Let the Scriptures Speak
Insiders And Outsiders
When once the master of the house has risen to lock the door
and you stand outside knocking and saying, 'Sir, open for us
he will say in reply,' I do not know where you come from.
All we know of heaven and hell comes to us in the form of images drawn from our ordinary human experience. Apart from Dante's imaginings, my candidate for the most powerful scenario of hell is the one in this Sunday's Gospel, quoted in part above. You arrive at a banquet to which you thought you were invited—and find yourself rejected at the door by the host. The image of eternal fire is frightening enough, but permanent rejection from the place where you thought you belonged—this, it seems to me, is an even more daunting prospect.
The image of the reign of God as banquet was central to Jesus’ preaching and mission. He drew it from Isaiah, it seems, and made it his own. “On this mountain,” says Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. … He will destroy death forever” (Is 25:6-8). This is a picture of God's salvation—a shalom that is universal ("all nations"), centered among the chosen people (“this mountain”—i.e., Zion), and ultimate (“he will destroy death forever”). But, as always in these celebrations of God's final victory, the Good News is accompanied by bad news for those who resist God's reign: “For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain, but Moab will be trodden down as a straw is trodden down in the mire” (Is 25:10).
This Sunday's reading from the last chapter of Isaiah draws upon another expression of that image of a final and universal gathering at end-time Zion. In this context, the nurturing is expressed not in the image of a banquet but in the more intimate one of a mother nursing a child at her breast. Again, the reach is fully inclusive: the nations accompany the scattered children of Israel home, and some of the Gentiles even get to serve as Temple priests. But the larger context of the passage also includes a sorting out: whereas “all mankind shall come to worship” Yahweh, yet the saved “shall go out and see the corpses of the men who rebelled against me” (Is 66:23-24).
Jesus took that banquet-gathering image a step further. He illustrated—or, better, demonstrated—his proclamation of God's reign in his action, his hosting of meals to which even tax collectors were invited. When religious officials challenged this behavior, Jesus defended this practice by telling the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons (Luke 15, where the prodigal son's return is celebrated in a banquet from which the elder son absents himself). As in Isaiah, the reach of the banquet is universal, but the response of those invited results in a sorting out of happy insiders and excluded outsiders. Jesus spells this out in the parable of the Great Feast (Luke 14), where those first invited absent themselves with vapid excuses and the feast is shared with the wretched brought in from the highways and byways.
Today's Gospel stresses the lot of those who have become outsiders through their failure to respond to the invitation. Exclusion does not come from lack in the “wideness of God's mercy.” People are flocking in from north, south, east, and west. Those standing outside are in fact presumptuous evildoers.
This stark image of Jesus is a wake-up call. The Good News of the kingdom carries warning that we could “blow it,” permanently, if we refuse the gift and task of the Gospel.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University