Christ the King Sunday is the New Year’s Eve of the Christian year, the day we come full circle and end a journey that began with the First Sunday of Advent a year ago. On this day we reflect on the year past, on our faith journey, on God who is “all in all” and on the Christ who will one day rule over all.
We have been traveling with Jesus and the disciples since the 12th Sunday of Pentecost, when Matthew told us that: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21).
As Jesus traveled with his disciples he performed miracles, taught them about prayer and the cost of discipleship. He sent them on a mission, met resistance from religious leaders, predicted his own passion, exhorted his disciples to faith, and encouraged them to persevere until the Son of Man returns.
Proclaiming the “kingdom of God” was a central theme of Jesus’ ministry. He told parables of the kingdom, told people the kingdom was at hand and invited them to enter in. But the kingdom was always something different than what people expected. In a day when many Jews wanted a powerful military leader to challenge Rome, Jesus said, “The kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed…the kingdom is like yeast hidden in the dough…the kingdom is like a hidden pearl.”
Matthew and his community understood that the resurrected Jesus would return as Judge. The idea of universal judgment was already well established among the Pharisees. To them it represented the punishment and rejection of the wicked, and the time when the just would be invited to share in the joys and privileges of God’s kingdom.
But Christ as Judge identifies himself with those who are the “least of these who are members of my family,” the dispossessed, the sick, and the imprisoned. These are his kindred. So today’s Gospel lesson is full of surprises as we glimpse the upside-down kingdom of God.
Notice that both those identified as sheep and those named goats are surprised by what Jesus says: “Lord, when did we…and, “when didn’t we…”. Both are shocked when Jesus commends or condemns their behavior. But what are they surprised by? That they acted either in a righteous way by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned, or on the other hand, in the unrighteous way of neglecting to do these things?
Apparently not! Neither group denies their behavior. Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man and the company he keeps. No one expected to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned and the diseased.
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t say that the criterion for being saved as a “sheep” was having accepted him as one’s personal Lord and Savior. Nowhere in the Synoptic Gospels did Jesus ever thrust himself into the limelight, not even at the end of his life. Nowhere did Jesus announce that he was the Son of God, and that if one only believed in him, he or she would go to his right hand and be saved along with the rest of the “confessing sheep.”
It wasn’t churchgoing or liturgical observance that would make you a sheep. It wasn’t by believing or confessing any particular creed or doctrine that the king would approve of you. It was by one thing: love. It wasn’t by love in general or as a philosophical abstraction. It wasn’t by talking about love, but doing love. It was by practicing love, which is always characterized by action.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the ways in which Jesus identified himself with the suffering and affliction of the human race. As Christians, “people of the way,” we are called to do no less. Today’s parable of the sheep and goats challenges us to look beyond where we typically look for God. We are invited to discover and experience God’s presence as we reach out in love and compassion to meet the needs of others.
Jesus promises us in this passage that he is available to us in the concrete needs of those around us. God blesses our efforts and meets our own deepest needs when we reach out to those who are struggling. For it is by seeing Christ in the “least of these” and striving to meet their needs that the grace of God in Jesus Christ is made accessible to us. Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2014, 2017; David Lose, 2014, 2017, 2020.