Scripture for the Sunday of the Reign of Christ:
Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24; Psalm 95.1-7; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46
Anyone who has come close to caring for domestic animals (not just pets) knows that there is a burden of responsibility to nurture and take care of them – a relationship of care that is much more than simply dishing out food every now and then. This helps to put flesh on the bones of the words of the prophet Ezekiel, expressing hope for those in need and calling judgement upon those who benefit at their expense.
God is a good shepherd who looks out for the lost and injured, and feeds with justice. Addressing a people in exile, Ezekiel offers hope and security for all who suffer from weakness, hunger, exile, or abandonment. Ezekiel also has a vision of the people being led by David as God’s chosen shepherd – despite being arguably the preeminent king of Israel. We are reminded that David was a shepherd before a king, which may have instilled in him a spirit of caring for the people.
Ezekiel’s prophecy hangs as a backdrop for Jesus’ parable of sheep and goats. This is the work of the good shepherd, the same one known to Ezekiel. He has sought out the lost, brought back the strayed, bound up the injured, and strengthened the weak. And he expects and encourages those who have been so nurtured to pass on the role of caring.
This scripture is the end of Matthew’s gospel, in terms of the lectionary. The poor and needy figure prominently in Matthew’s gospel: it is addressed to those who have felt rejection, those beyond the normal boundaries of an excluding culture, those deemed to be insignificant. There is a radical generosity in the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel. There is an over-abundance of compassion, of the quality described by that Hebrew word that is so difficult to translate, chesed – loving-kindness, steadfast love. And this chesed, which is the agape, or steadfast love of the new testament, is what we are meant to pass on to the rest of the flock of sheep, especially those in need.
In speaking of sheep and goats, Jesus talks about “the least of these.” The least and last present themselves to us daily, on our televisions, in our newspapers, on doorsteps, in streets, outside offices and art galleries and churches.
Some of the knocking at the doors of our consciences comes from people whom we mistrust, or who have been represented to us in ways that make us suspicious – some who seem less than genuine in their need, some who appear to have immersed themselves in good causes for their own self-interest, some who are just freeloaders. They are among Jesus’ “least of these.”
How will we, in our generation, treat them, all of them? Can we look beyond or within the face of the other to see the face of Christ? This is the unsettling message of what Christians are called to be if we want to find the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Son of Man waits patiently on his lonely throne for us to accept the invitation to join him in shepherding the sheep, pigs, chickens of creation – and in fact all the forms in which we humans present ourselves.