Christ the Universal King
Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17. I Cor. 15:20-26,28. Matt.25:31-46.
Christ the King and the final judgement of the virtuous
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his thorn of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men from one another as a shepherd separated sheep from goats.’
Today is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday, Advent Sunday, is the first day of the liturgical New Year. The Church’s Sunday lectionary then changes from readings from St. Matthew’s Gospel to that of St. Gospel according St. Mark.
The Gospel reading from St. Matthew today presents us with the parable, which is also a word picture of the Great Assize or final judgement. It comes as a fitting climax to the Church’s year. What follows immediately after in St. Matthew’s Gospel is the beginning of the Passion Narrative when Jesus comes before the rulers of the world for judgement and is committed to crucifixion and death. We must bear in mind this contrast between Christ’s judgement of mankind, and man’s judgment of man.
In the parable Jesus describes a picture of the coming of the Son of Man, who gathers together of all the nations. This final judgement is one none can escape. The living and departed appear before the throne of Christ the Universal King. It is a picture that transcends heaven and earth in which Christ comes near to us to judge us and our actions and our deeds in this life.
Jesus describes the King as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. This harks back to the passage of we read about from the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading today. At the end of that passage we read, ‘As for you my sheep, the Lord says this, I will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and he-goats.’
In the ancient world, kings are often described as shepherds – they were responsible for both ruling and caring for the people. The Old Testament describes the kings of Israel beginning with King David. Few of those who came after David proved as good as the great king himself. He is remembered as the shepherd/king, the anointed of the Lord. Ezekiel, therefore prophesies against these earthly rulers and then says that the Lord himself will now come as the good shepherd and care for the sheep – his people.
At the great Assize, the King comes and passes judgement on all his subjects. He speaks first to the sheep he has places on his right hand. They are the virtuous and to them he says, ‘Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take you heritage: the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’
They are welcomed into the kingdom of the Father who has blessed them. Any virtuous deeds attributed them are understood as a gift of grace from the Father. Apart from his gift they have no virtue.
Moreover, they have demonstrated this grace-given virtue by deeds of compassion and merciful-kindness shown to others. Yet, the King says, their service was done in fact to him. Unknowingly they have returned the love that he has shown to them.
Gazing at the King in all his glory and power, they ask in wonder, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick and in prison and visit you?’ And the King will then answer, ‘ I tell you most solemnly, in so far as you did it to the least of these my bothers you did it to me.’
In Proverbs we read - He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. In the Old Testament almsgiving is the virtue that is rated higher than fasting and even prayer. Almsgiving is compassion and love in action, reaching out to the neighbour in need.
In the parable of the Great Assize, Jesus as king, identifies himself with the least of these my bothers. To both the sheep and the goats in the parable this comes as a revelation. ‘When did we see you?’ they ask.
The difference between the two groups is crucial – the sheep have acted on the virtue they have been given by grace and receive the everlasting reward, for they have the humility to serve; whereas the goats in their pride have omitted act according virtue and go away to everlasting punishment.
There is a saying attributed St. Anthony the Great, ‘virtue is not far from us, nor is it without ourselves, but it is within us, and easy if only we are willing.’ This virtue the great saint is speaking of is humility.
You have probably been thinking that all those good works that are listed in this Gospel reading are precisely those deeds this cruel pandemic has prevented us from doing because of the ‘lockdown’.
And at this point we don’t know how much the present restrictions will still encroach on us during the coming festive season of good will and peace. But at least we give thanks for a vaccine has been at last developed that will work.
In the meantime our ‘good work’ will have to be to continue to follow the rule of not spreading the disease to others. We also pray that we may return to Church early in Advent and celebrate the Sacraments as before this second lockdown and so receive the grace of Christ who is never far from us, but is always abides within us. For the Son of Man does not demand supernatural feats, but simple and unobtrusive acts of love. Then in all manner of ways we will be able to support one another in prayer and by keeping our minds fixed on Jesus Christ, the Universal King, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise, glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.