Pentecost 26A, 2011
A Liturgy is also available
ANCIENT DNA OR COMMUNAL CARE, NOW
Let me tell you a story. A factual story by the way.
The original teller was Douglas Cowan from the
First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque.
Bryan Sykes is a professor of human genetics at Oxford University.
He’s a DNA expert who is interested in the genetic history of the British Isles.
Of particular interest to him is how we have
connections to the past that live with us today.
In his book Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, Sykes tells about a
nine thousand-year-old skeleton found in Cheddar, England.
The skeleton is affectionately known as the Cheddar Man.
Dr Sykes and his team were able to extract DNA from the
dentine powder of the nine thousand-year-old Cheddar Man.
A local television station got wind of the project.
So they held a contest to see whether any of the locals
were a DNA match and thus related to the Cheddar Man.
Guess what? They found an identical match!
A local high school history teacher by the name of Adrian Targett
turned out to be a DNA match to the
nine thousand-year-old Cheddar Man (DCowan. www.uuabq.org/ 2008).
Now if ever you are ever accused by your children or anyone else,
as having antiquated views about life, here’s your excuse:
you’ve got ancient DNA!
In Matthew’s story today there is a lot of ‘ancient DNA’ flowing through it,
but I reckon, not much Jesus storytelling DNA in it. So let me explain.
If this story is what we call a ‘parable’ then where is the surprise?
The Jesus Seminar said this about the story:
“It does not cut against the religious and social grain. Rather if confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared will succeed, those not prepared will fail… it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects…” (Funk 1993:254).
The story also emphasises boundaries or a ‘closed door policy’, which again,
is quite contrary to those parables designated as authentically Jesus.
So while I too don’t reckon it is a parable, and… there may not be any or much Jesus DNA in this story,
there are several other ‘ancient’ sub-themes
that seem to be running through it.
Here are some suggestions as to what three of those sub-themes might be:
1. Community life and communal care
2. Second Coming of Jesus
So let’s touch on these three and ponder them for a moment.
1. Community life and communal care
In a society where there is limited amount of wealth, and where
one person’s gain is another person’s loss, the actions of the so-called
five wise young women raises the question:
How do we deal with issues of scarcity in our community?
With the growing economic instability reflected in bank failures, home foreclosures, and uncertainty,
“choosing to hold on to our own largesse is a natural response, but is it Christian?”, asks Process theologian Bruce Epperly. “What would have happen if the [women] had pooled their resources? Would they all have been excluded from the party or rewarded for their quest to be generous?” (BEpperly. P&F web site, 2008)
2. Second Coming of Jesus
Those who hear ‘end times’ and ‘second coming’ strains in this story, do so
because Matthew as storyteller has placed this story among several others,
where the message of ‘stay alert’ and ‘be ready’,
and ‘judgment and reward’ are emphasised.
But Dom Crossan has this important comment on the so-called Second Coming which,
I reckon, also needs to be heard:
“The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen violently. The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence” (Crossan 2007:231)
Over the past few years there have been charges brought against
some ministers who have blessed gay/lesbian ‘unions’, by others
who disagree with both this action, and indeed, any role for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) people in the church.
The basis of the claims is usually presented as ‘contrary to scripture’.
This and other claims are then supported by a list of scripture passages
identified by those prosecuting the charge, as relating
in some way to marriage and the marital relationship.
Coupled with a call to return to the ‘biblical understanding of marriage’.
One such passage often used this way, is this story.
Let me be open and honest and upfront.
Such a claim is, I reckon, skating on very thin ice indeed!
There is no such thing as ‘a’ biblical understanding of marriage.
Indeed, we have very limited, if any, information on
1st century Palestinian Jewish wedding customs.
What we can glean from a range of sources, seems to be:
(i) marriage was not based on a couple ‘falling in love’, but was an arrangement made
“by the elders of the two families to enhance their social, political and economic positions” (Reid 2001:192);
(ii) the ideal marriage partner was your first cousin, your brother’s son or daughter, and
(iii) the marriage was arranged and ratified by the fathers, but the mothers negotiated the terms.
The wedding then took place in two stages:
(i) a betrothal, lasting a year or more, at the home of the bride’s father, then
(ii) a transfer of the young bride, often no more than 12 – 13 years of age,
to the home of her husband.
This story by Matthew opens at the conclusion of the negotiations,
with the bridegroom coming to collect the bride.
“The [young] women are relatives and friends of the groom. They are not bridesmaids… The bride is never mentioned in the [story]” (Reid 2001:193).
I say ‘young women’ rather than following many Catholic scholars
who use ‘maidens’ or ‘virgins’ or ‘bridesmaids’, because the word used
to designate them is the same word used in the story of Jesus’ birth,
which has also been translated as ‘virgin’.
The word does not mean that.
It means ‘a young woman of marriageable age’.
But bishops and the preservation of conservative doctrine,
overrides scholarship, often ‘come hell or high water’!
Well, that’s a few comments on three of the sub-themes in this story.
I’ll leave it to you to decide which, if any, touches your life experiences.
I resonate with the first – Community life and communal care.
Especially in light of the growing economic instability reflected in
bank failures, home foreclosures and the economic uncertainty in our time.
As we prepare to protect what we now have, how do we balance this concern,
with a concern for the needs of others, especially those
who are now most vulnerable to almost total loss?
Back in the 1960s an American bloke called James Luther Adams reckoned
that for us to be fully authentic in our humanity,
our intimate beliefs about reality needed to be lived out in our society,
not restricted to the individual realm.
So I wonder how we all might react if the minister in the next suburb along the Valley,
was to suggest that our congregations might commit themselves
“to sacrificial giving in order to support persons in [other] congregations who lose their jobs or are threatened with foreclosure?” (BEpperly. P&F web site, 2008)
Are we just a group of unrelated individuals or the interdependent body of Christ?
It certainly causes me to think.
Especially when the Saint Vincent de Paul Society says there is at least
105,000 people in Australia right now, who experience homelessness
on any given night!
Crossan, J. D. 2007. God and Empire. Jesus against Rome, then and now. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. (ed) 1993. The Five Gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. Macmillan.
Reid, B. E. 2001. Parables for Preachers. The Gospel of Matthew. Year A. MN: Minnesota. The Liturgical Press.