As we approach the end of the Church year, the readings continually urge us to think about divine judgment – and help us to understand what it really means.
Our Gospel reading is the parable of the wedding feast: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.”
This story enriches our understanding of judgment in two directions. First, it shows the real meaning of punishment. The king in the parable casts the unworthy guest “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
We tend to focus on the wailing and grinding of teeth. We could call this the “active” aspect of punishment: the king is hurting that man! But we ought to focus on the “darkness,” and even more, the “outside.” We could call this the “passive” aspect of punishment: the true punishment is not what the king is doing to the man, but what the man is refusing to receive from the king.
God has prepared a feast for us. Hell is not where God, or anyone else, whips us. Hell is where we would wail and grind our teeth, because we are outside, in the darkness, without the great feast that God offers. He has prepared a feast; it is we who choose to starve.
Second, this story shows the real meaning of “worthiness,” the criteria of judgment. It does this through a series of images of unworthiness. Paradigmatic are those who “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Perhaps we are not surprised that “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Here it seems, again, that punishment is an active thing: they actively do evil, and he actively punishes them for that evil.
But first comes another interesting – and ultimately revealing – category. “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” What excludes these ones from the feast? Not the king’s positive action against them, but their failure to receive the feast he offers them.
These ones seem innocent enough. Farms and businesses aren’t bad. But the image of the feast calls us to see more deeply what the real criterion of judgment is. It’s not that they’re hurting anyone. It’s that they refuse to receive the feast. They choose to remain in the darkness, outside. In this sense, their farms and businesses are not so innocent: not because those things making the king angry, but because they are choosing wailing and grinding of teeth, choosing something else instead of the feast.
Indeed, only these characters make sense of those who kill the servants. Why do we kill the prophets, kill the martyrs, kill Jesus, hate the messengers of the Church? Only, and precisely, because they distract us from our other interests by calling us to the feast. This ends in destruction, to be sure. But it is self-inflicted.
The parable ends, strangely, “many are called, few are chosen.” Chosen? It doesn’t match the story, in which many seemed to be chosen. The point is that God’s choice, God’s judgment of us, is purely in our choice of him. Not to choose and not to be chosen are one and the same.
This, too, is the explanation of the third man who is punished, the man “without a wedding garment.” Why is the king so angry with this man? Only because he refuses to celebrate, refuses to participate in the feast. Even to be at the feast, but not to celebrate fully, is already to be in the outer darkness: not because he does not choose us, but because we do not choose him.
Listen closely – like one in a wedding garment – to the reading from Isaiah, where God offers “a feast of rich food and choice wines,” and will “wipe away the tears from every face.” This is the offer. This is what we choose to refuse: to stay instead in the “web” of death.
This is the secret to the reading from Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry.” “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
It is not that God gives some rule that we will be punished if we refuse to go hungry. Not at all. Rather, we have no fear of going hungry in this world, when we know that God in “his glorious riches,” offers us the perfect feast, the only thing that really matters, his presence.
Do we approach Christ – in our prayer life, in our moral obligations – as anything other than the most delightful feast? Do we see the darkness of being outside of that feast?