Christ the King is identified with such as these, is seen in such as these. So close is the identification that the monarchial Son of Man is inseparable from the least among us: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Moreover, it seems that the glory associated with Christ’s kingship is most evident in giving food and drink, in providing welcome and clothing, in care giving and visiting the least of those who are members of the Son of Man’s loved ones. Such care-taking is usually done by those in the lowest rungs of society. Such servanthood is not popularly understood as being very glorious, rather unsung and laborious.
In a similar vein, today’s reading from Ezekiel as it is appointed on Christ the King Sunday suggests that Jesus is the shepherd who seeks out the scattered sheep, even as David was the shepherd king. A Shepherd King is also an image that goes against the grain of our usual common understandings of kingship.
In fact, today’s biblical images are the exact opposite of what humans might expect of their kingly rulers.
This is one of the things I love dearly about Christianity, that it turns human expectations upside down and confounds what we tend to anticipate.
Parts of me would be quite content to just stop here in my consideration of today’s readings and relish the paradoxical ways of God’s wisdom in Christ Jesus.
But there’s more to the stories. Today’s readings also proclaim a word of judgment. In the parable that separates the righteous from the unrighteous nations, the judgment has everything to do with what the people in the nations do and don’t do. Those nations whose people treat well the least among them by providing food and drink, welcome and clothing, care-taking and visiting are blessed and ushered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Those who fail to give care to the least are judged and destined for eternal punishment.
Listen to it again to feel the weight of the words: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and the devil’s angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’” (Matthew 25:41-46)
These words weigh heavily. Note that whole nations are being judged here, not just individual persons.
Note also that the judgment centers not on doing horrible things to the least among the Son of Man’s kin. Nations and people do plenty of bad things to the most vulnerable among us.
But in the parable the judgment centers on failing to do good things for and with the least among us. That is to say, we are talking here about sins of omission.
Such sins tend to leave no one off the hook, again, both whole nations and those who inhabit those nations.
So, I could also stop here and focus on the clarion call proactively to seek social justice that is strongly suggested by the parable – very compelling when so much injustice reigns in so many nations of the world.
But I am drawn further to explore still other dynamics of the parable. All nations, all peoples are guilty of sins of omission when it comes to omitting to help the most vulnerable.
Countless times have I passed by on the other side of those among the least who literally cried out to me for help on the streets of New York City during the 18 years that I lived there.
In so doing, I embodied a personal share of responsibility, but I was also in my privilege a representation of our whole nation’s response to the least and most vulnerable among us.
Where does this culpability leave me and us, individually and collectively?
Yes, there are those occasions when I and we care for the least. The social ministries of our church, locally, nationally and internationally, which I and we support financially, do wonderful things in assisting the most vulnerable.
But clearly, it’s not enough, since the streets of our cities and the backroads of our nation’s countryside are teeming with the hungry, the thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick, the prisoners.
Where does this leave us? Driven into the arms of a merciful God in Christ.
Today concludes the church year in the three-year cycle of the lectionary when we’ve been focusing on the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew has been relentless in its portrayal of the stringent demands of God’s righteousness.
But there is a culminating moment in Matthew which I identify with my Lutheran eyes and which I cling to as a sinner before a righteous God. This moment happens in chapter 19 in the passage on the righteous rich young man who had kept God’s law but could not let go of his many possessions. When the rich young man went away grieving, Jesus said to his disciples, “23… “‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ 25When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ 26But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19:23-26)
That to me is the Lutheran punchline in the whole point of the Gospel. It is absolutely impossible for nations and people to keep the fullness of God’s righteous law. But for God in Christ all things are possible. Thanks be to God.
Parables in the gospels ultimately point us to Jesus Christ who is the only one who fulfills God’s righteousness. Again, I say, thanks be to God.
Christ’s kingly throne is among the least, and Christ’s glory is revealed in serving the same. But Christ’s kingship is also revealed in that Christ is the righteous one who fulfills divine righteousness on our behalf, because we cannot do it ourselves. Christ is the one who was sent from the heavenly realm into the lowly places where those most vulnerable dwell. Christ is the one who serves them, and inspires us to do the same in our fleeting and often flailing and failing efforts.
This reality of our sinful brokenness, in fact, puts us all among the least, the last and the lost in the grandest, divine scheme of things. But again, thanks be to God for grace and mercy shown also to us, leaving us to affirm with thanksgiving the prayer of the author of the letter to the Ephesians. The prayer is this, that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:18-23)
On this note of prayerful hope in and praise of Christ, I conclude. Amen.
For your reflection and holy conversation at home:
- Recall occasions when you have seen Christ’s kingly glory in the least of these who are Christ’s siblings.
- Name particular occasions when you individually, and we collectively, have served – and failed to serve – the least among us.