Matt. 25: 31-46 and Ezek. 34: 11-16, 20-24
Well folks, we have come to the end of our liturgical year. Though it doesn’t really feel like an end to me. For the first time in a long while we have a full community up here on the mountain. Our new senior volunteers, Bodil and Jens are here, and Ascension house has also been opened back up. And the end of the church year brings a new beginning. We are about to enter Advent, the time in the dead of winter, when we renew our faith in the miracle of the new life that is soon to come.
But before we move too quickly into the Christmas season, we should think about what today represents. What is the conclusion to the story that we have been reading for the past 51 weeks? We followed Jesus as he preached, taught, and performed miracles. We walked with the followers gathered around him. It was only a dozen or so disciples at first, but over time they were joined by the marginalized and the outcast of Roman Judea. We listened, intently, as Jesus talked about a new way of life. It is a way that is familiar, with a message that repeats much of the Law that had been taught in the Hebrew Scriptures. But there is something different about it. Jesus now asks us to think of the Law as an expression of love. This love is not just a love of our close family and friends, but of all persons, regardless of distinctions or divisions. It is a love that even reaches out to our enemy.
But then, suddenly, on Good Friday our teacher is cut down in the prime of his life. In a shock turn of events, he is betrayed and executed. Along with his followers, we are left despondent for three days. But then, a final miracle! The man Jesus is returned to life on Easter Sunday. But this resurrected Jesus is just as mysterious as the one who came before. Who is this person who has defeated death itself? This is the question we are left wondering, along with disciples, as we watch Jesus ascend into heaven, with only a vague promise to return at some point in the future.
Then Pentecost happens. Tongues of fire descend upon the 12 Apostles, and the Spirit emanates from them to rest of the humankind. For the reminder of our church year, we continue to read the Gospel through the guiding wisdom of the Spirit, coming ever closer to the meaning of Jesus. Who is this Nazarene who unearths new wisdom from ancient Scripture? Who is this carpenter that heals the sick? Even with the Spirit guiding us, this is no easy task. But today, at the end of our calendar, we are meant to come to one simple conclusion. This man, Jesus, was and is the Christ, the anointed one. He was and is the Son of God, and the Son of Man. Jesus the Christ, is our King.
Kingship is one of the most common and one the most powerful Biblical metaphors that describes relationship between God and humankind. For the ancient Israelites, the King was God’s anointed representative on Earth, tasked with guiding the Chosen People toward righteousness. After centuries of chieftains, prophets and judges, the establishment of the monarchy under Saul and David meant the ascension of Israel above all the nations, and the glory of the one, true God. The King was the symbol and vessel of God’s Love for God’s people.
But the King was also the symbol and vessel of God’s wrath. Needless to say, there are very few good kings in the Biblical history of Israel and Judah. Most of the ones we read about oversaw the decline of justice and the rule of law, and the rise of idolatry and paganism. This led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, leaving only Southern Judah to hold its own against the Empires that surrounded it. The Prophet Ezekiel writes to us, most likely, from exile in ancient Babylon, at the beginning of the Sixth Century BCE. By this time, Judah has pretty much ceased to be. The Babylonians had captured Jerusalem and installed a figurehead king who ruled on their behalf. Most elite and educated Jews, like Ezekiel, had been deported from their homeland.
As the Hebrew prophets were wont to do, Ezekiel frequently prophesied about worse things come, particularly the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This would have represented the effective end of the Kingdom of Israel and the line of David. And these dark visions are not at all far from the truth. During Ezekiel’s life, Jerusalem rebels one final time. This fails of course, and Babylonians raze the city and its Temple to the ground.
These were the end times that Ezekiel foresaw, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. In every apocalypse, there must also be a messiah. And in our Old Testament Scripture today, Ezekiel pronounces that the days of cloud and darkness will end. God will gather His lost sheep, and exiles in Babylon and elsewhere will be brought to back their own country, to live safely under their Lord’s protective gaze. To graze on a newly bountiful land. Aiding God will be a shepherd, a new prince presumably of the line of David. Like previous Kings, this one will be God’s agent on Earth, a messiah that will help rescue and gather the lost, heal the sick and injured, and strengthen the weak.
But there is a twist. After centuries of failed kings, a normal monarch will no longer do. Like the Prophet Jeremiah before him, Ezekiel calls for social justice. He makes it clear that God’s new Kingdom must, and will, be different. The lost, hungry, poor and weak will not simply be rescued. In fact, they will now be privileged over the strong, fat and rich. We might ask, why is separating the herd necessary? Have not all Israelites, rich and poor, suffered under the Babylonian yoke? But from Ezekiel’s point of view, and thus God’s point of view, the Old Kingdom’s downfall was due to the greed, corruption and lack of compassion of the wealthy and the privileged. The rich and powerful had exploited the land and its people, destroying all that they could not take for themselves. The priestly class had ignored these problems, focusing only on their cultic duties. Religious leaders cared only about the proper temple rituals and sacrifices, paying no attention to the moral decline of their country. That was the King’s job, they probably would have said.
