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NOVEMBER 6, 2011: THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Wisdom 6:12-16
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

One of the most difficult things for new Scripture students to accept is that some of what most Christians believe today wasn't believed by some of the faith communities for whom our sacred authors wrote. Today's I Thessalonians passage provides a classic example.

Already in my first grade religion classes, back in 1945, I learned what happens when we leave this earth. The instant we die we'll face a "particular" judgment. God will review our entire life, and decide whether we go to heaven, hell, or purgatory. Then, when Jesus returns in the Parousia, everyone who's ever lived will undergo a "general" judgment, similar to the particular judgment, but now everyone will be able to find out where everyone else ends up. Sadly, purgatory will be eliminated. We'll spend eternity in heaven or hell.

Though I presumed God hand-delivered this after-life scenario exactly as I learned it, I later discovered this precise sequence is found no place in Scripture. As a matter of fact, in the earliest Christian writing we posses - I Thessalonians - Paul provides his community with a belief few of us would accept today, a belief later contradicted by other biblical authors.

It seems the first Christians were convinced no follower of Jesus would die before he returned in the Second Coming. That's why there was consternation in Thessalonica when someone walked into a room one morning and discovered a dead Christian. Would the deceased miss out on being with the risen and returned Jesus when he finally arrived triumphant on earth? Or, if they did take part, would they be relegated to the "end of the line" when the heavenly goodies were passed out?

As we hear today, Paul's convinced those who have died won't bring up the rear; the living "will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep." But the Apostle presumes the dead will have to pass the interval between their demise and Jesus' Parousia lying peacefully in their graves. There's no particular judgment.

About 35 years after I Thessalonians, when we get to Luke's Acts of the Apostles narrative of Stephen's martyrdom, do we first hear about Jesus coming to meet the faithful at the moment of death. (That's why Luke's Jesus can assure the good thief, "This day you will be with me in paradise!" If there were a good thief in Matthew and Mark, Jesus would probably say, "You'll have to spend a little time in the grave, but then, when I return, you'll be with me in paradise.")

In our bridesmaids pericope Jesus is more concerned with what's happening now than what will take place when we die. Though most interpret "kingdom of heaven" as a synonym for where we hope to spend eternity, Scripture scholars constantly remind us it's one of the gospel-Jesus' terms for God working effectively in our lives right here and now. Jesus teaches that only the "properly prepared" will be able to experience God in their day by day lives. For the rest, it's like being outside a closed and locked door. (One must read Matthew's prior 24 chapters to discover how a "wise bridesmaid" prepares to welcome the bridegroom.)

Though some might be disturbed to find Scripture isn't as specific on life after death as we would like, perhaps our Wisdom author can help cushion our discomfort. He or she is convinced our purpose in life isn't to have all the answers, but to engage in a constant quest to discover the essential role God plays in everything we do and are. True wisdom consists in such a day by day endeavor. "Taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care    "

I presume there are still things to discover about the after-life. But only the "wise" will engage in the quest.