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Piety and Preparation for New Life (Am.5:18-24; I Th.4:13-18; Mt. 25:1-13.)

by Delores S. Williams

Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 7, 1990, p. 1020, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The prophet Amos warned the people that their shallow piety would not prepare them for the new life they believed God would bring. God finds no pleasure in their feasts, solemn assemblies, burnt offerings or peace offerings. Their pious acts are of no avail, for Godís pleasure is in justice that must "roll down like waters" and in righteousness that must be "like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24) The people have not practiced justice or righteousness.

Ancient Israel, whom Amos addresses, is no different from the solemn assembly we call the church. Our congregations are busy with study groups, prayers, youth work, Sunday-school preparation, preaching, outreach and even mission activities that they believe help prepare them for the new life of the kingdom Christ will bring. More often than not, all this pious activity has nothing to do with letting "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Countless times I have heard ministers at ministerial meetings say: If I preach too much about justice and take action in behalf of the oppressed, my congregation will fire me. Look at what happened to so-and-so, who tried seriously to bring justice issues into his church. They gave him the boot. Or, as one minister said, "How can I preach justice for the poor and the oppressed when my congregation consists of mine owners and bankers? These are the people causing the labor problems and unemployment in my town. I tried on two occasions and got duly warned about losing my job."

Many churches have become as complacent and isolated from the world of pain as ancient Israel was in Amosís time. Hence the church has not only lost the capacity to heed the voice of its prophets, it is also no longer prepared to meet Christ in the world or in the kingdom. Today, liberation theologians worldwide are as prophetic as Amos in denouncing the churchís way of supporting oppression rather than vigorously opposing it. Latin American prophet Gustavo Gutiérrez reminds the church: "God became human to be made poor. Thus the church must meet Christ today in the poor. It is from this encounter, rather than from piety, that the church gets new life.

Most of the church is apparently no more ready for this encounter than the five foolish maids were in Jesusí parable about the kingdom of heaven. Ten maidens set out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them, the foolish ones, took their lamps but no oil supply; the five wise maidens took the needed supply. When the bridegroom was announced the maids with their trimmed lamps were ready to go into the marriage feast. The five foolish maids had to scout around to find dealers from whom to buy oil. When they returned to the marriage feast, it was too late; the doors had been closed.

Though Jesus relates this parable to demonstrate that some believers will be unprepared to enter into the kingdom of new life that the bridegroom brings, the parable notes that both the wise and the foolish maidens slept when the bridegroom was delayed. At times, all the church fails to give full attention to the task it is supposed to accomplish. But when the church awakens, only part of it will be equipped with what it takes to participate in the new life that Christ the bridegroom brings. The prepared churches, like the wise maidens, begin their journey by correctly gauging the scope and nature of their mission. The unprepared churches underestimate what it takes to be ready to meet the new life the bridegroom brings.

I often think that the Christian base communities around the world, composed mostly of poor people who once belonged to the slumbering churches, are the five wise maidens. These communities represent the church advancing on its journey with the proper assessment of the scope and nature of its mission. From these base communities some of the most prophetic liberation theology has emerged to try to awaken the unprepared element of the church to the plight of the poor and oppressed. Their message to the world is the same as Jesusí message in the New Testament: Repent, for the kingdom of God is a hand.

The church at large is not heeding the gravity of this message. It cloaks itself in comfort, ignoring the politics of poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia that spreads oppression in the world like a fire out of control. The church seems to believe that the eschatological hope of which Paul speaks in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and in other places will be realized by steeping itself in spiritual exercises that have nothing to do with justice and righteousness in the world. Therefore much of the church is not prepared to be Godís kingdom on earth or to realize that kingdom when Christ brings it in the future. One can only hope that all the church will awaken and affirm that piety, as preparation for new life in Christís kingdom, is efficacious only when the church hears and heeds the words of prophets like Amos.


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