FEAST OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING – A – November 26, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 15:20-26,28
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 25:31-46

Dear Reader,

The celebration of the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King marks the conclusion of another Liturgical Year.  We have completed the journey begun nearly 12 months ago on the First Sunday of Advent.  We journeyed with Matthew’s Gospel and were formed by the proclamations.  Now we might pause and reflect and ask how we did.  How were we transformed?  What did the Lord accomplish in us along the Way as we listened to the Word?

On this feast one might expect readings that evoke a regal Christ.  To some extent there is evidence of regal in the One who judges the sheep and the goats.  But the Gospel will tell us that in royalty, that is in the powerful, is not where we will recognize the Christ.  In fact the recognition of Christ is not what is rewarded.  Neither the righteous nor the condemned recognized him in those to whom they did or did not minister.

Our Messiah is not a Superman like so many contemporary cartoon heroes that leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Although I must say some Evangelicals seem to preach that kind of Messiah, the kind that doles out temporal wealth and power to those who acknowledge and give their lives over to him.  Sorry. I can’t identify with that, not when I have to deal with the readings proclaimed on this feast.

JHWH says in today’s reading from the Prophet Ezekiel: 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.  Depending upon your condition and situation in life, either you will find comfort in this prophecy, or reason to tremble.  Why is JHWH doing the shepherding?  How did the sheep become scattered?  The sheep are the House of Israel, JHWH’s beloved ones, defeated and brought to servitude in exile.  They are scattered because those who had the primary responsibility for shepherding were not diligent in their task.  The princes, the powerful, and the elite in Israel looked after their own needs, cared for themselves, and watched out for their own profits.  All the while they ignored the desperate and the needy.  In that preoccupation they failed to notice their own corruption as they took up with the pagan ways of those among whom they lived.  They became weak along the way.  They fell to Babylon and were taken captive and led off into exile.  Jerusalem was destroyed.  JHWH’s judgment is harsh.  The sleek and the strong will be destroyed.  The vulnerable JHWH will gather and shepherd safely home.

Hear Ezekiel’s prophecy.  Dare to ask where you are in it.  We make a mistake if we think that Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks only to those long-ago times and to those specific leaders during the Babylonian Captivity.  We must dare to hear the living word of JHWH.  Ezekiel prophecies to us now in this Assembly of God’s people gathered at this Table of the Word.  What do we hear?  What penetrates to our hearts?  That depends on how we have been exercising our Baptismal Priesthood.  Could the essence of Ezekiel’s prophecy be what Pope Francis pleads with the Church to hear?

Living our Baptismal Priesthood is the question Paul raises with the Corinthians (and us) in the second reading.  All of us have been baptized into Christ’s death that we might live in Christ’s resurrection.  Christ’s dying and rising is timeless, a process of reordering creation affected by sin.  Baptism reorders us, if you will, by destroying sin’s power over us and we are subjected to God’s rule in our lives.  Christ was first to subject himself to that order and is therefore the first fruits of the new creation.  When Christ comes in judgment, it will be to gather all those who belong to Christ, that is, the baptized, those who are identified with Christ in Baptism.  They do in their daily lives what Christ would do.  All these Christ will present to the Father in the final restoration of the order JHWH had in mind at creations beginning.

This brings us to one of the most challenging and difficult readings in all of Scripture, the judgment scene in Matthew’s Gospel.  This parable immediately precedes the beginning of Matthew’s Passion Narrative.  I have never been able to hear this reading without wondering on which side will I be standing in that judgment scene.  It is clear from the reactions of those in attendance on both sides that they wonder how they landed on the side they did.  That should alert us and serve as a warning to the smug that think they are doing all the right things.  Sheep.  Goats. In which group will I find myself?  That is the question we must dare to ask if this Gospel is to have its intended impact on us.

What does the judgment turn about?  Not what you might at first expect.  There is nothing about religious observance in what the Son of Man says to the assembled.  There is nothing about going to temple and keeping the Sabbath; nothing about going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days; and nothing about keeping the laws of fast and abstinence.  Instead, the judgment turns about recognizing the needs of others and responding to them simply because they are in need.  It is only in the judgment that those in the parable find out whether or not they ministered to The Son of Man.

Listen to the parable.  I was hungry.  I was thirsty.  I was naked, sick, and in prison and you responded to my needs.  We are confronted again with the primacy of place the poor and the needy have in God’s sight, the primacy of place that should go to the vulnerable among us.  Notice in the parable that no other quality other than their need is spelled out for us.  Nothing is said about their being deserving in every other aspect of their lives.  Nothing is said about their being Jews (or being among the Baptized).  Nothing is said about their moral character.  All we hear is that they are desperate.  The Sheep fed, clothed, sheltered and visited them in jail or in hospital.  The Sheep are stunned when they hear the Son of Man make all of those desperate conditions his own.  They are amazed when they are praised for having ministered to the Son of Man.  It is in stupefaction that they ask when they cared for him.  It is clear that they did not recognize him.  That would seem to imply that service of the Son of man, of Christ, wasn’t the primary motivation – at least at first glance.  Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of mine, you did for me!  Imagine.

Think of Francis of Assisi who was repulsed by leprosy.  He came to his senses in the presence of a leper pleading for Francis’s help. Francis bathed the leper and dressed his wounds.  In the process he recognized Christ.  He embraced the leper and kissed him.

Think of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta as she tried to help Malcolm Muggeridge understand why she was so committed to the service of Calcutta’s poorest of the poor.  In effect, she told him that when she ministered to those poor wretches, she ministered to Christ in his passion.  Muggeridge listened to Mother Teresa and afterwards pondered what she had told him.  He pondered the message and in the process found faith.

If there is a characteristic that dominates the Goats in the parable, it is their religious orthodoxy.  They thought they knew the Law.  They had done all the right things.  They did not respond to the needs of those in the streets as they cried out for alms because the Goats did not recognize the Son of Man there.  Much less did they recognize the dignity and worth of the needy.  When did we see you in these deplorable conditions and not respond 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.

Remember when Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment in the Law?  He said loving God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as one’s self is the greatest commandment and sums up all that the Law and the Prophets proclaim. What we have in Matthew’s judgment scene parable is the application of that commandment and its implications.

There is no other way for Christ to reign in our lives than by our keeping the Great Commandment.

We are a Eucharistic people called to move from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  We are to celebrate Eucharist and so enter into the Lord’s dying and rising.  We attest to the mystery when we take and eat: This is my body.  We attest to that when we take and drink: This is my blood.  But we must hear and take to heart the challenge contained in the next phrase, sometimes missed if the Presider proclaims it as an aside.  Do this in memory of me.

What we will be judged about will center on how we put Eucharist into action; how we live the Christ whose flesh we eat and whose blood we drink.  We are always sent from the Table to be bread broken and cup poured out until all have eaten and all have drunk – all – not just hose assembled in the pew with us.

I begin to think that the challenge for us is to think that the challenge for us is to think of those we might be tempted to despise and make sure they become the primary objects of our ministry, even if we are wounded in the process.  Otherwise we just might miss Christ now and when he comes again.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

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