CHRIST THE KING
Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The church year will be brought to closure this Sunday with the celebration of “Christ the King.” Some Christian traditions refer to this day as “Reign of Christ.” However one chooses to denominate it, the day is a recognition that Jesus Christ is the end of everything. It is critical to understand, however, that the Greek word used for “end” (“telos”) in the New Testament means more than simply the cessation of something. It means also the purpose, the intent or the fulfilment of a thing. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, the end of creation is the fullness of God. “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:9; “…that God may be everything to everyone.” I Corinthians 15:28. In the Gospel of John Jesus prays that the love between himself and his Heavenly Father may exist between his disciples so that the world may witness this love and so know the heart of God. John 17:20-26. The end of the world is Jesus.
So in one sense, the end of the world has already come. The reconciliation between God and humanity has already been achieved through the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrected Body of Christ, the church, is God’s future pressing in upon the present. But there is much left to be reconciled. So in another sense, the end is not yet. The church lives in what pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the “anxious middle.” We know that in Christ the end has come. We know that in Christ the end is coming. What we cannot know is when these two ends will meet.
Our gospel lesson from Matthew paints a graphic picture of the end and the final judgment. What I find most telling in my re-reading of the text this year is the stuff that isn’t there. When the Son of Man welcomes the sheep at his right hand, he does not complement them for getting jobs and staying off the welfare rolls, or for fighting for their country or for their correct sexual orientations, or abstinence from contraception or any of the other moral shibboleths that so many self-proclaimed, loud mouthed American spokespersons for Christianity set up as defining values. We don’t know whether the sheep were gay or straight, legal or illegal, liberal or conservative, married or divorced, rich or poor, employed or unemployed. All we do know is that they recognized Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the incarcerated.
So also with the goats. They are not criticized for their sexual preferences, political views, citizenship status, employment experience, belief in evolution or criminal records. They are judged for one thing and one thing only: failure to recognize Jesus in the ones society typically deems “the least.” If I am reading the gospel correctly, there is only one criteria on which a nation will be judged, and that is by the way it treats the most vulnerable, the “least” of the people in its midst.
I believe that a fitting question with which to end the church year is expressed in what I expect will be our hymn of the day: “O Christ, What Can it Mean for us to Claim You as our King?” Lutheran Book of Worship # 431. For one thing, it means caring about the things Jesus cares about. In November 2013, the World Economic Forum released its ‘Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014’ in which it ranked widening income disparities as the second greatest worldwide risk in the coming twelve to eighteen months. Based on those surveyed, inequality is ‘impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale.’ Based on the data from this report and other sources of information, the international organization Oxfam International has drawn the following stark conclusions:
- Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
- The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
- The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
- Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
- The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
- In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
To read the full report and the information sources upon which it is based, click this link.
This disparity in wealth, both at home and abroad, is not simply an imbalance that can be treated with food pantries, government subsidies or even “advocacy.” Poverty is not the result of imperfections in an otherwise sound economic system. It is a disease stemming from a consumer economy that grows through stimulation of greed for non-essential goods and services fed by ruthless exploitation of the earth and its peoples. The global economy as it now exists cannot be “fixed.” It is fundamentally defective and unsustainable or, to use the proper biblical word, “sinful.”
So how does the church respond to a global economy that is crushing “the least,” who we know to be the very ones that are most precious in the eyes of our King? The answer is simple, but far from easy. We must simply be the church, that is, the community of sharing described in the Book of Acts; the community that Paul describes as a single Body made up of interdependent parts rather than a hierarchy from the greatest down to the least; the monastic communities that throughout the church’s history have struggled to live into the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than trying to make the empire a kinder, gentler tyrant, we need to be forming our churches into communities modeling Jesus’ alternative to what it means to be human. We need to be forming communities that make disciples trained to live quietly, peacefully and gently in the land. In previous posts, I have identified churches and communities of believers that have taken up this very challenge. Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm are just three examples of alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. While their unique approaches cannot simply be replicated in every context, they point the way toward what tomorrow’s church might look like. By their very existence, they show what it means to claim Jesus as King.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.
In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.
Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. The same cynicism has found its way into the church where distrust of denominational leaders is disturbingly common. There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. So I often wonder whether the fault lies less in our leaders than with our unrealistic messianic expectations of them. We tend to idolize our leaders while they are in campaign mode, promising us the moon. But when they take office and their limitations become all too apparent, we angrily kick them off their pedestals and look for a new idol.
I also wonder whether we are a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.
What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.
Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidens and The Talents. Ibid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.
The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.
The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.
My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.
Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).
Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.
On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.