The 34th and last Sunday of the liturgical year celebrates the kingship of Jesus, and the first reading shows us first what kind of King Jesus is. Not a ‘figurehead’ like most modern monarch, nor running a secular government like those in the past, and one not expecting honours. Instead we have the image of a shepherd-king, one dedicated to caring, nurturing, and establishing justice and mercy for the ‘sheep’.
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
Shepherds and sheep are mentioned throughout the Bible, beginning with the book of Genesis, where the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were pastoralists, moving through the lands with their flocks. It was a way of life that did not entirely disappear with settlement and more complex civilization, and was still seen in the land of Jesus’ time. The ‘ideal king’ of Israel was David, who began life tending flocks. From all this, shepherds became a metaphor for kingship. Ezekiel, like other prophets, denounced leaders who failed to live up to the model.
The Lord, says this prophet, in response to the failed shepherds who scattered the flocks, will take on himself the role of shepherding. He uses passionate images of love and concern for people in trouble. The last verse included is a reminder foreshadowing the Gospel: the sheep who reject the shepherd’s care will be judged, as were the shepherds.
Although most of us do not live among sheep flocks and shepherds, it is still an image we can appreciate– Pope Francis spoke of seeking bishops who ‘have the smell of the sheep’ on them. They are to know their people and understand their needs as did Jesus who called himself ‘the model shepherd’ in the Gospel of John.
Long a favourite among Christians, the psalm picks up Lord’s shepherding and combines it with another prophetic theme, the banquet prepared for those who in God’s care. That may be seen foreshadowing the promise reward in the Gospel.
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Some in the church at Corinth doubted the resurrection of the body, and St Paul is concerned to set them straight on that important part of our faith, stressing that it comes from belief in Christ’s own resurrection. He then looks ahead to what life will be like for us after death, when we are taken into Christ’s kingdom and brought to the Father in heaven. The idea of all suffering coming from Adam’s turning away from God came into Judaism at the time of the author of the book of Wisdom. Paul uses military imagery, but Christ is not like a worldly conqueror – the enemies he subdues are sin and death, paradoxically accomplished by his own death, and the triumph of the resurrection.
This reading is found only in Matthew and has been a favourite of artists given to imagining the ‘devil and his angels’ with graphic details meant to frighten. These readings on the End Times have too often been used to encourage fear of a punishing God. Their true emphasis in on God’s mercy and a call to accept God’s love offered to the very end of our lives. The Gospel warnings of punishment we read in the Bible do not contradict God’s mercy, but serve to show how seriously we need to take our behaviour in light of God’s love for all.
This comes just after the calls to be ready for Jesus coming again, and thus shows what people should be doing in the times of ‘the delay’ mentioned in the parables we have been hearing in previous weeks. These are the last words of Jesus’ ministry, as Matthew will next begin the account of the passion of Christ. It can be taken as a grand summary of what Matthew has been highlighting since the beginning, Jesus as ‘truly human’ but also ‘Son of God’. From the Sermon on the Mount to here, there has been stress on loving and caring for others which now that forms the climax of how people will be judged at the end of time.
One background for this reading in found in the book of Daniel, 7:9-14, written in the style of literature called ‘apocalyptic’ – full of fantastic imagery and allegory. This section of the book, with relatively few symbolic beasts and other oddities, describes a vision opening in heaven with images meant to call up awe and worship. Daniel avoids mentioning the name of God, probably out of reverence. He speaks instead of the ‘Ancient of Days’ which is a Hebrew idiom which could mean just one ‘of great age’, as translated in our mass, but may also suggest eternal existence.
After that, the prophet says: ‘I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.’
‘Was given’: this is an example of the ‘divine passive’ used to avoid saying the sacred name of God, so the passive tense is used. We are to understand it as ‘God gave him dominion.’ Another Hebrew idiom here is ‘son of man’ – which would have the usual mean of ‘a human being’. It is the title Jesus often used in speaking of himself, stressing his full identification with all of humanity, but also as a subtle reference to Daniel and the one who is given the everlasting sovereignty.
A striking contrast to Daniel in the Gospel is that the prophet sees all nations as serving the kingly Son of Man, while as Jesus says that he did not come to be serve but to serve. This is shown in various ways in the Gospels. Now he speaks of having been cared for while suffering, which puzzles the people till he explains that serving others is to serve Jesus. This shows how deeply and completely Jesus took on the condition of humanity, fully identifying himself as one with all other human beings – to the very ‘least’.
All this may be taken as comfort if we want to serve Jesus, but also as a challenge. It can be harder in the modern world where the suffering we see is not always in person and can immediately respond to, but in the news flooded with stories of disasters, wars, man-made famines, and much violence and oppression. Finding what we can do for them is often not easy, and the charity appeals for money can be overwhelming especially at this time of the year The Gospel, however, does not give a ‘free pass’ from helping those in need whom Jesus identifies as ‘himself’.