Ezekiel 34:11016, 20-14
Psalm 100 or 95:1-7a
St. Matthew 25:31-46
Background: The Feast of Christ the King
With the revisions in the calendars of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches in the late 70s, this feast day was added as a celebration on the last Sunday of the Church year. In the Roman Church it was first introduced as an idea in an encyclical, Quas Primas, by Pope Pius XI (1925) and was celebrated as The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe on the last Sunday in October. In 1970 (Pope Paul VI) the feast was moved to the last Sunday in Ordinary time, the Sunday preceding the Season of Advent. The original encyclical that served as the theological basis for the feast day was not an argument based on liturgy, but rather on politics. Pope Pius XI hoped the encyclical would be an adequate response to the growing secularism and nationalism in Europe following the First World War. Through it, the encyclical hoped to engage not only the clergy of the church but its laity as well. It aimed to see the focus human allegiance on Christ rather than the nation state.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Although many of us would be hard pressed to say that we know an actual shepherd, all of us understand both the vocation and the concepts that surround it as a pastoral metaphor for ministry and service. Perhaps it is the 23rd psalm that has engendered this and made it available to us. Here however, we have a prophet, who with Jeremiah (23:1-8) uses this idea as a tool in making his message real and approachable. In addition, it was an idea to be in use in a wider cultural context in the ancient near east, making it available as an appropriate metaphor to people beyond Israel.
Like Jeremiah’s words, Ezekiel’s are preceded by an oracle of doom (34:1-10), which indicts the present “shepherds” of Israel (it’s political and religious institutions) and accuses them of not tending to the flock. In the second oracle that follows (our reading for this day), the prophet pictures YHWH looking for the scattered sheep. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” It’s a fitting scene in this time of the year. In spite of the darkness and gloom, YHWH is determined to gather the scattered flock, and to bring them back. The passages that describe this are reminiscent of the 23rd psalm, “I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.”
The theme soon turns from the pasture and sheep to the ideas of justice and judgment, and then to the supreme example of sheparding and justice, David, YHWH’s servant. David then takes on the shepherding task that earlier described YHWH. Now it is David who feeds, and guides them. Thus is the notion of kingship introduced into this reading, so appropriate for Christ the King.
Breaking open Judges:
- What do you shepherd in your life?
- Who shepherds you?
- Whom do you need to take care of?
Psalm 100 Jubilate Deo
Be joyful in the LORD, all you lands; *
serve the LORD with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.
Know this: The LORD himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the LORD is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.
The shepherd theme appears in the thanksgiving psalm, but briefly, as it mirrors the phrase from Psalm 95 (see below), “we are his people and the sheep of his pasture”. Quickly we return, however, to the Temple as we “enter the gates” and “go into his courts.” These verses indicate the status of those addressed in the psalm. We are invited into the courts and beckoned to enter the gates. Now we are not only pilgrims, looking forward to the courts of the Lord. Now we are standing within them – standing in relationship with God.
Breaking open Psalm 100:
- What does it mean to be a pilgrim?
- What does it mean to having arrived at the place of worship?
- Where are the “courts of the Lord” in your life?
Psalm 95:1-7a Venite, exultemus
Come, let us sing to the LORD; *
let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving *
and raise a loud shout to him with psalms.
For the LORD is a great God, *
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the caverns of the earth, *
and the heights of the hills are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, *
and his hands have molded the dry land.
Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, *
and kneel before the LORD our Maker.
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.
Any good follower of Morning Prayer or Matins will recognize this psalm or at least its beginning verses, the Venite. Like its ancient intentions, this psalm calls us to both prayer and worship, “Come”. What follows are a series of liturgical actions, thanksgiving, shouts of joy, raising a shout of praise. Here YHWY exists not in a divine loneliness, but rather in the company of other gods, “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” What follows are the deeds of God, as the wonders of creation are rehearsed – the caverns of the earth, the heights of the hills, the sea (which he conquered) and the dry land. What is mortal woman or man to do in the face of these divine deeds? That is supplied to us as well, “Bow down, bend the knee.” A final reference (in this pericope) brings us back to the shepherd image, and the theme, “the shepherd-king” for this day. “We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.” One understands how this psalm made its way into the Morning Prayer office of the church. Its call to worship becomes the initial realization of the day, and the One who gave it being.
Breaking open Psalm 95:
- Who or what bids you to come and worship?
- How do you do that?
- How do you worship and pray during the day?
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Some see Ephesians as a summarization of Pauline teaching, a letter not given to one congregation alone (Ephesus) but rather given to all with an intention of grounding them again in the apostolic teaching. What the author intends here is linked to the thanksgivings evident in both of the psalms recommended for this day. The Pauline author is pleased that those receiving the words written have flourished in the Gospel. What is wished for them is “a spirit of wisdom and revelation.” Thus the faith is seen not as a static practice, but rather as a continuing encounter with God. The promise of the Spirit is given “as you come to know him.” Then there is a vision of a triumphant and glorious Christ who has been raised by the Father not only from the dead, but also “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” One can see where Pius XI got his inspiration (See background). The present situation was that the Church, the body of Christ, the company of the believers lived in the shadow of the imperial dominion. Here they are bidden to think of themselves as living in the church, “Which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” It seems to be a participatory kingship>
Breaking open Ephesians:
- Do you have a daily encounter with God? How?
- What gifts does the Spirit give to you?\
- How do you react to the powers and dominations of this world?
St. Matthew 25:31-46
Jesus said, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, `Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
It is with a certain sense of sadness that we leave Matthew and these marvelous parables on the Kingdom of Heaven. However, Mark will treat us well in the coming year. This particular parable is only found in Matthew, and is uniquely suited to this day. In Matthew we are on the cusp of the Passion Narrative, and here in this parable, we understand Jesus to be giving some of the final points of instruction to the disciples, so that they might understand the kingdom and its true nature. That might be a jumping off point for an especially fine sermon to edge us into Advent. We are literally caught between the “Coming Again” and its Advent hope, and the final judgment of Jesus that comes with the passion. One wonders what those who followed Jesus thought as they lived these days. Jesus is clearly calling them, and us as well, to look at and to begin to understand “the end” to which we are all called.
These are scenes of judgment, division, and (yes) shepherding. The judge asks us to reflect on how we have lived, whom we have seen in the lives of others, and what our response has been. The expectation is clear – Christ needs to be in all of them. Thus the example of our unknowing gifts, or our ignorance of the One who has expressed need, brings us squarely to the seat of judgment – a perspective that is known in our own hearts and minds as well. It is a sad statement that this parable has given place to the judgment of Christians by Christians, failing to see Christ’s presence in the midst of what seems to others to be our lack of faith and our ignorance. That is for the Christ to decide, and it is for us to ponder.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What are your expectations of Jesus’ judgment of you?
- What are your expectations of other’s judgment of you?
- How do you judge yourself?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller