34th Ordinary Sunday (Year A)
(CHRIST THE KING)
First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28 Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:31-46
“COME, YOU WHO ARE BLESSED BY MY FATHER. INHERIT THE KINGDOM.”
A story is told of a priest assigned in a seminary who took his sabbatical year in Kolkata, India to work with Mother Teresa. Towards the end of his sabbatical, he wondered what he could take back to his seminarians. Thinking back, he remembered how Mother Teresa received Holy Communion: her eyes and face glowed with love for Jesus as she expressed the desire to give him back her love completely. For the priest, that was understandable for she was then already known as 'a living saint.' But what he could not understand was what he saw one evening when she was with a sick person. The same glow in her eyes and face was present when she was attending to him. Reflecting on these two experiences, the priest discovered why. For Mother Teresa, that sick person was Jesus himself for did he not say: “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me”.
Do we see Jesus' face in others, especially the poor, needy, marginalized, deprived, downtrodden, sick and suffering, and so on? Jesus meets us in their disguise. They are his true face.
Today is the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time and is the Last Sunday of the Liturgical Year A. Next Sunday we will start a new Liturgical Year B with the First Sunday in Advent. As is the custom now, on this Last Sunday the Church solemnly celebrates the feast of “Christ the King”. It is one of the so-called 'idea feasts' that do not celebrate an event in the life of Jesus but rather some aspect of his identity. In it we recognize and honor Christ as ruler and universal shepherd. Also, this feast helps us to look towards our future and our ultimate future is, when Jesus will return in glory for the final judgment and award reward or punishment. Actually, this feast is, as it were a synthesis and culmination of the entire salvific mystery. The feast brings the Liturgical Year to a close. All during the past year, we have celebrated the mysteries of the life of the Lord. Now, we contemplate Christ in his glorified state as King of all creation and of our souls. So, the Feast of “Christ the King” is the occasion for us to give glory to the Lord of Heaven and Earth.
Today’s Scripture Readings revolve around the final judgment of Jesus Christ when he comes in glory and power. The First Reading from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel provides an image of God leading His people with the care of a shepherd. In the context of the passage, it is God Himself who vows to take personal responsibility for tending His sheep, because the entrusted shepherds have not been found worthy of their charge. God will come to tend to the sick and ailing sheep but will separate and punish those who have made themselves strong at the expense of the weak. In the Second Reading from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth of the fact of the resurrection from the dead, just as Jesus Christ died and rose to life. Death, inherited from Adam, will itself be destroyed. Those who belong to Christ will form part of his Kingdom. In this Kingdom all will be subject to Christ the King. The Gospel Reading from St. Matthew speaks about the Last Judgment and presents Christ as the King coming in his heavenly glory to judge us. Each person will be distinguished as a sheep or a goat according to a simple standard of practical attention to those who suffer. The standard of judgment is simple enough, “whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me”. What may surprise us is Jesus' identification with the most insignificant.
“THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.”
Today's First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel makes reference to one of the most beloved images of God, namely, God as Shepherd. During the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel issued a scathing denunciation of the false shepherds who had led the people astray. In the section of this chapter of the Book of Ezekiel which precedes this reading, the prophet warns the leaders of the people, who serve as shepherds for the nation, that God will remove His sheep from their charge because they allowed the sheep to become prey to the wild animals and remain unfed while the leaders fed themselves. Now, in what must surely have been words that brought relief and hope to the exiles who were on the verge of despair, he delivers the Lord’s promise to return, to shepherd the people once again Himself. The mention of judgment adds an eschatological dimension that makes the text all the more fitting for this last day of the Liturgical Year. The choice of psalmody is obvious in light of Prophet Ezekiel’s use of the shepherd imagery. It sings of the Lord as the Good Shepherd who will feed, guide and protect His sheep. It is in the Lord that true goodness is to be found.
“FOR HE MUST REIGN UNTIL HE HAS PUT ALL HIS ENEMIES UNDER HIS FEET.”
The Second Reading from St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians underlines the cosmic character of Christ’s Kingship. Here St. Paul presents a powerful and awesome picture of Christ as Lord and King, to whom every other power and authority must eventually give way. He speaks of the all-encompassing authority of Jesus the King as a result of his resurrection: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The resurrection of Christ, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” is the beginning of an entire harvest of risen people. This phenomenon of destruction of death and of being raised to new life is geared towards this cosmic goal: “so that God may be all in all.”
The Adam-Christ typology is an important part of Paul’s developing understanding of the importance of the resurrection for the believer, and especially how we participate in Christ’s resurrection through faith and baptism. Because death (sin) came through Adam and we are linked to Adam because of our human nature, it was necessary that the resurrection of the dead also come through a man, through Christ. This new life can only come through him, who through his own death and resurrection erased the stain of sin and triumphed over death. As a result of his resurrection, he now reigns as king. At the end of time, Christ, having brought all things under him, will himself be subjected to the one who drew all things to him. Christ rose. Christ reigns. Christ will come again in glory. We will rise. The Lord is fully and completely God forever. This we celebrate on today's Solemnity that draws the Sundays of the Liturgical Year to a close.
