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Dramatic Irony

Commentary
Agatha Christie’s mystery play The Mousetrap opened in 1952, and it has been running longer than any other drama. When the show is over the cast asks the audience not to reveal the surprise ending so that others can enjoy the play. For the most part that’s worked.

There was no need for any such plea when it came to ancient Greek drama. Their plays were all based on familiar stories everyone already knew. The tension didn’t come from a surprise ending. So how did the dramatist maintain tension and suspense, much less interest, in a play where everyone knew how it would come out? It came from a technique known as “dramatic irony.” That means that while you know the ending, the characters in the play do not. How will they respond to the challenges? (There’s some of that in a movie like the Star Wars film Rogue One. Anyone who saw the original Star Wars which opened in 1977 already knows that the plans for the Death Star were smuggled to the princess. So we know how Rogue One must end. What we haven’t a clue about is what transformations the characters will go through, and who will live and who will die.)

There’s dramatic irony aplenty in these three texts. We know that even as the people pledge to be faithful to their Savior God, some will stray. Many of them will fail. That’s kind of our story too -- we’ve pledged to be faithful to a victorious God. We know the story of God’s history will end gloriously -- but how will it be for us?

In this widely misinterpreted passage from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians the apostle strives to make it clear, despite rumors spread among the Christians that those who die before Jesus returns are lost, that all the followers of Jesus are destined for glory when the Lord returns. That’s assuming, of course, that we are followers of Jesus.

In the gospel passage we know that Jesus will return. In this parable we also know that sooner or later the bridegroom will arrive -- but just as only half the bridesmaids are ready with oil-filled lamps, so too we have to ask: Will we be ready when Jesus returns?

Dramatic irony -- despite appearances, history is going to end well. The question remains, will it end well for us?

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
This scene in many ways looks like a Greek drama. Joshua is the main character. His lines go on at length. The people of God are the chorus, who listen and respond. Jacob recounts God’s salvation history with the people, from the Patriarchs through the exodus from Egypt and continuing through the conquest in Canaan. While they are no longer isolated in the wilderness, dependent on that God for food and water, they are still surrounded by many nations and many gods. The temptation still exists to serve not only their God but other gods as well. Many would feel it could do no harm to offer sacrifices to agricultural gods or fertility gods as long as they still worshiped the Lord. Joshua makes it clear that this is unacceptable. He concludes with a challenge: “Choose this day whom you will serve... as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

It’s like a horror movie. We want to cover our eyes and moan “I can’t look!” We already know they will stray as individuals and as a nation many times, until at last some are scattered by the Assyrians and others are taken into exile to Babylon.

Despite our hindsight, we can be thankful that God’s grace will redeem the people, the covenant will be renewed and restored, God will never forget them, and will forgive them.

Us too.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
One of the characteristics of the Gentile world was a total lack of hope in the hereafter. The classic myths thought of the afterlife as a shadowy place where, regardless of whether was one good or evil in life, one lived a vague existence of longing for the bright sun of the world. Occasionally a terrible punishment might be reserved for the worst of the worst, but the end of life was the end of real living. By Paul’s time many in the Roman empire believed the sleep of death was eternal.

But in Thessalonica the believers had a new hope. Paul writes to tell the believers that when Jesus returned it will be a time of glory. Everyone would share in the glory of Jesus’ return, regardless of whether they were alive at that moment or had already died.

The images of a trumpet sounding and believers rising in the air are inspired in part by the book of Daniel. This was a favorite of the early Christians. The Ancient of Days is seated on one throne, and the one like a Son of Man sits on the other. The Son of Man descends on the clouds to earth. Books like Enoch, Fourth Ezra, and even a stone tablet associated with the Dead Sea community make it clear that God’s eternal kingdom would be established not by might of arms but by humble suffering according to God’s will.

Paul uses these images from Daniel and other books of that time for his own purposes, to assure believers that when the trumpet sounds we’ll rise in the air as the Son of Man descended. It’s glory in both directions!

Matthew 25:1-13
Just what were the wedding customs like in Jesus’ day? Experts don’t always agree, but the scenario described in this parable has its supporters. It is thought that after the betrothal the groom would go out to work, save, and prepare a house for his bride. Without advance warning he and his attendants would return at sunset -- days later, weeks later, months later. There was no telling when. The bride would prepare for the wedding, ready for whenever he appeared, and her bridesmaids, who would take part in the wedding procession that followed would have lamps filled with oil ready for the big day. The groom is coming back sooner or later. The question is which bridesmaids will be ready and which will not. It’s the same question we have to answer for ourselves -- are we ready for the Bridegroom’s return?

People in Jesus’ time looked forward to Day of the Lord like a bride looked forward to her bridegroom’s return. On the Day of the Lord God’s reign would be known to all the nations, and the people of God would be vindicated. But Joel, Amos, Isaiah, and others asked the people pointedly to be careful what you wish for. If you are not doing what God expects, the Day of the Lord will not be glorious for you, it will be a day of gloom and darkness.

In this parable the bridal attendants who were not ready were ultimately locked out. This is, of course, not merely advice to the bridesmaids. The parable asks if we are ready for the Day of the Lord.
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