The is the last Sunday of the liturgical year and as a conclusion, the readings ask us to consider what it means to call Jesus our ‘King’. He is not a figurehead like most modern monarchs, nor one who imposes his position by force, not someone seeking personal glory. 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, both real and symbolic, are mentioned throughout the Bible, from the book of Genesis, where the ‘Patriarchs’ (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were pastoralists, moving through the countryside with their flocks. It was a way of life that did not entirely disappear with settlement and more complex civilization. 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 demands of caring for their flocks. The Lord, says this prophet, rejects the failed shepherds who scattered the flocks, and takes 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 well 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 promised 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 that all suffering comes 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 frightening details. These readings on the End Times have too often been used to encourage fear of a punishing God. Their true emphasis is on God’s mercy and a call to accept God’s love offered to the very end of our lives.
This comes in Matthew 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 in Matthew and can be taken as a grand summary of what that gospel has been highlighting since the beginning: Jesus as ‘truly human’ but also ‘Son of God’. All through there has been stress on loving and caring for others and that now forms the climax with a story of how people will be judged at the end of time.
Background for this imagery of the Son of Man coming in glory is in the book of Daniel, 7:9-14, written in the style of literature called ‘apocalyptic’ depicting visions or dreams. Daniel describes a vision opening in heaven with images inspiring awe and worship. The author avoids mentioning the name of God, which is typical of Jewish reverence. He speaks instead of the ‘Ancient of Days’ which is a Hebrew idiom which could mean one ‘of great age’, as 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 again to avoid saying the sacred name of God. Here is means ‘God gave him dominion.’ Another Hebrew idiom here is ‘son of man’ – which simply could mean ‘a human being’ and way of speaking of oneself. It is the title Jesus often used in speaking of himself, stressing his full identification with all of humanity, but that also has a subtle reference to Daniel’s o the one who given the everlasting sovereignty.
In the Gospel parable, Jesus says he received help while he himself was suffering, which puzzles those who say they not seen him in need. 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, down to the very ‘least’. These words can comfort those who had no chance to serve Jesus in his lifetime but they are also a challenge. It can be harder in the modern world where we do not always see the suffering in person when we immediately take action. Living during this pandemic, the news has had heart-warming stories of people stepping in to help those most affected. But the news is also flooded with stories of disease, disasters, wars, man-made famines, and much violence and oppression that are on-going. 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. It would be impossible for most to answer all these. One answer is to pray, and discern what needs call to us, what are our capabilities and then make a choice. Remembering that anything we do for them is done for Christ.