The master of the house said, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!” And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth… Luke 13:27.
Ah, the Last Judgement, a favorite of medieval artists, and more frequently met than paintings of the Resurrection! I’m afraid that the medieval concept of this event does not really align with our own ideas, if and when we ever even contemplate the Last Time. Devils having a super time grabbing and pitchforking unfortunates down to their just punishment, great maws of death awaiting (look at the bottom right-hand corner, the traditional spot for such depictions), fire always present, and so on. Then the justified good ones, being invited upwards by armies of angels amid music and (presumably) singing and rejoicing. Pretty clear cut, the choice offered us between bad and good, and we can never say we weren’t warned. In the picture above, Jesus looks away from that fiery scene as if to say “I told you so”.
Now considering the other two readings today, the emphasis seems not to be on the evil that men do, but rather the opportunities God has sent to us all, to avoid such calamity. Isaiah seems to be saying that salvation, set in a rather oblique future, will be offered to other, non-Jewish, communities, I looked up the strange names of those places, and they seemed to align with the missionary activity of St. Paul hundreds of years later. It has been suggested that Paul took Isaiah’s writings as a template for his missionary travels. On the other hand, the Letter to the Hebrews takes up the human reality of pain and failure, to cast it in a more positive mould, one that will allow us to become better people. It seems to suggest that if something horrible happens to us, we should look around and see if we might be able to act in a good way to please the Lord, no matter the circumstances (I don’t really believe God punishes us in this way; I think we do a wonderful job punishing ourselves. But I do see the benefit of us always being challenged to become better people, even from exceptional situations). There is a final plea to us readers to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves down and start all over again, presumably having learned our lesson. It seems to offer a recipe to help us deal with any bad thing that happens to us and asks what good can we make out of a bad situation. That seems to be a pretty positive course of action which might produce a better person out of any one of us and prevent us railing on about bad luck, being abandoned by God, and “why me?”.
Perhaps it would indeed be better to see what good can emerge from a bad situation. One example of this was a true story televised in 1992 which I gave to my Junior girl students each year. It concerned a wealthy young woman called Alison Gertz. She lived in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a very upscale part of the world. Her parents were business people, perhaps more concerned with their professional lives than their duties as parents of an adolescent girl, their only child. That girl, during a weekend when her parents were away at their house in the Hamptons (very expensive area on the south shore of Long Island), had a sexual experience with a barman who worked in a popular club in Manhattan. She became sick, and went through a harrowing set of tests to find out what was wrong; they found nothing. In desperation, the doctor tested her for AIDS. It was positive. She had AIDS. It was unbelievable. Girls never got it! Her first words on being diagnosed were “Oh my God, I’m going to die”. She plunged into deep depression, was angry at everything and everybody, screaming at her Dad for getting the wrong bandages; things like that. No-one could console her. She had a gay friend who stood by her, who once accidentally let slip a guilty thought. Half his friends had died in that plague, and nothing was being done. Then he said, “And nothing will be done until…..” “What?” asked Alison. “Until more people like you get it”, which of course was unhappily true. Alison however was still buried in despair and pain. Then another AIDS sufferer gave her a book to read, Love Medicine and Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel. Almost overnight she changed from an inward-looking, despairing emotionally crippled woman to someone who had a message for others because of what had happened to her. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother had became so upset at the idea that only gay people and druggies got AIDS, that she wrote to the New York Times to let them know what had happened to her daughter. That triggered a new life for Alison, speaking to school assemblies and others about the danger she had fallen victim to. Her depression was transformed into missionary zeal to prevent this happening to anyone else. No more inward-looking, highly negative focus on self, but a much more healthy concern about others and what she could do about it.
All this is to support what I mean by saying that out of even such shatteringly negative, painful, terrible events, goodness can emerge, and helping others once more becomes a true source of hope and even happiness. However, Alison did fall victim to the dread disease in the same year the TV movie was broadcast. But the good she had achieved she took with her, not despair, not hopelessness. Not the bottom right of the painting above, but the top left….
Alison Gertz, 1966-1992.