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.
One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.
More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?
In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.
Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.
I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.
Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.
We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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 blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.
Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.
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. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.
That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet 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. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.
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 Maidensand 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.