Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, known as Christ the King. Next Sunday, the first Sunday in Advent, begins a new lectionary cycle. Advent will begin with a focus on the coming of Jesus Christ—both his first coming and his second. Today’s lessons also focus on Christ’s second coming and our lessons emphasize Christ reigning in majesty and his reigning as a judge. This gospel reading is not only our last for this year. It is also the last substantive teaching that Jesus gives his disciples before his crucifixion. So, for Matthew, apart from a few commandments Jesus gives his disciples—the institution of the Eucharist and the Great Commission—this story is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.
So it’s an important story, not simply because it’s a favorite of those who see the Gospel message as primarily one of outreach to the needy. It’s important for Matthew, too. It’s an apocalyptic vision. Jesus is describing what the Parousia—the coming of the Son of Man will be like. First, he uses royal imagery. He will come in glory and sit on his heavenly throne. But immediately, that imagery is combined with another image, that of the shepherd. He will separate the people like a shepherd separates his flocks, the sheep from the goats.
This image may draw us back to the reading from Ezekiel, where another visionary sees God coming like a shepherd, judging between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, rescuing them from wherever they have been scattered, feeding them, binding up the injured. We might find it odd that these two images—the shepherd and the king—are linked together in the biblical tradition. As the reading from Ezekiel makes clear, one reason for that linkage is the tradition that the founder of the Davidic monarchy—King David, was a shepherd. But for Christians, when shepherd imagery is used of Jesus, it is almost always used to emphasize Jesus’ care for us and his intimate love for us.
Yet here in Ezekiel, the shepherd is a judge who culls his flocks, separating the fat from the lean sheep. So too in the gospel, the Shepherd King is a Judge who divides the sheep from the goats. In the Ezekiel passage the contrast between the care and tender concern the shepherd shows for the lean sheep and the harsh words with which he judges the fat.
The same is true in the gospel. The king judges harshly, unequivocally between the sheep and the goats. Christ appears to us here as a shepherd-king, but there are two other important images of Christ in the gospel. One is the obvious one. When the king says, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me, identifies the presence of Christ in the naked, the prisoner, the hungry, the sick. The third image is less obvious. The text begins with a reference to the Son of Man. In Matthew, when Jesus uses that title of himself, it almost always is in reference to his crucifixion. Christ the King is also the Crucified One and the least of these.
We are called to hold these three images together, we might think of them as three facets of a prism that together refract the light. If we ignore one of them, the other two become less brilliant. Emphasizing one over the other is a common temptation for Christians, but the gospel itself warns against it. We might prefer one image over the other. Some might want to encounter Christ only in the face of the poor and hungry; others only in an image of the Crucifixion. There are even those who can conceive of Christ only as the judge who comes on a cloud of thunder and reigns in majesty.
Each image taken by itself will lead to a distortion of our faith. Those who focus only on the crucifixion will see Jesus only as the one who offers forgiveness for our sins. Those who focus on Christ in Majesty will think only about the second coming and making sure that they are on his right side. Those who focus only on outreach to others turn the Christian message into a social service agency.
The judge separates sheep from goats, those who reached out to the needy and those who didn’t. The surprising thing here is that all are surprised. Neither group knew that Christ was present in the naked, the stranger or the prisoner. So for those whom the King welcomed into the kingdom, their actions in reaching out to the needy were not a conscious response to Jesus’ teachings or the result of acting out of duty or in order to gain their salvation. Their actions were an unconscious, unknowing part of who they were as Jesus’ disciples.
Each year as Christ the King Sunday approaches my mind turns to the marvelous mosaics in the churches of Ravenna, Italy, created in the sixth century on behalf of Byzantine emperors. There are two that are especially appropriate on this occasion. The first is from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd: