We come at last to the final Sunday of the year, Christ the King.
Year B, next year, when we read through Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for this feast will be from John: Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Before Vatican II, this was the reading for the feast every year.)
Year C, in Luke, we read, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But the good thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
His kingdom is not what we expect.
This year we read the final words of Jesus’s preaching, the end of Matthew’s magnificent Fifth Sermon. We begin with kingly grandeur and judgment: Jesus tells 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.” Christ the King!
But the story quickly takes a strange turn. First, “he will separate them one from another . . . as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The King is a shepherd . . . .
And then it gets stranger. Judgment seems appropriate to this king of glory: “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.’ . . . ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
But then he explains his judgment. “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.” It’s quite a list. I must visit prisoners? Bad guys?
The Tradition, of course, takes these words with dreadful seriousness, and is full of St. Martin’s giving their cloaks to the naked Christ. (Even a boring saint like Thomas Aquinas was said to do this frequently.)
The sheep and the goats each ask the same question: “When did we see you?” And they get the same answer, “What you did . . . .” In his most distressing disguises, it is hard to see Jesus. He asks us to serve him anyway.
But why? How does all this fit together? What do filthy prisoners have to do with Christ the King?
The reading from Ezekiel gives an answer in metaphors. “I myself will look after and tend my sheep,” says the Lord. “The lost I will seek out.”
We have seen this theme several Sundays this year. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful.” In our acts of mercy we recognize his mercy. The problem with saying to the prisoner, “you are a lost cause, not worth my time,” is that we are a lost cause, not worth Christ’s time.
In stooping to the poverty of others, we recognize that he stoops to our poverty. In refusing to stoop, we refuse to acknowledge that he stoops. We deny his love, his mercy, his generosity. Deny it also by thinking we have to be stingy: any time I say I don’t have enough to share – enough money, enough time, enough energy – I deny also that the Good Shepherd provides for me.
Ezekiel gets strange. “The sick I will heal,” says the shepherd, “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. . . . I will judge between rams and goats.”
What is the difference between sheep and goats? The sheep follow the shepherd: they go where he goes (even to the lowly), and they receive their food from him (and not from their own strength).
“The sleek and the strong” could also be translated “the greasy and noisy” – and then it sounds more like goats. But perhaps the deeper difference is that they have no need for a Shepherd.
Our reading from First Corinthians explains more directly. At the Resurrection, “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The deeper question of Christ the King is whether we receive all from him, whether we are “those who belong to Christ,” or more simply, just “those who are of Christ.” In him is life. Without him is death.
And therefore he will “destroy all sovereignty.” Those who think they are mighty cannot abide the way of Christ: cannot follow the shepherd, cannot receive life from him.
This is what we live out, in our acts of mercy or our refusal of mercy. Will I follow the one who stoops to seek the lost? Will I receive from the one who provides for my hunger and visits me in my sickness?
Where does your life call you to acts of mercy? Can you see the provision of the Good Shepherd there?