Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and for many years it has been known as Christ the King. More recently, the politically correct liturgical police have renamed it “The Reign of Christ” because the imagery and idea of Christ the King has become increasingly problematic in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It offends our notions of democracy and egalitarianism; it smacks of violence and militarism; it seems to encourage gender stereotypes. For all of those reasons, and for others, including the image of a crowned Jesus robed in splendor, seated on a throne, judging between the good and evil; for all of these reasons I find the commemoration of Christ the King problematic.
But then we come to our gospel reading, and it seems either the editors of the lectionary, or someone else has redeemed the whole notion of Christ the King. It’s the familiar story from Matthew 25 of the Son of Man judging between the sheep and the goats, and that majestic, powerful statement, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” It’s a wonderful story, and it’s especially appealing to those of us more progressive Christians who tend to be uncomfortable with doctrinal formulations and see our religious commitments and the teachings of Jesus as largely ethical demands: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
It’s a story that conforms to our assumptions concerning what Christianity should be about and confirms our suspicions that we are right in focusing on social justice and everyone who doesn’t is misguided. And it’s interesting that after two parables that probably made us squirm with their talk about judgment, being prepared, and being thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. We think we’re back on solid ground with a Jesus we know, a Jesus whose teachings we like.
But a closer look at the text raises some uncomfortable questions. In the parables we heard the last two Sundays, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents, we noted that they were parables of judgment and warning. In fact, the judgment passed out in each seemed rather arbitrary, even cruel. The five bridesmaids who were kept out of the wedding banquet had their fate determined by the bridegroom’s delay, not by their own actions. The slave who was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, did only what his master asked of him, to take care of his master’s property until his return (he wasn’t a member of an investment club).
In today’s reading, we are inclined, thanks to two thousand years of Christian reflection on this story, to see the separation of sheep and goats into good and evil as obvious, a given. Well, not so fast. In the ancient near east, goats were a prized animal. Their milk and meat were staples. They were not seen as evil—a goat was an acceptable sacrifice in Israelite religion.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact that it was a common practice to keep goats and sheep together in a single flock. The only time the two animals were separated by the shepherd was on cold nights, when goats needed more protection. In short, in this reading as in the two preceding parables, the separation of sheep and goats into good and evil, is rather arbitrary. In fact, that’s something of a theme in Matthew’s gospel, that one can’t distinguish good from evil until the time of judgment. Remember the parable of the wheat and the weeds, when “the devil” sowed weeds in a field and the farmer said that at the time of harvest, the wheat and the weeds would be separated and the weeds burned. So there’s something typically Matthean about this whole passage, something that Matthew as a gospel writer is especially interested in. It’s probably a result of something I mentioned a couple of Sundays ago, that a central concern for early Christians that Jesus had not yet returned.
There’s another turn of phrase in this passage that is both typical of Matthew and that complicates our reading of it. And that is the phrase “the least of these.” We hear it here where clearly it refers to the naked and the hungry and don’t give it another thought. There’s a similar passage earlier in the gospel where Jesus says, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple… none of these will lose their reward.” And elsewhere, little ones or the least of these refers to members of the Christian community. So from the context of Matthew’s gospel, one might conclude that in our passage, “the least of these” refers to non-members of the church, gentiles if you will, or the nations, who provide aid for the little band of Christians.
There’s something else that puzzles me about this passage. Neither the sheep nor the goats have any clue why they are judged as they are. The sheep are not aware that when they ministered to the naked, the hungry, and those in prison they were ministering to the Son of Man, to Jesus. Nor did the goats realize that their failure to minister to those in need was a failure to minister to Jesus. In fact, both groups are shocked to learn that Jesus is present among the naked, the homeless, the hungry, and those in prison. In other words, those who rewarded have not ministered to the needy because they knew Jesus was present among the needy; their motives for ministry were different, probably a natural outgrowth of their discipleship and their response to the commandment to love one’s neighbor.
How might all of this become relevant for us who are programmed to see the face of Jesus Christ in the faces of the hungry and the homeless? The fundamental question is whether, in spite of the lip service we pay, we do see Jesus in the faces of the homeless and hungry. How often do we simply pass by the person on the street, or view the group outside the City-Council building as little more than an eyesore or annoyance? How often do we avert our gaze or cross the street to avoid an uncomfortable encounter?
And even if we truly believe that in the face of homeless person or a prisoner, we see the face of Christ, are there faces, people, or groups of people who we can’t imagine might embody, make present, Jesus Christ to us? Where in our daily lives, where in our outreach efforts, where in our relationships might we be surprised by the presence of Jesus Christ?
For this text to be more than a manifesto for another plea for social justice, or a mission statement for a new social service agency, we must be open to encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ in places and in ways we can’t imagine or expect. We must see Christ the King ruling in majesty in the face and body of someone lying on the street next to us. We must remember that the one who said these words was about to make his final journey to the cross, the power of God made perfect in weakness.