THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT
Smiling At the Back of the Crowd
Matthew 25.11 The other girls arrived.
"Sir, Sir! Let us in!" they cried out. "Certainly not!" the bridegroom
It's sometimes asserted that Jesus
did not intend to found an institution, that his primary concern was for a
loving way of living. People, it is said, were his primary focus.
Matthew's story of the wise and foolish girls raises
questions about the nature of the loving way.
Matthew's main point is clear from the start. Some of us
will not make it - just as the foolish girls weren't recognised by the
bridegroom. The way God does things, he says, is to exclude anyone who
doesn't meet God's standards.
The door which shuts out the foolish maidens is a
definite boundary between an accepted in-group and an unacceptable
out-group. The sheep are separated from the goats and some are excluded
from the wedding feast. The ninety-nine are protected, while the one is
The Church has followed Matthew's lead and excluded some
people from its fellowship from the earliest times.
Similarly, in exasperation at the behaviour of converts,
Paul recommends the exclusion from the Christian fellowship of those who
don't change their ways. The Letter of James rails against the rich. The
First Letter of John differentiates between the children of God and of the
Devil: "Anyone who does not do what is right or does not love his brother
is not God's child." To this day, strict rules and barriers exclude from
the Church those who don't meet certain criteria.
Perhaps, I speculate, this long-established norm of
exclusion is similar to the "tough love" practised by some parents of
drug-addicted teenagers. There comes a point, they say, when the young
person must be excluded from home and hearth. For one thing, the damage
done to others is too great if they remain in the family. For another,
only they can kick the habit. No amount of love and care from others will
achieve that for them. Maybe, then, Christian exclusion is similar to
Another possibility is that exclusion is necessary to
preserve the purity of the gospel. Institutions like the Church have to
protect themselves from false teachings and immorality.
But in so doing, the Church may have down-played the
very thing it was formed to promote. As Richard Holloway puts it:
The Church has the impossible task of developing an institution and
its logic of power in order to preserve the memory of one whose mission
was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power and its ethic of
expedience, even at the cost of his own death .
So one can forgive Matthew and his successors for getting it wrong (or
only partly right). One way or another, I suppose we all miss the mark
like that in our lives.
Nevertheless, Christians inside and outside the Church are today faced
with an even more severe challenge to the universal ("catholic")
acceptance and inclusiveness which is central to a loving way of living.
For more than a century, the Church's sects (more politely usually
called "denominations") have tried to unite, They have mostly failed.
Meanwhile, the issue of Christian unity is being left behind by a slow
realisation that Church as an institution is itself part of a larger
One way of putting this is that God, often through those outside the
official Church, is presently reaching out to other religions in a way
which threatens Christian exclusiveness to an unprecedented degree.
Christian congregations, isolated and insulated as they are by a defensive
Church hierarchy, for the most part haven't recognised the challenge. And
even when they have, they have hastened to once more raise high the
Let Richard Holloway take the point further:
One of the heartening things about our own day is that there is an
increasing army of Christians whose love of Jesus and the outcasts he
celebrated places them on the critical edge of the Church, neither
comfortably in nor comfortably out. It's not a bad place to be.
Sometimes, right at the back of the crowd, it's possible to see Jesus
When we re-look at Matthew's story, we discover that Jesus isn't the
bridegroom but the man smiling at the back of the crowd of shut-out girls,
prepared to challenge an entire society based on exclusion and religious
In the loving way of living, nobody is expendable.
 Richard Holloway,
What's the Use of the Church?