It was this kind of corrupt, uncompassionate system that destroyed the Old Kingdom, and thus it could not come back. The New Kingdom had to be one of social justice, and this is something Jesus reaffirms in Matthew 25. His parable of the sheep and the goats is a beautiful blending of Hebrew Scripture, on the one hand, and Gospel, on the other. What is old is made new again through the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel’s ethics of social justice are viewed from the perspective of Christian love.
Jesus also speaks of a Last Judgment, but in his version, there is no need to separate sheep from sheep. Now the distinction is as clear as sheep and goats. When I grew up, I never really thought about the similarities of sheep and goats. To me they were two different animals entirely. One was fluffy, the other was not. One didn’t have horns, the other did. But these two species are actually very closely related. In fact, in Chinese there is only one word, yang, for both of them. Ancient shepherds would have herded these two animals together. Of course, at times they would have needed to separate the sheep and the goats. But for ancient Near Eastern shepherds –the shepherds of Jesus’ time – doing so would have been very easy. Their sheep would have been white, while their goats would have usually been black.
What Jesus is saying here is that to the messiah, the Son of Man, the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous is as plain as black and white. It isn’t just about how much money we have, or how well-fed we are. Our righteousness or unrighteousness is written plainly on our hearts because it is based on our love for God, and for our neighbor. The righteous feed the hungry, give shelter to the stranger, and clothe the naked. The unrighteous do not. Jesus identifies himself with the poor, hungry, weak and outcast. So if Jesus Christ is king, then he is King of the poor, the hungry, the weak and the outcast. And he is King of those who, like him, show love to the poor, hungry, weak and outcast. These are the ones on his right hand.
But in my experience, when people preach or talk about this parable, they often emphasize the negative side of the story. That means the focus is on the human beings on the left hand – the ones condemned for not feeding the hungry, for not giving the thirsty anything to drink, for not taking care of the sick, and for not clothing the naked.
Yet, the flip side of this argument is something more enticing, more hopeful. As commentators have pointed out, Jesus has shown how people may be disciples without even knowing it. When we host strangers in our homes, or when we visit people who are shut-in or in prison, we are standing at his right hand. Our simple acts of love toward each other are acts of love toward the Christ that is in everyone, especially the marginalized and needy.
Here Jesus and Ezekiel present two different understandings of kingship. For Ezekiel, the good servant King was one who enforced social and economic justice, and this is something Jesus affirms. But for the Old Testament prophet, the messiah was still very much a king in the traditional sense. They should be an enlightened, or “woke” monarch, but they were still a political and military leader that that held the most power and responsibility in a society.
But what Jesus talks about is not traditional kingship. Rather, it is something much more democratic. Jesus never calls himself the King. Other people call him that, and they call him that for good reason. As Christians, we take as faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of Man, and I think that is what we are supposed to believe, based on Jesus’ own words. But he doesn’t call himself a king. Instead, he identifies with the poor, hungry, homeless and outcast. He dines with sinners, and he goes out among the sick and heals them.
In embodying this kind of king, Jesus has gone one step beyond Ezekiel. As our Lord, Jesus Christ empties himself of all power and privilege. He is the servant-king, the king who gives up his rule. He also empties himself of responsibility. Or at least, he empties himself of a power and responsibility centered only on one person, giving us this power and responsibility. He makes this clear in the way he talks about what we Christians can and should do for our fellow human beings. We must feed the hungry, we must shelter the homeless, and we must heal the sick. Jesus Christ has taught us the way and now we have the responsibility of following it.
This is something that is hard for us to fully embrace. The traditional understanding of kingly leadership is something that I think reflects an innate human desire to place moral responsibility in strong individuals. We like having a leader to look up to – one that will guide us, or at least one that we think will help and protect us in material ways. The problem is that too often these leaders fail due to their own moral weaknesses. Yet we keep looking for them! It has been personally shocking to me to find out that many in Hong Kong’s democratic movement support a world leader whose moral values – such as they exist – are racist, misogynist and completely anti-democratic. The problem with leadership is not just that it can fail, but that it can also become idolatrous and self-destructive.
But I know why people do this. When faced with long odds, we are desperate to find someone, anyone who can support us, or at least someone who can shake things up, someone who can change the game. That’s why so many Christians choose to read texts like Matthew 25 in a purely apocalyptic sense. They think only of waiting for the end times, for that time, ever distant, when Jesus will return and separate the good sheep from the bad. But as Bodil preached last week, Jesus makes it plain that our waiting cannot be passive. We must be prepared and active. God has given us all gifts, or talents, if you will. We are expected to use these gifts to build a more perfect society – a society built on love and justice for all. This more perfect society is not the Kingdom to come, but it is a sign in anticipation of that kingdom.
So today we mark the reign of Christ, but this reign is not the reign of a businessman or politician. It is not the reign of a prophet or king. It is meant to be a collective reign. What God wills for us is the democratic rule of people united around one principle, love. This principle was and is perfectly embodied in one person, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and this is why we call him our King today. But the buck, as they say, doesn’t stop with him. Through him God’s love is extended outward to us. It is our responsibility to accept it, and it is our responsibility to share with all others.