Nov 23, 2014: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe (A)

Introduction

The Feast of Christ the King was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as an antidote to secularism. The feast is intended to proclaim in a striking and effective manner Christ’s royalty over individuals, families, society, governments, and nations.

Originally celebrated on the last Sunday of October, it was transferred after the Second Vatican Council to the last Sunday of the Liturgical Year, the Sunday before Advent.

1st Reading – Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17

Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.

As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.

Today’s first reading provides an image of God as the Good Shepherd, a metaphor that aptly characterizes both God’s concern and God’s personal intervention in the shepherding of the flock.

Referring to kings as shepherds is a long prophetic tradition, particularly in Jeremiah.  This chapter of Ezekiel influenced Zechariah 11:4-17; together they helped to form New Testament readings like Mark 6:34 and John 10.

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.

The ten verses preceding this passage are a bitter indictment of the wicked shepherds of God’s people (i.e., the leaders of Israel). In light of their failure, Yahweh proclaims that he, the owner of the flock, will step in to shepherd them personally.

There is no intermediary here; God is immediately involved.

As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark.

God promises to reunite his scattered flock, bring them back in from the darkness.

I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal

God appears to be particularly interested in the most vulnerable sheet of the flock, those that were lost or who have strayed, those that are injured or sick.  There is a definite sense that the sheep are not responsible for their predicament; the former shepherds are.

but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.

This statement about destroying the sleek and the strong members of the flock is a curious one, leading scholars to believe that the last two verses of this passage probably pertain more to the interpretation intended by the prophet rather than to a dimension of the metaphor itself.

Since God is the shepherd and the weak flock is the People of God, the “sleek and the strong” may refer to those sheep who would lead the others astray or take advantage of their strength at the expense of others.  They will be treated very harshly.  The Hebrew states that God will “feed them with judgment” (mishpāt).

As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.

The final scene is also one of mishpāt.  Even those who have been under the care of the shepherd will face an accounting.

2nd Reading –  1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28

Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through man,
the resurrection of the dead came also through man.
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end,
when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father,
when he has destroyed every sovereignty
and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
When everything is subjected to him,
then the Son himself will also be subjected
to the one who subjected everything to him,
so that God may be all in all.

This reading from Paul’s Corinthian correspondence brings together several of his most treasured theological themes: the efficacy of Christ’s resurrection; human solidarity in Adam and in Christ; the sequence of eschatological events; and the victory of Christ.

The passage carries us first back through time to the primordial period of beginnings, and then forward to the end of time and the eschatological age of fulfillment.

Brothers and sisters: Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

This speaks to the end-time in double fashion: “fallen asleep” is a euphemism for death, and firstfruits refers to harvest.

The firstfruits of a crop were believed to contain the most forceful expression of the life of the plant, and they stood as a promise of more yield to come.  It is also a Jewish cultic term. The offering of the first fruits to God was symbolic of the dedication of the entire harvest.

As the firstfruits of the dead, the risen Christ is the most forceful expression of life after death, and his resurrection contains the promise of resurrection for all who are joined to him.

“Paul says this in order to get at the false prophets who claimed that Christ was never born and thus cannot have died. The resurrection from the dead proves that Christ was a man and therefore able to merit by His righteousness the resurrection of the dead.” The Ambrosiaster (A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,

Parallelism and contrast between Adam and Christ is a favorite theme of Paul’s
(Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49).

While Adam was the first human, he also stands for the entire race.  The Hebrew word itself (ādām) yields both a singular and collective meaning.

Here Paul is referring to human solidarity in Adam when he declares that one man sinned and brought death into the world, and in that one man is all of humankind.  In an analogous fashion, Christ is the person Jesus, and joined in faith, all believers participate in the resurrected life of Christ.  This is clearly meant by the phrase “death came through a human being (ánthrōpos)”; “the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being (ánthrōpos)”.  In both instances the deed is accomplished by one ánthrōpos who stands for all.

“The very human nature which was cast down must itself also gain the victory. For it was by this means that the reproach was wiped away.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 39,5]

but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end,

The eschatological events Paul is describing will transcend time, with every aspect grounded in the resurrection of Christ.  First he is raised, then at his final coming (parousía) those who are joined to Christ are raised.  Only when this has taken place will the end (télos) come.

when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.

Paul seems to suggest there is an interval between the parousía and the final end, when Christ, having completed his redemptive mission and brought all the elect to the glory of his resurrection, hands everything over to the Father.  During this time all of Christ’s enemies will be vanquished.

“What rule and power will Christ destroy? That of the angels? Of course not! That of the faithful? No. What rule is it then? That of the devils, about which He says that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, the powers and the forces of darkness in this present age.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 39,6]

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Quoting Psalm 110:1b, Paul sketches a picture of the risen Christ with his foot on the neck of death, his vanquished enemy.  This picture of victory was common in the ancient Near Eastern world.  The enemy could either be dead or merely quelled, but in any case, conquered.

