Though Sunday's first reading (Is 25: 6-10) often is used during funeral liturgies, it actually has nothing to do with the afterlife. The prophet spoke these words almost 600 years before a small segment of Jews reached the insights about heaven and hell that most people of faith share today.

Isaiah simply is painting a picture of the glorious age on earth which every ancient Israelite anticipated. "On that day," Mt. Zion (the hill on which the Jerusalem temple was built) will no longer be a place just for Jewish pilgrimages or the offering of Jewish sacrifices. It will supply experiences all people desire.

Not only will hunger be abolished, God will "wipe away the tears from every face." And once and for all, God will "destroy the veil that veils all people, the web that is covering all nations."

Because "people and nations" are the terms which authors of the Hebrew Scriptures usually employ when they're referring to non-Jews, Isaiah is saying here that when "that day" arrives, even Gentiles will believe in Yahweh.

Death destroyed

But the aspect of this new age that most draws our attention is the prophet's promise that at the moment it begins, God "will destroy death forever."

Such a statement doesn't mean people will be transported from earth to heaven after their death. It just says people will never die, period. They'll continue to live on this planet, perpetually happy and fulfilled.

In some ways, Isaiah's ideal state parallels Jesus' parable about the king's wedding banquet (Mt 22: 1-14). Both are about this life, not the afterlife. Each describe an event for which all Jews are waiting. They're the "invited guests:" the people who of centuries have been looking for Yahweh's salvation.

But Jesus gives a twist to His story that Isaiah doesn't mention: Those who were originally invited refuse to show up for the festivities! Ironically, the "people" in Isaiah from whom Yahweh promised to remove the veil are the only ones who come to the celebration.

The invited guests' refusal was one way first-century Christians looked at the general Jewish rejection of Jesus and His reform movement. Yet it has nothing to do with their getting into heaven. It only means that, right here and now, those who accept Jesus' invitation to faith are living more happy, fulfilled lives than those who reject that invitation.

(Scripture scholars are convinced this passage's last lines about someone without a wedding garment comprise a completely different parable. The early Christian community combined this story with the original parable only because both refer to wedding banquets.)


The idea of fulfilled lives in the present is also what Paul is talking about in the second reading (Phil 4: 12-14, 19-20). Because of his faith, it makes no different whether he lives "in humble circumstances or in abundance." His whole existence is transformed once he joins in Jesus' death and resurrection. "I have learned," he writes, "the secret of being well fed and of going hungry."

Having been raised in a religion whose main goal was to "get us into heaven," most of us didn't spend a lot of time concentrating on the quality of life we experienced before heaven. We presumed that the certitude we were going to spend our eternity with God would be enough to make this life meaningful.

Yet Sunday's readings point out once again that the original Christian emphasis on the "kingdom of heaven" revolved around what's happening different in our lives now because of our faith. If we can't surface any difference, we're surely not imitating the faith of Jesus.

We probably haven't noticed that we've already excused ourselves from the wedding banquet. (10-10-02)