The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A Glimpse of Heaven?
Matthew continues to provide scenes of the “end times” as the conclusion of his own Gospel narrative draws near. This Sunday, Matthew’s parable is reinforced by eschatological images in Isaiah 25 and Psalm 23. Perhaps to the surprise of some, these scenes reveal a judgment scene in which the good and bad mix together, with members from opposite sides and all nations gathered in the same banquet hall.
The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests. (Mt 22:10)
How will you pray this week for the coexistence of people in conflict?
Can you see yourself in the presence of others whom you would rather avoid?
Are you wearing your best “wedding garment” for God’s invitation to the feast?
This is a timely message, as Hamas attacked Israel earlier this week. Retaliation will be even harsher for the Palestinian people now that Israel has declared war. Geography, which is at the heart of this conflict, also provides a lens through which to understand our Scriptures. In such a small territory, one can only hope that different peoples can co-exist in peace. This Sunday’s readings speak of the fulfillment of that hope.
Isaiah’s vision can be understood as a portrait of God’s final judgment of humanity. Throughout this section of Isaiah’s writings, the prophet grapples with the historical reality that ancient Israel was surrounded by enemies often bigger and stronger. In this Sunday’s first reading, he concludes that death will not be the final outcome of this reality. “On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all people… he will destroy death forever” (Is 25:7-8). The location “this mountain” is specific. It is Mt. Zion, the location of God’s temple in Jerusalem. No longer the target of its enemies, Jerusalem will experience salvation “in the end.” This is not for the exclusive benefit of the Israelites, but that all peoples might experience salvation through God’s victory over death.
This is a timely message, as Hamas attacked Israel earlier this week. In such a small territory, one can only hope that different peoples can co-exist in peace. This Sunday’s readings speak of the fulfillment of that hope.
This Sunday’s psalm and Gospel reinforce this inclusive salvation. In Psalm 23, a hymn often used at funeral services, God protects a person who must travel through hostile territory. This journey has an unexpected ending: “You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes” (Ps 23:5). Here the generous host lavishes food and drink on the guest of honor, even as the guest’s enemies sit at the same table and share the same space. If this passage offers a glimpse of eternity, it implies that we might be spending it with those we might have preferred to avoid in this life.
This Sunday’s Gospel contains a similar image. People from all walks of life have crowded into a banquet hall. “The servants went into the streets,” said Jesus, “and gathered all they found, good and bad alike, and the hall was filled with guests” (Mt 22:10). This scene, with the wicked and the righteous sharing a banquet, and friends and enemies filling the same hall, provides a hopeful image that the “end times” will be an event in which humanity will get along, even as it struggles to do so now.
Matthew complicates matters with his discussion of the “wedding crasher,” who winds up thrown into the darkness (Mt 22:11-13). Weddings in the ancient world were formal, highly ritualistic affairs. No matter one’s background, attendance at a wedding required guests to follow rules of dress and etiquette that could sometimes be quite elaborate. A guest who did not dress appropriately and offered no words of greeting or thanks to the host would have been considered shockingly rude. In this particular parable, in spite of the abrupt nature of the invitation, guests were expected to leave behind their mundane clothing and behavior and participate in the dress and rituals of the feast. This “new” way of being together was the social institution that smoothed out possible hostilities among guests and brought harmony among the righteous and the wicked. This strange addendum to the parable contains a call to disciples of every age to leave our “old cloaks” behind and put on new garments and follow the new commandments of the great banquet of heaven.