THE LAST JUDGMENT:
In today’s Gospel Reading from St Matthew we hear 'The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats', which is the third of the three eschatological parables in Ch 25. Jesus uses a parable about what we traditionally call the 'General Judgment' at 'the End of the World'. This parable is not a prediction of historical event in detail, however. It is a provocative challenge to the hearers to reflect upon the lives they live and to adjust so as to live ever more fully. This parable, like the previous two, challenges us to see and appreciate our daily lives fully aware of our eventual human death and future encounter with the God in who's image we are created.
Again, the judgment scene is unique to St. Matthew's gospel and forms the climactic conclusion to his Eschatological Discourse. Only here in all of the gospels does Jesus ascribe to himself the status of a king rendering judgment. Incidentally, this is not to be taken in too literal a sense. It is the meaning behind the scene which we are to focus on. It would be a worthless piece of speculation to imagine our encounter with God as taking place in any particular way analogous to life on earth. One wonders, too, if there is any real validity to the distinction sometimes made between the 'particular' and the 'general' judgments. The images of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with hosts of angels are typical biblical images pointing to God's awesome greatness and transcendence and are not descriptions of some visual experience we might have.
There will be two kinds of people coming for judgment, described respectively as “sheep” and “goats”, the good guys and the bad guys. And how are the good and the bad guys to be distinguished from each other? The criteria of that judgment are most striking: They are the simple acts of love and kindness directed to the 'least ones' of this world. The parable holds high the most humane virtues. The specific actions mentioned are (i) feeding the hungry, (ii) giving drink to the thirsty, (iii) clothing the naked, (iv) sheltering the homeless, (v) visiting those in prison, and (vi) taking care of the sick. Add (vii) burying the dead, and we have the traditional 'Seven Corporal Works of Mercy'. To have done these everyday works of goodness is to have touched Jesus himself; to have neglected to do them is to have neglected the needs of Christ, an omission worthy of condemnation. This implies that doing the works of goodness called for here is already to have gained access to the reign of God and to have chosen not to act in love is already a choice not to belong to God’s reign. Note that none of the above things Jesus mentions are religious in nature and also there is no mention whatever of any commandments being observed or violated; people are condemned not for doing actions which were morally wrong but for not doing anything at all.
It is quite obvious that both groups are very surprised at the criteria that Jesus presents. The 'sheep' are clearly very surprised to hear them say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom.” This is obviously not what they were expecting to hear. One gets the impression that they hardly remember doing these things although definitely they had done at least some of them. And certainly they do not remember ever doing anything of the kind for Jesus. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” Were they even more surprised at the answer they got? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Then turning to the 'goats', whom he calls 'accursed', he condemns them for not doing any of the things he mentioned above and for not recognizing Jesus in the least brothers of his.
Today, we solemnly celebrate the feast of “Christ the King”. We must be on guard against taking this feast the wrong way. This is no nostalgia trip back to an age of royal prerogatives, court pageantry, and kingly alms-giving. This feast is not 'looking back' at all but 'forward' to something we have never seen. Actually, today’s solemnity is a reminder that the Kingship of Christ is not 'up there' but is very much tied or moored 'down here'. Moreover, the picture of the Judgment in the Gospel is not meant to fill us with fear and trembling. No, it is a challenge not about the future but about today. It makes us appreciate the ever-expanding expanse of his Kingship. So, if the Solemnity of Christ the King is to make sense, and that we ought to submit to the rule of Christ, then it is imperative that we understand how his Kingship is exercised. The sole criterion for judging our worthiness to inherit the glorious Kingdom is our exercise of love, especially on behalf of the poor and needy. Our compassionate hearts are our badge of belonging to God's Kingdom. Our corporal works of mercy indicate the divine power of love at work within us. We are thus judged not for the positions we hold in the community, our social status, academic records, wealth, heroic deeds, etc. Neither will we be judged by the number of prayers we say daily unless they lead us to greater love of God which in turn leads us to the service of the poor - “the least brothers of mine”, for Jesus not only hides behind these vulnerable people but identifies himself with them. To sum up, what we are told is that, if we wish to be counted among the sheep, then we must be an actively loving person, irrespective of the response we get to our love. This is the way God loves us. It is not enough just to fulfill obligations, religious or otherwise. It won’t do to say, 'I am a good enough Catholic'. Neglect of the needy in our circle, in our neighborhood, in our nation and in our world equates to neglect of the parable's king!
Now, for us who embrace the Gospel, the King is the Christ! Do we neglect him? How will we explain the lives we’ve lived and our use of the blessings we’ve been given? Would a just king genuinely rejoice in how we have lived in the past, do now live, and might yet live in the future? To gauge how well we are faring in this regard, let us answer this question right now: If Jesus comes as Judge right now, will he be able to say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom”? If not, then we still have a lot of work ahead of us. And this is the Good News of today.