Last time, we talked about some parables where Jesus seems naïve at first blush, but upon closer examination, the stories provide profoundly comforting messages about the generosity of God and the openness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If only all of Jesus’ parables were like that…
Today, let’s look at a couple of stories where Jesus seems kind of harsh:
The Parable of the Ten Virgins is a real WTFer. First of all, the cultural context of the parable is so foreign, it doesn’t make any sense to the modern reader. And assuming you can get your head around the narrative, the parable speaks kindly about the ‘wise’ virgins who choose not to share, and tell the ‘foolish’ virgins to go get their own oil. Then, when they leave to do so and the groom arrives, they’re locked out of the banquet and the groom disowns them, saying, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.
The point of this parable is to always be living like Jesus is coming back today. To never ‘phone in’ our disciplehood, or cut corners or the like. And that’s obviously a vital component of our faith and a truth we need to hold onto and live by.
But I still don’t like this parable. I still think the Churchladys of the world could use it to justify a refusal to be generous, or worse – a refusal to extend grace in this life to a brother or sister who really needs it. That would be a misuse and a corruption of the text, of course, but when it comes to hijacking a Bible passage to justify unChristian behavior, people have done more with less.
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I sometimes wonder if the wedding banquet in the Ten Virgins parable is the same soiree Jesus talk about in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14 – one of the biggest WTFs in the Gospels, for my shekels.
It starts off straightforwardly enough: a king hosts a banquet, but none of his invited guests show up. They’re too busy, and/or they’ve taken him and his generosity for granted. The king has these ungrateful shlebs killed and their town burned – which feels like a bit of an overreaction to me. (Is this really what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?!?) The king then continues on with the wedding plans (and why wouldn’t he?) and sends his staff out to round up whoever they can find: God a pulse? You’re in!
But when one of these second-choice guests is found to not be wearing wedding clothes, he’s tied hand and foot and thrown outside into the darkness, ‘where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’!
‘“For many are invited, but few are chosen,”’ the parable ends ominously.
WTF, Jesus?!? The guy’s minding his own business, and the King’s servant comes by and invites him to fill a chair at a sumptuous wedding banquet. So the guy drops what he’s doing and goes straight to the feast. When he arrives in unsuitable clothing, he’s not politely asked to leave, he’s tied up and literally thrown out.
Apparently, some commentators like to infer that the host has provided proper wedding clothes to the last-minute guests, but this guy has refused to wear them. … But that ain’t in the text.
With or without that insertion, this is an uncomfortable parable, and it’s meant to be.
The guy is said to represent the Christian whose faith isn’t genuine: You may appear to be a follower of Jesus, but you don’t clothe yourself with Christ, through true repentance for sin and faith in Christ, and then a commitment to love and obey the Lord as evidence of saving faith.
Since you’re not truly part of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, you’re denied entry on Judgment Day.
As Jesus says in Mathew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
So the Parables of the Workers in the Vineyard, Lost Sheep and the Sower talk help us to see the abundant grace of God and the borderline offensive notion that the Kingdom of Heaven is far more accepting than we’d expect (and maybe prefer). Meanwhile, the parables of the Wedding Banquet and the Ten Virgins underscore that it’s not quite a free-for-all. Living as disciples of Christ requires that we strive to reciprocate what we’ve received.
Both are essential components of the Truth of our faith, and I need to ask WTF when reading these parables, in order to arrive there.
Now, these are by no means the only WTFs worth wrestling with in Jesus’ parables, but they’re some of my favorites. What about you, Reader(s)? What parables do you love to be frustrated by? For that matter, what passages throughout the whole Scripture rub you the wrong way?
Whatever these passages are for you, I encourage you to go back and read and wrestle with them again. You might not learn anything new – but in my experience, every wrestling match with God makes me stronger – even though God always wins – which is a delightful WTF in itself.
Peace be with you.