And when they had crucified [Jesus], they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews …’Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him.
On this last Sunday of the Christian year, an occasion now increasingly referred to as “Christ the King” Sunday, I find the voices of those who questioned Jesus’ truth echoing in my own head. It is not that I mock our Lord – not intentionally, at least; but the headlines in the news of the world, the strife and anxiety, the suffering and the frustration tend to overwhelm me. The bleakness builds to the extent that as I regard the King Jesus on the cross, I can’t help but hear the old inelegant commercial phrase): “Where’s the beef?” With so much chaos and destruction, what kind of king can this be?
For me, I know that you, Lord, are the One who has come among us to reveal God’s truth and life, that (contrary to all appearances) because of you, fear and death do not have the last word, because of you; but, Lord, how long? It’s a sad state of affairs when the war between Hamas and Israel overshadows the war in Ukraine. It’s a sad state of affairs when people are so frightened and desperate that they give leadership to men whose sole purpose is to keep themselves at the center – a center which belongs only to You. How long, Lord? How long until your reign prevails?
How long, O Lord, will your people be the fodder that these power-hungry ones use to manipulate and distract us from your promise and from the work you have called us to do? And how long will we allow ourselves to be duped by all the easy answers that are couched in the vain and addicting proclamations that others can “fix” what we do not like? You are the one who reigns over all. You are the One who victoriously confronts and transforms “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf”1. But how long, O Lord, how long until “your kingdom come; until your will be done on earth as in heaven”?
In 1925, in the midst of the reaction to the traumatic horrors of World War I and with the subsequent destruction of the familiar social and cultural norms specifically in the western world, Pope Pius XI inaugurated an encyclical, a formal letter to the faithful, entitled: Quas Primus: (“In the First”). The encyclical was a warning concerning what the Pope viewed as the growing secular nationalism and atheism of the time, with the result being a dangerous and growing discord among people and countries. Meant to stand in opposition to this rising militarization of the first world’s soul, Pope Pius XI created “Christ the King Sunday” as a means to remind all people that while governments come and go, Christ reigns as King (as sovereign) forever.2
In an era in which fear, disappointment, and bitter resentment roiled to a dangerous level, many people viewed issues of religion and religious freedom to mean that one could believe whatever an individual wanted. Yet, in the public arena transcendent faith and its perspective were unspoken.3 Looking with historical hindsight and recognizing the frightening parallels to our own time, one wonders to what extent the Pope’s clarion call was heard? Or in the clamor of the times, was it viewed as mere “church talk” -- idealistic, impractical, irrelevant? More to the point, are we in our own times any better at orienting ourselves around God’s Christ and the God-life given through him?
In 1922, three years before Pope Pius’s encyclical, Benito Mussolini became the Prime Minister of Italy, leading the “Nationalist Fascist Party” until 1945, when he was summarily executed by Italian partisans. Eight years after the Pope’s encyclical was issued, Adolf Hitler emerged, capitalizing on economic woes, popular discontent, and political infighting during the Weimar Republic, to assume absolute power in Germany.
How long, O Lord? “Deliver us from evil,” grant us the grace to live on your kingdom’s terms – no matter what.
Recently, I had a meeting with a friend who has a deep and informed faith. So it was that I confessed to him that I was at a loss as to what people like me might do as a follower of Jesus in this present time of turmoil, ruthless war, and barbarous death. I acknowledged to him my sense of powerlessness over the enormous issues of noxious hatred and wanton suffering. I said that I knew that I was not alone in this wilderness experience and that I hated being in such deep struggle and confusion. Where, I asked, was the stabilizing foothold in the fear? In the face of headlines that echo the worst aspects of human history, what could I do? What could any of us who claim to follow Jesus do? What about the reign of Christ?
At first glance, today’s gospel is of no help in answering this gnawing question. The separation of the sheep and the goats sounds like more of the problem than anything else. Do we actually need more “separation”, more room to lob verbal and actual bombs at the “other”? Clearly, the answer is “no”; and contrary to our common reading – and preaching, this gospel’s truth is not anchored in such destructive, moralistic separation. The telling fact of the matter is that a good shepherd does separate the sheep from the goats, not because the sheep are the “good” guys, going to “heaven”, and the goats are the “bad” guys that go to “hell”. No, Jesus speaks of separating these herding creatures precisely because he knows the needs of the sheep and the goats and responds to their needs. King Jesus knows what it takes to provide life for them both; and the point is that our king rules because he is a shepherd; and shepherds serve by taking care.
