Christ the King
Readings: Ezek. 34. 11-16, 20-24; Eph. 1. 15-end; Matt. 25. 31-end
Theme: The Lord and King
If you come from a country with a monarchy the notion of having a king or a queen is not unusual. Those of us originally from the UK or Commonwealth countries with the monarch as the head of state will have grown up with Queen Elizabeth II as our Queen. In ancient Israel the place of the monarch was central. The king acted as many things for the people and for our reading from Ezekiel today the principal functions of the king are to shepherd God’s people and to judge between the sheep, the righteous and the unrighteous, “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice…I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep”.
So, kingship for the ancient Israelites had two sides to it. It had both a nurturing and protecting role as well as a role of separating out the righteous from the unrighteous. The king for the Israelites was a servant of God, an organ of God’s rule, so that the community chosen by God would manifest to all the nations how God wanted people to live and what it meant to live under the rule of the one God.
This ancient Jewish background informs the reading from the Gospel of Matthew with the classic story of the separation of the sheep from the goats. As in the ancient Israelite tradition, the Son of Man comes seated on a glorious throne. Jesus, as in the lineage of King David, fulfills the aspirations of the people for a just and honest king and as the Son of Man, born of the virgin, he sits on the throne of judgment to enact the will of the Father. These scenes of judgment are typical at the end of the church’s year as we approach the season of advent and then Christmas. They remind us that time, all time, belongs to God as the judge of history. Jesus is this judge of history and as in the passage from Ezekiel, so in the Gospel of Matthew, we learn about the king of judgement that this God of Jesus Christ is.
Judgment, God’s judgment, is the fulfillment of the hopes of the people of God for justice, true justice. Not the justice of the false kings who had served themselves and their own interests, but the longed for hopes of justice of the one true God. This justice is based on the law as one would expect. Jesus, as so often in the gospel of Matthew is depicted as the one who interprets the true meaning of the law. This law is clearly interpreted by Jesus as the law of love. It is not a law which entangles people in mental gymnastics about how to fulfill complex religious prescriptions, rather it is a law which orchestrates the true meaning of living in a community under the rule of God.
The ethical heart of the meaning of the law is clearly brought out in the dramatic judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel. The criterion of judgment enacted by the king is how those who are poor, weak and vulnerable have been treated by the community. In the Gospel passage it is the hungry, the thirsty, those in sick and in prison who become the ones whose treatment by others constitutes the criterion of the judgment of the king. However, the Gospel of Matthew adds a particular twist to this story. Both the sheep and goats say that they are unaware of their behaviour towards the king. It is the king himself who is depicted as the one who is thirsty, hungry, a stranger and in prison and so on. In other words, this Gospel of Matthew takes a step beyond the ancient Israelite image of the king as the just ruler and judge of God’s people. This God, who is king, now identifies himself as one of the marginalized. St Matthew depicts the solidarity of God with God’s people not as a distant ruler popping in and out of contact with God’s people to check how things are going, but as living existentially with his people, and doing so from the margins.
The extraordinary message revealed in this passage from St Matthew is that the kingship of God is done through powerlessness and weakness; through marginality even. It is from this vantage point that the judgment of the Son of Man is enacted. In other words, the judge that we have in Jesus Christ is one who knows what it is to be poor, marginalized, hungry and rejected. This is the power of God shown in human weakness. It is a subversion of the ways of the world which tend to privilege power and might, wealth and status. No, in divine kingship as revealed in Jesus Christ, we have what humanity has always longed for but somehow never quite understood. Namely, that in weakness is strength and in poverty riches. This judgment is the basis on which a true separation between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the true and the false can be made.
The image of the sheep and the goats thus represent two models of justice: the true and the false. True justice is based on love, unconditional love which by its very nature reaches out to those most in need. It does this for no ulterior motive than simply because this is the right thing to do. This is God’s justice revealed in the mosaic law and now fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and it is a marvel to behold. But, if we are to truly hear this message, we need to be transformed by it. It should challenge each and every one of us to review on which side we are on: the sheep or the goats. Belonging to the kingdom of God requires of us that we are obedient to this king and this obedience requires action on our part. Such obedience reveals to us the character of the faith that we profess in the God of Jesus Christ. It is this faith which saves us from the judgment meted out to the goats and opens out the path to eternal life both here in this life and beyond.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.