Unless – Lois Sorensen reflects on the parables of the bridesmaids and The Lorax.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday November 6-12, Year A (2023, 2026)
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Karl Barth reportedly once said that we should preach as we “hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” If he were alive today, he might instead say we should preach as we “hold the Bible (or a phone with a Bible app on it) in one hand and an internet-equipped information device (our phone, tablet or laptop with links to online news and quasi-news sources) in the other.”
Although there have been unprecedented wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme events in the news, which reputable scientists can link to climate change and other human-influenced activity, it may have been a while since some of us have held environmental issues in “the other hand” as we engage in Biblical preaching or teaching. Long before the Israel-Hamas War, domestic mass casualty events du jour, and other recent “if it bleeds, it leads” news that deserves to be discussed prophetically, the majority of Protestant pastors have reported addressing environmental issues less than once a year. (Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalis Press, 2015. Page 1, quoting 2009 research from Mark Kelly no longer accessible on www.Lifeway.com).
Our lectionary uses the reading from Amos to provide something of a “warm-up act” for the parable in our reading from Matthew. Amos refers to “the day of the Lord” and questions why the people want it arrive (Amos 5:18). Instead of the day of deliverance they expect, it will be a day of justice (Amos 5:29). In terms of imagery, Amos refers to that day being shrouded in darkness (Amos 5:19 and Amos 5:20) due to the people’s transgressions, not unlike what that the foolish bridesmaids in the parable will experience as their lamps run out of oil (Matthew 25:8), especially when they are shut out of the wedding banquet when the bridegroom arrives after midnight (Matthew 25:10).
Prior to our appointed verses, Amos describes some of the people’s transgressions. From Amos 2:6-8 alone, we know these transgressions include: selling fellow Israelites into slavery for owing as little as the cost of a pair of sandals, mistreatment of the poor and afflicted, condoning sexual misconduct (such as allowing a father and son to “go in to” the same woman), and making loans that require collateral. In our appointed verses, speaking through Amos, God expresses frustration with the people’s assumption that their festivals, assemblies, offerings, music, and other religious rituals will make them acceptable to God (Amos 5:21-23) despite such transgressions of injustice and unrighteousness. In other words, the rituals themselves are not rejected as improper or impure; rather, “the problem is the absence of justice and righteousness” (Margaret Odell, “Commentary on Amos 5:18-24” from 2017; accessed on www.workingpreacher.com).
Bracketing this expression of frustration, Amos provides us with an ecological “foot in the door” we can creatively extend in Matthew. Namely, Amos uses imagery from nature to describe God’s coming judgement and justice. First, the people are warned that, instead of being safe despite their transgressions, they will be relently hunted-down like someone who fearfully flees from a lion, runs into a scary bear along the way, and arrives safely at home only to be bitten by a poisonous snake (Amos 5:19). Second, although God previously promised Noah that a great flood would never happen again in response to the people’s wickedness (Genesis 8:20; Genesis 9:8-11); God, speaking through Amos, calls for a metaphorical flood of justice. God calls for justice to “roll down like waters” and righteousness to prevail “like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
There is no lion, bear, snake, or mighty source of water in the appointed verses from Matthew. There is, however, oil for the bridesmaids’ lamps. Remember that oil!
Our readings from Amos and Matthew are both about people who expect to be saved by God. The “day of the Lord” in Amos parallels the wedding banquet in Matthew, and the wedding banquet parable in Matthew is generally interpreted as an extended allegory about the second coming of Jesus Christ. In fact, it is part of an eschalogical discourse that also includes other “watchful” parables in the preceeding chapter of Matthew (Dirck G. Lange, “Commentary on Matthew 25:1-13” from 2020, accessed from www.workingpreacher.com).
In this particular parable, Jesus is represented by the bridegroom and “the church” is represented by the group of ten bridesmaids. The wedding banquet represents the parousia (the second coming of Christ), so it does not begin until the bridegroom arrives. The bridegroom finally arrives after midnight, just as Jesus had said (prior to the appointed verses) that “the Son of Man” would return “at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:36 and Matthew 24:44). To some extent, “the church” as a whole is unprepared; after all, all the bridesmaids fall asleep while waiting for the bridegroom. But, like “the church” to this day, they are a “mixed community” (Lange) in that some of the people are truly “faithful” (the “wise” bridemaids who have been frugal about using the oil in their lamps).
There is that oil again! Oil for the lamps at this wedding banquet would have been pressed from olives. Jesus in Matthew, like God the Father in Amos, is using something relatively common from God’s glorious creation to represent something else; the oil pressed from of olives is being used to express a Biblical concept. But what if, instead of equating a bridemaid’s reserve of olive oil as a sign of faithfulness, we equate the thought process they went through as a sign of wise stewardship of God’s glorious creation (an ecologically responsible way of living-out one’s faithfulness)? After all, it is presumably out of an abundance of caution (due to uncertainty regarding the time of the bridegroom’s arrival) that the “wise” bridesmaids are so frugal about using the oil in their lamps. In addition to still having enough to fuel their lamps, such frugality might eventually result in an excess supply which (contrary to the Biblical storyline) could be offered to the “foolish” to fuel their lamps or (beyond the Biblical storyline) could be wisely repurposed to serve the those awaiting the wedding festivities in other ways, such as culinary or medicinal products.
Sadly, within the church and our broader society, some people function with very different standards of natural resource stewardship. There are those who call themselves Christians who have a poorly-informed understanding of what it means to “have dominion” (Genesis 1:28) or seriously believe that that it is morally permissible to squander God’s glorious creation in our time because God will make all things new in the end times (the New Earth with its New Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21 and 22). And there are others, whether or not they honor the rituals of religion on Sunday morning and maybe Wednesday night, who strictly adhere to a philosophy of “tyrannical anthropology” which holds humankind superior to everything else (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2018, p. 198) and assigns value to everything else based on its utility to humankind.
Under the influence of such faulty theology or philosophy, the “foolish” might seem “wise” and the “wise” foolish. And that is where The Lorax enters into this commentary. People of a certain age, or people who once read such books to children now of a certain age, might recall this story. Setting aside the personal moral failings of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the Lutheran (Missouri Synod) who wrote The Lorax and many other children’s stories under the pen name Dr. Suess, this book can inform the application of Matthew’s parable in our preaching and teaching roles today.
In this book (Dr. Suess Enterprises, L.P., The Lorax. New York, New York: Random House, 1971.), the resource being overused is thneed knitted from the tuft of Truffula trees, not oil pressed from the fruit of Olive trees. The prophetic title character “speaks for the trees” and the Brown Bar-ba-loots (who depend on the Truffula trees for habitat and food) and other creatures (who are impacted by pollution from the thneed factories), but the people do not listen. Eventually, the last of the Truffula trees are cut down so that its tuft can be harvested. The factory workers all leave and the land is left desolate. The Lorax creates something of a shrine marked with with word “UNLESS” and then departs. The story ends with its storyteller, a remnant of the family who once owned the factories, admitting that he finally understood what the Lorax was trying to say: “UNLESS someone like you care a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not” [The Lorax, unnumbered page]. And then the storyteller hands-over the last seed from the Truffula tree and says, “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back” [The Lorax, unnumbered page].
Our role in the church and in our society is not simply to be “wise” bridesmaids. It is to be a legion of Lorax, for the sake of all the bridesmaids and all the Bar-ba-loots and all of creation, all for the Glory of God.
Originally written by Lois Ann Sorensen in 2023.