In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” the main character, Mrs. Turpin, is a proper southern lady who has a very high opinion of herself and a very low opinion of nearly everyone else. But when she’s brought up short by an accusation from a mentally unstable girl in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, she wrestles like Job with questions of God’s intentions and her own place in the kingdom.
The story closes with a vision of “vast hordes of souls rumbling toward heaven.” At the very end of the procession she sees those with whom she most identifies, orderly and proper to the end. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This vision, this revelation, may finally turn her from her self-righteous obsession with other people’s failings. The story ends on a note of hope and expansiveness.
I always think of this particular story, not surprisingly, when I hear the line from today’s Gospel: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The shock Mrs. Turpin experienced when her worldview was turned upside down must have been something like what the people in Jesus’ parable felt when the Lord said, “I do not know where you are from.”
It seems that we see a lot of religious posturing in the media these days, particularly from politicians who are already racing toward the 2008 presidential election. Religion has become a hot issue, and unfortunately people are too often more interested in presenting themselves as “religious” than in taking a genuinely faith-based approach to the issues and wrestling with Scripture and church teaching and the way to bring these things to bear on 21st century situations. It’s difficult to distill faith into a soundbite. There is also an increasing emphasis on “My religion is better than your religion” or “Inherent in the truth of my religion is your wrongness.”
Both the Gospel and the first reading from Isaiah remind us that religion is neither a popularity contest nor an exclusive club. Isaiah tells us that the Lord says, “I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.” There’s always going to be tension between being committed to one’s own beliefs and open to dialogue with those of other faiths. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as the Chosen People interacted with the cultures around them. We see it in the New Testament as the early Christian communities worked to define themselves in relationship to their Jewish roots. We certainly see it in our pluralistic American society with its emphasis on a separation of church and state. And we even see it within the Catholic church as liberals, conservatives argue about who’s the most orthodox, who’s really Catholic.
The official stance of the church is clear in the documents of Vatican II, in the Catechism, in the writings of the popes and the bishops. It’s also clear in the Gospel. As children of the one God, we are to see all people as our brothers and sisters, created by God and held in the infinite mystery and mercy of God’s grace. Our focus needs to be on the Good News and the good works generated by our faith in God. We are heirs to the inclusive love Jesus practiced as he walked this earth.