The notion of pitting sheep and goats as the message of this gospel lesson is erroneous and dangerously self-serving; and beware of anyone who posits such an interpretation. For instance, a good shepherd knows that goats need to have better shelter from the cold than sheep do. So, at night, he separates them, giving the goats more protection because he knows how to care for them. Also, a good shepherd knows that sheep cannot eat what goats eat. So, he separates them in order to feed them properly. Additionally, a good shepherd knows that sheep can be susceptible to the parasites that goats have. So, he separates the sheep and the goats to promote their mutual health. All this a good shepherd does in order to reign over his flock, even though it is frequently hard to tell the difference between the sheep and the goats, save for the fact that the tails of the sheep go up and the goat tails go down. Now you know!
This, it seems to me, brings us to Jesus’ singular point in the gospel for “”Christ the King” Sunday. The one thing both the sheep and the goats need is care, and a discerning eye to what care to give to which critter and what care under what circumstances. Or, in Jesus’ own terms, given at the end of this “parable-that-is not-a-parable”: “…just as you did it to the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.”4 The reign of Christ consists of the discerning care of a shepherd. And the power of the shepherd king who reigns from the cross is in caring for his flock.
In this world of huge problems and unrighteous suffering, we know that following Jesus does not give us the excuse to disengage simply because we cannot fix such enormous issues. Rather, as the ancient Jewish source solemnly reminds us and is known as the text: “Ethics of our Fathers”: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”5
Truly, I say to you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
I am mindful of the prayer that I frequently offer when I am the officiant at Compline and one of the phrases in the “Collect for the Human Family”. That prayer goes like this:
O God, you made us in your image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and (here is the phrase) work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish our purposes on earth.6
But the questions are: What to do? How to do it? How to stay steady while we struggle and are confused? We offer what the shepherd offers: Care – to the least of these his family. But how? In this regard, I recalled a line that I learned from another friend decades ago. The line was the telling quote from Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII’s High Lord Chancellor, who literally lost his head for challenging the King’s self-absorbed thinking and destructive actions. Facing such a fearsomely fatal price, More’s comment rings clearly with the wisdom of a realistic, humble, yet undeterred follower of Jesus. More wrote: “If you cannot so order things that they be very good, so order them that they be not very bad.”
"Christ the King” speaks of the sovereign nature of God and to life on God’s terms. The Holy One reigns because in Christ’s rising God has revealed that his ways may not be our ways, but that in spite of the reality of death’s dread sting, fear and death do not own us because Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again to reign completely.
So it is that as we confront the reality of the world’s deep need for “forgiveness, restoration, and strengthening”(something we acknowledge in the Words of our “Confession of Sin”), each of us as a follower of Jesus has a part to play in remembering what we are and more significantly Whose we are. Our proclamation about being rooted in God’s Christ can simply be about providing some insightful care of the sheep and the goats, that is, to the “least of these” in our midst. And in the wilderness of our times, we make making these small acts to remind one another to continue to trust that God in his Christ will take our little parts for “the least of these” and gather them up into a victoriously transforming difference – a difference which stunningly and thankfully also includes me and you.
I close with a prayer for this day.
Most gracious God, who in Jesus of Nazareth showed us an alternative to the kings, queens, and empowers of history, help us to revere and emulate Jesus’ leadership: To love and to seek justice for all people. Help us to recognize the true grandeur and life-changing power based in loving you and all our neighbors in Christ Jesus, with you, and the Holy Spirit, may we co-create a world ruled not through domination ], but that radical and all-powerful compassion and love. Amen. Amen
1. Enriching our Worship: Supplemental Liturgical Materials. “Confession of Sin”, p. 19
2. LIbreria Editrice Vaticana. U S. Council of Bishops, “About the Solemnity of Christ the King: Background”
4. Matthew 25:406
5. "Pirkei Avot: “Ethics of Our Fathers”
6. Book of Common Prayer. p. 815