November 26, 2023
The Rev. Kathleen Killian
Proper 29A/23; Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Learning to See
Our gospel from Matthew this morning is Jesus’ final and eschatological discourse to his disciples before his passion and crucifixion but two days away (Matthew 26:1-2). As he faced his own end that was to become an eternal beginning, Jesus speaks to his return at the end of time, when in final judgement of all the nations, the Son of Man and King of Glory will separate the peoples from one another and put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
This rather gloomy parable seems an odd lectionary choice given that the church is on the cusp of Advent and the blessed Incarnation, and that today we are celebrating the Feast of Christ the King.
In point of fact, the Feast of Christ the King was created in 1925 by Pope Pious XI in response to, and to counter, the merciless judgment of Mussolini and a young Hitler and his Nazi party rising in power; the world lay in a great depression that would only get worse. The Feast of Christ the King intends to oppose and confront the evils of worldly power run rampant, proclaiming instead the merciful power of God’s love.
As Bob Dylan aptly sang: it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. And indeed we do. We pay homage to Christ the King but also to false and self-serving kingdoms. We bend our knee at the altar but bow down to the almighty gods of dollars and guns; pride, greed, and ambition. We make idols of our rights and freedoms, even of spiritual and lofty ideals. And so throughout the gospels, Jesus warns us his disciples not to be lulled asleep or charmed astray by vanity, propaganda, false kings, and false prophets.
In light of Jesus’ call to consciousness, I was struck by the shared unconsciousness or cluelessness of both the sheep and the goats; both are unknowing as to whether they had neglected or responded to “the least of these” and were thus taken aback at their fate. Is this a parable about holy innocence and/or willful ignorance? About the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing? (Matthew 6:3). All wisdom teachings are layered with meaning, and I haven’t come to a conclusion myself. But perhaps this story is more than advice to be mindful and nice to our neighbors. Maybe it is about purity or honesty of heart and learning to see God in the least of these; as Jesus teaches in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).
In Matthew, the “least of these” are the gentiles or outsiders or all the nations—where Jesus sends his disciples in the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:16-20.) He sends them outside of their communities, to those outside of the church, even to those who might be considered enemies—not in judgment—but in love and hope of reconciliation.
In his letter to the Ephesians, we hear Paul pray for the reconciliation of all nations; that through the power of God in Christ and with a spirit of wisdom and revelation, and the eyes of the heart enlightened, all sheep and all goats will come to inhabit a new humanity as a flock of God’s own in no need of sorting; that, as we prayed in our opening collect, the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under God’s most gracious rule.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew’s small community of faith and nascent church were given a preview of what is to come, as we are today: God will indeed remember their, ours, and all suffering and persecution; and God will also remember the kindness, mercy, and love from those who we deem outcasts, outsiders, and enemies. At the end of time, the exacting and extravagant love of God will extend to all hearts and all souls.
In our Old Testament reading Ezekiel similarly prophesies of hope and of God’s merciful judgment: Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out . . . I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep, between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. I will feed them with justice.
Jesus is at the end of his life; Paul is in prison; and in Ezekiel, Israel is in exile. The scriptures speak to hardship and endings, as well as to the good news of divine judgment, oxymoron it may seem. The good news is that God is among all of his people, sheep on the right and goats on the left, fat or lean. The Holy One knows the heart of each, no matter our kind and sort, our lot in life, the judgment of the world or our own. The good news is that God is with us in the thick and outer darkness, where we cast ourselves by way of our hubris and the choices we do or do not make. The good news is that for all of our wailing and gnashing of teeth, ours is not the final word, and thank goodness.
So how do we come to honesty of heart, our deepest humanity, and that of truth? I think that our capacity to love and to receive God’s gracious love has something to do with the reckoning of our hearts and our earthly lives; and that this accounting is also our own final judgment, in that the soul becomes deeply, deeply responsible for how we have lived. If the soul remains closed to God’s love, then it remains tied to a small, empty, and dark world, which is probably what we mean by eternal punishment or hell.
But, as growth is not limited to the flesh, and if as most of us do, we still need to expand our capacity to love, God makes room for immense growth even after death. Eternity is both the now and the then of God’s infinite goodness and love into which we are invited, and which surely is what we mean by eternal life or heaven.
Divine judgment, which is far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, simply reveals a reality that has been present all along. Praise God, for the sweep and pull of salvation that renders us true and plumbs us straight! Mercy, forgiveness, humility, love, purity of heart and learning to see God in the least of these are the coordinates of Christ the King.
Here at the end of the church year, in ordinary time, we encounter the extraordinary: a King who is before all things, before there ever was the word king; before there ever was the world. Over the past year, the church has journeyed with Jesus as he walked some three-thousand miles through deserts, mountains, cities, towns, and seas. Today is the last Sunday of this journey for this year. Next Sunday, Advent 1, we begin our liturgical and spiritual journey again—to remind us of where we are in time, space, and soul; where our allegiances lie; and whose we are. We begin again, knowing that we belong to Christ, and to a present future that is uniquely ours yet God’s alone.
So in the end and after all, maybe the likes of our doom and gloom parable isn’t all that bad. Because, as Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie* reflected, we can see ourselves in all of the characters. I really appreciated this and continue on in paraphrase of her thoughts; that we are both sheep and goat, both outsider and insider, both friend and enemy, both the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13); the fellow with five talents, two talents, and the fellow burying the one talent (Matthew 25:14-30).
As an old Jewish saying goes, the story is truer than truth. And so we need every facet of every story Jesus ever told to help us understand our place in the roiling complexity of humanity because a good story moves the soul to action—the shock of the pit and the gnashing of teeth helps to dislodge us from the usual mediocre moral groove. But as true is that the king of kings sets out to to rescue the one lost lamb balancing on the edge of darkness (Matthew 18:12-14), and also welcomes home the prodigal child time (Luke 15:11-32), and again unto the end the ages.
I can testify to this myself, that I have been saved, brought home, and welcomed back more than a few times.
As Suzanne* concluded, the Jesus we know in the gospels sought the company of sheep and goats, sinners and slaves, tax collectors, collaborators, prostitutes, lepers and losers. And he had a few friends among the rich and elite. So this last parable of his in not an about face at the end of this life; but a call to purity and honesty of heart, and to the love that is wanting to flower from such yielded ground.
In closing, let us pray: Be present with us O King of Glory; whenever we your restless people tremble at the turmoil of our souls and the world, turn us again toward the Kingdom of your Christ, and the flower of your Love, in whom is true and eternal life.
* Please see Suzanne Guthrie: At the Edge of Enclosure: http://www.edgeofenclosure.org/