Well, friends, we made it. God faithfully brought us through another liturgical year. As we mark Christ the King Sunday and prepare ourselves for Advent, let us reflect on just what sort of king Jesus the Messiah is.
The first point to note about Jesus is that he is a returning king. This week’s lectionary readings from Matthew continue a theme of Jesus preparing his followers for his eventual return, even before his death, resurrection and ascension. The Human One, as Jesus constantly referred to himself, still has work to do on earth. So while we live in the Spirit’s presence and guidance, we look forward to the return of our king, Jesus of Nazareth.
But when Jesus comes back, what will he do? Here in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a series of parables about how he will judge who is welcomed and who is excluded from the kingdom. These passages can be difficult and uncomfortable for some readers, but I think it’s necessary to sit with our discomfort as we think about the Jesus who judges the world. After all, we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.” In Matthew 25, Jesus uses two images of judgment.
The first image is of a shepherd separating the different species of a combined flock. This image is borrowed from Ezekiel 34, especially verse 17. In discussing judging between sheep and goats, and even between sheep, God asks through the prophet Ezekiel:
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet? Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide (Ezekiel 34:18-21).
Jesus uses this image of the shepherd judging the flock based on how the animals treat each other to make an important point: He will judge people based on how they treat others. Do we share God’s provision, do we forcibly prevent others from sharing what we have, or do we even ruin God’s provision through our uncaring self-focus? Jesus’ words here should help us think clearly about the importance of not only of sharing our personal resources, but also of practicing care for all of God’s creation.
“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” (Matthew 25: 35-37).
Then Jesus abruptly shifts from using the image of a shepherd and flocks to that of a king addressing his human subjects. We know this passage, right? Jesus welcomes into the kingdom those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed to the foreigner, clothed the naked and gave the gift of presence to the sick and imprisoned. Then he dismisses those who didn’t do those things. Those who loved their neighbor loved the King, and those who did not love their neighbor, failed to love their King.
It’s helpful to realize that Jesus, in identifying himself with those in need, might have been riffing on a popular story about King Solomon wandering in disguise (YT. Sanhedrin 2:6, Testament of Solomon). The legend goes that Solomon was suddenly, mystically transported a long distance from his throne and stripped of all his finery. While he wandered the earth in poverty, seeking to return to Jerusalem and his throne, he was taken for a beggar and lunatic who raved about being the true king. No one believed him. Some mocked and ridiculed him, but others fed, clothed and treated him with kindness simply because he was a human in need. When Solomon finally returned to his throne, he gathered the people who treated him well and rewarded them, while he punished those who made his difficult journey even more difficult.
No doubt, Jesus identified with a displaced Solomon in the story. The great king stepped away from his glorious throne. He could proclaim who he truly was, but it’s difficult to recognize the lord when dressed as a servant (Philippians 2:7). The moral of the story of the wandering and disguised king is that we should always be loving to our neighbors. The point of the brief sheep and goats image is the same—we must take care of our neighbors. Friends, Jesus will return someday as the great king to judge us. And his criteria are clear: Did we love our neighbors?