Theme(s): Christ the King / Preparation for the coming of Christ
Sentence: And I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them' (Ezekiel 34:24).
Collect: a traditional collect for this Sunday as the Sunday Before Advent, in modern form, but retaining the words leading to this Sunday being nicknamed 'Stir Up' Sunday follows, from NZPB p. 641:
Stir up, O Lord
The wills of your faithful people
That, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
They may by you be richly rewarded;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
I am particularly reading the readings through the lens of "Christ the King."
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
The combination in David of shepherd and king becomes an enduring theme in the Old Testament and spills over into the New Testament (where Christ is both king and good shepherd).
Here God speaking through Ezekiel promises Israel that he will be a shepherd to them, with special care for the lost and threatened sheep, But God the great shepherd of Israel will also appoint a shepherd in the Davidic mold (23-24). He will 'feed them and be their shepherd' (23). For Christians reading Ezekiel there is only one candidate for identification as this shepherd king: Jesus Christ.
What does a true king, a ruler who loves and care for his subjects (like a shepherd caring for his sheep, 3) deserve more than anything? Payment of taxes is the wrong answer! The correct answer is our praise and adoration. Today's psalm (or its alternative, Psalm 95) is the perfect set of words to express our delight in Christ the King.
There would not be much point to Christ the King if he were not in charge of a kingdom. To be in charge of Israel, as a descendant of King David was a reasonable ambition, or so it seemed to those in the gospels who thought that Jesus was that kind of king.
Here, in the concluding part of Paul's great christological essay on the blessings of God poured out on the world through Christ, with specific reference to those elected by God to be 'in Christ,' we find the crescendo of praise and adoration building to a royal climax.
Christ, raised from the dead, has been seated by God 'at his right hand in the heavenly places' (20). This position of might and power is the ultimate kingship since Christ is now 'far above all rule and authority and power and dominion' (21a). There is more: Christ is above every name, not only those known in this age, but also in the age to come (21b). In case of doubt Paul offers this flourish: God has 'put all things under his feet and has made him head over all things' (22). A true summary would be 'Christ is King of kings and King over everything.'
But Paul is ever mindful that God's power is purposive. The majesty of Christ the King is not majesty for majesty's sake. The purpose of Christ's rule over all rule is expressed in three words deliberately omitted in the citation from v. 22 above: 'for the church.' What God is in and through Christ is for the sake of God's people. The church is the object of God's power and authority displayed in Christ. God wants nothing more that the church to be protected and provided for by the one who is in charge of everything.
And why not, because the church is not some group outside the being of God in Christ, mercifully and unexpectedly included in the Godhead. No! The church is Christ the King's 'body, the fullness of him who fills all in all' (23). Christ takes care of his body.
Our question as the church could be whether we have a big and bold vision of who we are in Christ?
The starting point for this passage is the coming in glory of the Son of Man (31) with the nations gathered before him (32). By v. 34 the Son of Man has become 'the king' and thus we have a great passage for Christ the King Sunday -Christ reigns over the nations and brings judgment to them.
This passage is sometimes called the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This is partially true because Jesus makes a comparison (or 'similitude') in vss. 32-33 between the separated people before him as king and a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. But the greater truth is to describe the passage as a vision of the future judgment.
It is hard (in my view) to read this passage properly because it has (in my experience) been used in sermons to forward various agendas which do not receive direct support from the passage though they are worthy agendas in their own right. The problem is that the passage looks like a passage supporting general social services and social justice when it does no such thing. The provision of social services and the work of social justice in the world at large does receive support from other passages in Scripture, but not here.
The reason for saying this is that Jesus specifically makes the criterion for judgment between the sheep and the goats the criterion of action or inaction towards 'the least of these who are members of my family' (40, 45). Unless we wrench the meaning of other Scriptures to define 'members of my family' as 'everyone', this passage is about the world's treatment of Christians and not how Christians treat non-Christians or non-Christians treat other people.
Understanding this matter is vital for the standing of the whole gospel as a Christian gospel in the context of the New Testament's message that salvation comes through the grace of God and not through good works. On the face of it, overlooking verses 40 and 45, Matthew 25:31-46 looks like a straightforward endorsement of good works as a means to salvation: feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, welcomes strangers into your home and God will be pleased with you. And the converse applies: you have been warned. But this is not so.
Effectively Jesus is expanding on something he has already said about the treatment of his disciples being the treatment of Jesus and thus of God himself:
"Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."
This is Matthew 10:40 (read the larger section, 10:40-42) and can be read alongside Matthew 18:1-7. In these passages Jesus begins to develop a theme which comes to a climax in our present passage: how disciples of Christ are treated is extraordinarily powerful in respect of consequences. God is in Christ, Christ is in Christians, bless (or curse) a Christian and you are blessing (or cursing) God.
So in Matthew 25:31-46 we have the extraordinary spectacle of the nations being gathered before Christ the kingly judge and the judgment turning on how they have treated Christians. As we look around the world today we rightly think that some nations should be terrified of that future judgment because their treatment of Christians has been utterly appalling.
Of course some Christians have treated other Christians very kindly and some have treated them very badly. That also is pause for considerable thought about what Christ the kingly judge will make of our treatment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
How then does the passage read in terms of 'faith versus works'?
The previous two passages (Bridesmaids, 25:1-13; Talents, 25:14-30) have worked on recognition or knowledge between God/Jesus and people. The rejected bridesmaids are not known to the bridegroom and the worthless slave who buries his talent does not recognise who the master really is and what his character is like.
It is the faith which recognises God as God which counts. But Jesus offers a twist of considerable mercy in this third passage: at least recognising a Christian as a bearer of the life of God counts as saving faith in God himself.
For clarity: there are plenty of reasons for Christians to treat all people well, and especially those on the margins of life, whether or not you agree with the explanation given above!