In or Out?

Exclusion is not a very popular topic, at least in the Christian circles in which I typically go round. Exclusiveness, so we imagine, characterizes those nasty fake Christians of the alt-right or at Westboro Baptist Church, but not us gentle, Christ-like, progressive Christians who love and accept everyone.

A few of my friends and at least a couple of the theologians I read regularly (Robert Farrar Capon and David Bentley Hart) are universalists who adopt the view that Christ’s salvation will extend to all people, no one excluded. I haven’t yet been convinced, though I certainly wish universalism were true, because I keep bumping into texts like our Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins. As much as I’d like to have Jesus be the all-inclusive, totally accepting savior my universalist friends advocate, what He said just doesn’t always square with that sort of inclusivism.

God forbid that I give the impression that I am in favor any form of hate speech or activity. May what I’m saying not offer any hint of excuse for excluding people from God’s love on the basis of race or culture or language or gender or even on the basis of moral purity. But the Scriptures do in fact confront us with texts that turn on the idea that God does and will exclude at least some people from His kingdom.

Sunday’s parable is difficult not just because of the exclusionary tone. It’s hard to discern just where it is pointed. Some later interpreters have made it out to have the same concern as the parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants (Matthew 21), God’s turning to Gentiles when the Jews were unreceptive to Jesus. The long-standing traditional view of the church is that it is about the final judgment, along the lines of the parable of the sheep and the goats later in the chapter. On the latter view, the “oil” which half the virgins lack, is good works or love or something of that sort.

The other difficulty of the parable is that it is hard to situate the story itself in a concrete cultural setting of wedding customs. We know very little about Jewish wedding customs in Jesus’ day and what we do know does not completely fit the story as Jesus tells it.

So I have a lot to think about before preaching this parable on Sunday, but I’m starting from the point that it suggests to me that we ought not be too complacent about our entry into the kingdom of God and our status in His judgment. A Christian faith that produces little in the way of actual activity or preparation for the coming of our Savior is foolish, like the impractical foolishness of the ditzy girls in this wedding story. May we not be ditzy about how we ready ourselves to meet the Lord.

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