that they should be careful what they asked for, namely justice. They had been worried about their belligerent neighbours and had called on God’s righteous anger. They intended God’s fury to be directed at their enemies.
Speaking on God’s behalf, Amos told them,
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! (That is the day of judgment) Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
God tells them, though Amos, ‘be careful what you ask for’. In the opening seventeen verses of Amos 5, God had condemned them: You abhor the one who speaks the truth… you trample on the poor and take levies of grain from them, … I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. These sins are what he would judge if he were to come.
Then God elaborates, in an angry voice, why he has warned them.
I hate and despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
Their rituals and offerings are worse than meaningless to God because they are fraudulent and hypocritical. They do not come from the heart and do not represent what God truly wants. Moreover, they imply that God is stupid and does not know how they act or what is in their hearts. Amos tells them that God does know and sees their innermost thoughts and they anger him.
The corrupt and cruel leaders seem to have thought that they could trick God into thinking they were good by going through ritual motions. Aside from their hypocrisy, they insult to God by thinking that he will be swayed by their sham. Amos tells them it doesn’t work.
Amos then informs them what God wants instead of their hollow worship, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One way of reading the passage is that God wants the daily activities to reflect his wishes and honour him. On the judgment day, God, who knows our hearts, will consider how we have lived our whole lives rather than an hour or two of ritual attendance at worship. If a person doesn’t do that, then occasional festivals, offerings and hymns will not do the trick.
Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians addresses several different issues about Christ’s second coming. Paul and the Thessalonians expected Christ’s immanent return. But some Thessalonians worried that those who had died would be disadvantaged compared to those who are still alive at the time of the second coming of the Lord. Paul says, in his roundabout way, we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. Then Paul adds a flourishing description of how God will reappear, the 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.
Paul reassured the Thessalonians that God’s return will be something to look forward to with hope.
Matthew’s gospel is a parable about the bridesmaids waiting for the wedding couple to return home from the wedding. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five were foolish, and five wise. The foolish took their lamps, but no extra oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they became drowsy and slept. At midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out.’ Then the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and us; go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 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.
The bridegroom represents Christ and the wedding feast, for which he is delayed, is the heavenly reward for those who have prepared. The lesson is vigilance over the light in one’s soul: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
- In the reading from Amos, God despised hollow ritual, when the rest of the time the Israelites devoted themselves to fraud, greed and violence against the poor. Are there times when we attend church but have trouble focusing on the Eucharistic celebration? Certainly, we are not likely to spend the rest of the week in corrupt activity, still our lack of attention to the words of the service may leave us feeling that we weren’t truly there. How do you deal with this? Do you pray for better focus? Do you hope that God credits your faithful physical presence? Do you try to make up for it outside of worship times with more intentional prayers of thanks? Something else?
- Paul paints a picture of Christ’s second coming in his first letter to the Thessalonians. How do you imagine it? Does it evoke fear or hope in you? How would you explain this passage to children in church school?
- Christ concludes his parable with the instruction Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. What does it mean to keep awake? (Even the wise bridesmaids slept.) What does it suggest that you do differently in your own life?