Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taking Care of Business

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.

                        Matthew 25.1 

A Leadership Seminar

Jesus spends His last few days of freedom in preparation for the hour when He’ll no longer be able to speak at length with His followers. On balance, the Gospels record more public sermons and private conversations during these crucial moments than all of His previous messages combined. One might expect the bulk of His talks to center on explaining what’s about to happen, why, and how the disciples and others should respond. And His discussions do indeed feature some of this. Yet far and away the majority of what He says has a much broader, longer focus. Jesus uses these closing, precious hours to secure His followers’ commitment to continue His ministry after He's gone and their grasp of what His teaching truly means.

To this point, His messages have been fairly perfunctory—a back-to-basics evangelism designed to clear away centuries of needlessly complicated, self-defeating legalism and restore our awareness of God’s unconditional love for humanity. The Holy Week topics, however, are markedly more complex and advanced. These final days find Jesus convening a leadership seminar in graduate theology, eschatology, and ministerial ethics. He recognizes the momentary confusion created by end-of-the-week events will abate with His resurrection. He’ll return for a limited time to explain everything in greater detail. Of greater urgency to Him is instilling the whys and wherefores of His mission while He’s physically present. He’s laying a vital foundation to ground His followers’ thoughts not only for the approaching days, but years to come.

Ten Brides-to-Be

Matthew 24 transcribes a lengthy prophecy in which Jesus itemizes signs predicting the world’s end—global warfare, moral dissolution, natural catastrophes, and so on. He describes their culmination as the mysterious, sudden salvation of the Faithful from these mounting miseries. “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (Matthew 24.40-41) Since the precise moment of His return to gather true believers won’t be disclosed, he adds in verse 44: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus builds on this prophecy in the next chapter with a parable about 10 brides-to-be. They’re each given a lamp to prepare for their groom’s nocturnal arrival. With no confirmed date, it’s important their lamps are filled and ready to meet the groom at any time. Five virgins take this to heart. The others grow lax, occupying their time with more trivial concerns. Without warning, news breaks the groom’s on his way. The prepared virgins light their lamps to greet him. The indifferent ones panic. Their dry lamps don’t stay lighted. They beg the wiser ones for oil, but they’re told, “There may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” (Matthew 25.9) While the foolish virgins dash to the store, the groom escorts his prepared brides to the wedding banquet, closing the door behind him. When the unprepared virgins finally get their lamps in shape, they bang on the door and plead to get in. The groom goes to the door. “I don’t know you,” he says and sends them away.

Passing the Baton

Jesus follows this parable with two additional ones, both case studies of believers who slough off their responsibilities. In the second, a man entrusts money to three servants. Only two invest it profitably. The third—who holds on to it, but fails to increase its value—is dismissed. The last story describes the Final Judgment, where believers who served others without prejudice are welcomed into Heaven while those who limited their kindness to people they classified as “worthy” of it are rejected. Independently, each of these parables contains unique messages and merits. Taken together in light of when Jesus delivers them, however, also uncovers a binding truth to bring His ministry full circle.

Let’s think back Christ's very first mention of His mission at age 12. He and His family have come to Jerusalem for Passover and they leave the city unaware He’s stayed behind, astounding the temple leaders with His grasp of the Law. When Mary and Joseph finally locate Him, they scold Him for upsetting them so. Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2.49; NKJV) When we consider the three parables as a whole—and when they’re told—an overarching message takes shape. Jesus is passing the baton to us.

Taking care of business is now our job. It’s our responsibility to keep our lamps filled with oil (a symbol of the Holy Spirit) to usher Christ’s presence into the world. It’s our task to take what He’s given us, spend it wisely, and return a profit by touching lives and fostering good. It’s our duty to love and care for everyone without partiality or condition, to serve “the least” among us and in so doing serve Christ. Titus 2.14 says Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” That Jesus spends much of His final week on the importance of continuing His work confirms He thinks of His imminent death and resurrection beyond their personal impact on our lives. The cross’s redemption realizes only half its purpose. Taking care of business—doing the work—is the other half. Without that, Christ’s supreme accomplishment on Calvary means nothing.

As different as each of us is, we share a common responsibility as believers to continue Christ’s work in the world. Failure to do so strips the cross of its meaning.

(Tomorrow: Stooping to Greatness)

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