Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2011
Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46
Collect of the Day (Proper 29):
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Commentators who reflect on our Gospel passage have referred to this as a “word-picture of the last judgement.”1 It occurs in the midst of a section of Matthew’s Gospel known as the “eschatological discourse.” In other words, it is in the midst of a section that deals with the last things–the events that will bring in the summation of history and includes the final judgement. This particular section deals with the judgement of the nations (both collectively and as individuals I believe). It is a passage in which Jesus picks up on many of the themes of the prophetic tradition not only in terms of the judgement, but the reason for such judgement.
A partial understanding of the background for this passage can be found in the reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24), in the sense that Ezekiel represents a portion of the prophetic tradition. In commenting on this passage, theologian and pastor Walter Brueggemann notes that Ezekiel is pondering how it is that his society has come to such dire straights, being the subject not only of military destruction but of deportation, and attempting to shine a light into the future. Ezekiel does this “under the metaphor of ‘shepherd.’ The image of ‘shepherd,'” Brueggemann notes “is much used in the biblical world for ‘king,’ an image that permits great elasticity in his interpretive commentary.” (read it all)
For Ezekiel, exile has become Israel’s lot because of a failure of leadership: they are the victims of bad kings, kings who looked to their own desires rather than the needs of their people (Ezek. 34:1-9).
The whole people suffer the consequences of their leaders’ selfishness and poor judgement and there is only one solution: God himself promises to become king over his people. “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep” (Ezek. 34:22).
Unlike the rulers Israel has been burdened with in the past, God’s dominion works for the common good. “God will not be self-indulgent as the previous kings have been, but will be fully and attentively concerned for the vulnerable flock that is Israel” (Brueggemann).
In what appears to be a strange twist however, Ezekiel tells us that God’s direct rule will be exercised through a human ruler, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken” (Ezek. 34:23-24).
It is this theme of the promised shepherd/prince that is picked up in our Gospel lesson, except this is no longer a rule limited in scope to the people of Israel, but rather a dominion of dominions for a ruler over all the nations: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left” (Matt. 25:31-33). The hope presented by this passage is the promise that God will set things right, not only for the people of Israel, but for the whole earth. The time of half-measures has ended and God himself, incarnate in the Son of Man, will exercise dominion over all the world, and the sheep (those who do the will of God) and the goats (those who do not) will be judged according to their actions and divided, being set either at the right hand (a place of honor) or the left (a place of judgement).2
While this passage is clearly about Christ’s Lordship over all the world, the judgements rendered are profoundly personal. What has been done in service of the people has been done for the King of All. There is a solidarity expressed here as Christ says, in the person of someone else that you have met: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison, and in each case the righteous provided the need, while the unrighteous did not–neither really knew what they were doing.
In some ways this passage stands as a bookend to the sermon on the mount, especially the beatitudes. If the beatitudes proclaimed God’s blessing on those at the margins of society, then this section demonstrates to us the way that we are called to serve our King.
In the previous portions of this section of Matthew’s Gospel, we have been exhorted to be faithful, prepared, and to use the resources (talents) we have been given rightly and in the service of others. But if we were wondering about the application of these expectations, it is made clear here that we are to prepare for Christ’s return”by living the imperative to love one’s neighbors, especially the marginalized,” and it is for this that we will be judged in the end.3
There are a few things for us to keep in mind as we reflect on this. the first is that those people labeled “righteous” are surprised. They were not trying to force God’s hand or win anything for themselves. They were simply fulfilling the call of human charity.4 That said, because they were caring for the people of God–people made in the image of God–they were showing honor directly to God as well.5
The second thing to consider is that the tradition finds in these acts six of the seven traditional “acts of mercy,” (the seventh being the burial of the dead). At the same time, as St. Anthony the Great notes “Feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, and visiting the sick are mundane acts. In this sense ‘virtue is not far from us, nor is it without ourselves, but it is within us, and is easy if only we are willing.'” 6
Finally, in this passage, Christ is not only indicating his solidarity or unity with the downtrodden or needy, but with the whole of humanity. The acts of mercy for which people receive honor are many of the same acts that defined Jesus’ presence among the people during his earthly ministry.
In other words, Christ is King over all, but the King who shows his people how to serve. When we serve others, Christ is active in us, serving Christ in others. These acts of mercy–both in the giving and in the receiving–reveal the unity of humanity made in the image of God and therefore called to display that divine character by caring for it in others. And so, we see one of the ways in which Christ, in Paul’s words, “fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
Today is Christ the King Sunday, and today we are reminded that Christ’s Kingship:
It puts in check all earthly so-called kings. Christ is the King. The one, the only, the ultimate. All others who would presume to claim authority for themselves or even to exercise it by virtue of their office must see how they square up with the example of Christ.
The kingship of Christ makes the abuses perpetrated by other rulers all the more apparent. And it demonstrates the call of the Kingdom on all our lives.
If God became incarnate in Christ for all of humanity, then how can we value one another any less.
If Christ cared for the ostracized and the alienated. If he dined and conversed with the tax collectors and the prostitutes of his society, then how can we wall ourselves off.
If Christ offered healing to the sick, mercy to the afflicted, hope to the hopeless–then how can we possibly desire to offer them anything less.
If we believe that Christ shows us what it means to be truly human–humanity without the stain of sin–then how can we say that striving to be truly human can mean striving for anything less than being like Christ.
If we truly believe what we profess today, that Christ is indeed King over all, then how can we do anything less than strive to find ways to serve Christ in others.
We know where to begin. Jesus said: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you comforted me, I was in prison and you visited me.
- The Oxford Bible Commentary, p. 878 [↩]
- The New Oxford Annotated NRSV: Matthew 25:31-46 : The judgement of the nations. 31: The Son of Man, 8.20n. 32: 24.9; 28.19; Isa 66.18; Joel 3.2 . 33: Right, the auspicious side, while left was the bad or unlucky side. The distinction between sheep and goats ma reside in the fabrics the two produce: goats produce dark hair, which was used to make ill-omened sackcloth (11.21n.), while white wool was a sign of prosperity, p 1784 NT [↩]
- Oxford Biblical Commentary, p. 878 [↩]
- The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 669 [↩]
- The Oxford Biblical Commentary, p. 878, “The concept of service to Jesus through service to others goes back to Prov. 19:17: ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.’ What is new in Matthew is the Son of Man’s identification with the needy.” [↩]
- (St. Anthony the Great, quoted in the New Oxford Biblical Commentary, p. 879). [↩]