“Hence the first step in the mystery is that all things have been made subject to Him, and then He Himself becomes subject to the One who subjects all things to Himself. Just as we subject ourselves to the glory of His reigning body, the Lord Himself in the same mystery subjects Himself in the glory of His body to the One who subjects all things to Himself. We are made subject to the glory of His body in order that we may possess the glory with which He reigns in the body, because we shall be conformable to His body.” [Saint Hilary of Poiters (A.D. 356-359), The Trinity 11,36]

When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

At the final consummation, God will be all in all.  All came from God; all returns to God.  From the beginning, God was the purpose and the end of all things.  At the end, all purposes will be realized.  All reality will have come home.

Gospel – Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left,
‘Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?’
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”

The scene of the Last Judgment as it unfolds in today’s gospel reading is both sobering and surprising.  It is a scene of apocalyptic splendor and majesty, a scene of separation of the righteous from the unrighteous, a scene of reward and punishment.

Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 

Jesus sketches a vision of the eschatological future.  The coming of the Son of Man, the angels, and the glorious throne are all reminiscent of the apocalyptic scene of the coming of one like a Son of Man in Daniel 7:14.

and all the nations will be assembled before him.

Note the universalism: all people are brought before him for judgment and sentencing.  Before the end the gospel will have been preached throughout the world (see Matthew 24:14), and all will be judged on their response to it.

It is a sobering scene because one gets the sense that there is no way of escaping it.

And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 

The image of a shepherd separating sheep from goats would have been quite familiar to Jesus’ audience; it’s a practice that continues in Palestine today. The sheep
and goats are pastured together but are separated when it is time for them to be moved.

He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

The sheep are preferred because they are more valuable, and so they are placed at the Son of Man’s right hand, the place of privilege.

Then the king will say to those on his right, 

The Son of Man is acting in his role as king, executing the Father’s will.

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

With a blessing he invites the righteous to enter the kingdom.

The reason given for the judgment is surprising.  It is the not the accomplishment of some phenomenal feat, but whether or not they meet the very basic human needs of others.

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

The righteous ones show surprise. They did these things because they wanted to, not because they were trying to earn a reward.

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Service of the needy is identified with the love of Christ.

A difficult and important question is the identification of these “least brothers.”  Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc., or a particular group of such sufferers?  Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side.

Leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist’s sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose suffering were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel.  The criterion of judgment for “all the nations” is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself, as indicated in Matthew 10:40, “Whoever receives you, receives me.”

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

Like the righteous, the accursed are also astonished that their neglect of the sufferers was neglect of the Lord.

Their guilt is not found in the wrong they have done but in their failure to accept those who were bringing the kingdom of God to them.  To reject them is to reject the kingdom.

And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Those who were open to the message of the kingdom are invited in, where they will enjoy eternal life; those who rejected the kingdom are cast into the punishment of eternal fire.  The choice they made was decisive; the sentences passed are binding.

Connections and Themes

Judgment.  We have now come to the end of the liturgical year, the point that marks the transition from one period to another.  Throughout our consideration of the responsibilities of discipleship, we have seen how important the love of neighbor is, particularly the neighbor who is in need.  Today we see that this responsibility is brought to completion.  It is precisely the attention we give to those who are less fortunate than we are that becomes the determination of our future.

The kingdom of God is an inclusive kingdom.  Its embrace is as comprehensive as is the embrace of God.  Criteria for membership are not based on obedience to the commandments or on conformity to ritual obligation, but on the covenantal bonds that unite us to one another.  These are the bonds of love and concern, bonds that reach deep into the human heart.  The gospel story lays bare the genuineness of such concern.  Assistance is given wherever there is a need.  It is given in ordinary acts: in giving food and drink, shelter and clothing; in spending time with someone who might be lonely or afraid; in patiently waiting for an elderly person; in thanking people for their service.  The kingdom of God is established, brick by brick, through these simple acts of kindness.  If this is the kingdom we establish during our lifetime, this will be the kingdom into which we will be welcomed at its end.

You did it for Me.  What we do for others, we do for Christ, because Christ is identified with those in need.  We seldom see the glorified Christ in the faces of the needy; it is more often the face of the disfigured Christ that is turned to us.  We see his fear and his shame, his brokenness and sense of loss.  It is very difficult to look into such eyes, and unfortunately we frequently turn away from them.  What is ever worse, we sometimes help only those we consider to be “the worthy poor,” those who fit the standards we have set.  But it is the rest, the ones rejected as unworthy of assistance, that are precisely the ones identified with Christ.  He looks out to us through their eyes.  It is his hand that reaches out for assistance.  He is the one who tests our patience and generosity.  It is through them that we enter the kingdom of God.

The end.  In the end, Christ will have conquered all.  Having entered into the frailty of human nature, having identified himself with the needy of the world, having handed himself over to death, Christ will have conquered all.  It is a curious kingdom he has won.  It is not a kingdom of the strong, but of the weak.  Hence he has turned the standards of the world upside down.  He has shown that it does not take strength to ignore or to exploit the needy, but it does that strength to overcome our own selfishness in order to serve them.  The kingdom Christ hands over to God is a kingdom of love and care.

The one in whose hands the kingdom resides, the one who will act as judge, is characterized as a shepherd.  These readings, which contain hard themes such as Christ’s death and punishment in eternal fires, depict God as a tender and loving shepherd.  The shepherd does not punish those who are lost but instead seeks them and lovingly carries them to safety.  Jesus, who is our king and our judge, is this shepherd who has given himself for his sheep.  The liturgical year ends on a note of tender solicitude.

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