Welcome to St. Aidan’s on this Feastday of Christ the King! Let’s start out with a rousing chorus of “Christ is King!” Can you say it with me? “Christ is King!”
Wait, what did we just say? Christ is the King? Are you all sure about that? What does it even mean for us to say Christ is King, and is it a true statement in our world? What is this supposed to tell us about our reality? These are the questions I want to explore with you today from our Gospel reading.
Today is the threshold between Ordinary Time and Advent in our church calendar. The church year is ending and will begin anew next Sunday in the Gospel of Mark. Our lectionary Gospel reading reflects this time of wrapping up. All year long we have been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew. Today we read the last section of Jesus’s final discourse before his trial and execution—notably for the crime of claiming to be the “King of the Jews.” It’s the last parable of a series of parables given in answer to a private question of Jesus’ disciples just a chapter before:
“Tell us, when will these things be, and what the sign of your arrival and of the consummation of the age?” They asked this question when Jesus ended a long list of woes for hypocritical religious leaders by predicting that the very structure they put their hopes in, the great temple of Jerusalem, would be destroyed.
This then is the pinnacle of all Jesus’ preaching about the Kingdom that we have heard so much about in various cryptic and puzzling parables over the preceding weeks. This, a story which is often understood—as you’ll see if you look at most translations—as depicting the judgement at the end of the world between those of us who are going to heaven, and those who are going to “everlasting punishment.” Even though the translation I selected for the reading today is a little more nuanced than usual, it’s still troubling. Again, maybe you’re with me as I ask: Is this the Good News of Jesus? What does this mean and how does it apply to us today?
Jesus sets the scene of his story with the son of man coming in glory accompanied with angels, and being seated on a throne judge those assembled before him, separating them his right and his left as if they are “sheep and young goats.”
These represented as sheep are invited to inherit a kingdom prepared for them by the Father who had blessed them, while those depicted as the goats are sent away with a curse of “you execrable ones!” destined to a place of fire along with Diablos, the Slanderer.
On what basis are these people judged and placed? On their religious identity or which sacraments they have been part of? On their purity or moral behavior? No.
This king who sits on the throne and judges makes his criteria for separation and destination very, very clear. The dividing line is: how have you treated the least of these? The hungry and thirsty provided for, the stranger or alien hosted, the naked clothed, the sick and imprisoned looked after.
Note two important things about this judgement. First, both the sheep and the goats are in shock about the connection between the king and these victims they helped or ignored. The choice of aid was not based on a religious demand or a desire to earn anything, but for the sake of the people in need.
The second point is how the king describes his role: in these stories he is not an outside observer evaluating the performance of the sheep and goats—rather he is the one they encounter! I don’t know about you, but when I reach out to help someone more unfortunate than I, I like to think that I am bringing a little bit of Jesus to them. But this story reverses that relationship: when I go to help a victim, it is in them that I meet Jesus!
It is in serving the least of these that we find Christ our Savior.
Do we believe that? Is it true? What does it even mean?
As we listen to the end of Jesus’ preaching in Matthew today, let’s not forget how his preaching ministry started, 20 chapters earlier, high upon a Mount. Your priest reminded you of this just a few weeks ago, on All Saints Day, when he read the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the destitute, the poor, those beggars abject, cowering and cringing, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens!”
“Blessed are the meek, those who mourn, those who are persecuted. Blessed, blissful, happy, are the victims the world has ground under.”
If you’re not skeptical or confused or disturbed yet, please—be patient. We’re only halfway there. Jesus isn’t going to let us off that easy. This is the magnum opus of all his topsy-turvy Upsidedown world.
We need one more pass at the text, back to the very beginning. There are two clues for one theme we haven’t examined yet, and it’s easily missed in our culture today.
First, the title “son of man” is strongly connected to a vision in the 2nd-century BCE book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 7 there is a vision of four great and terrible beasts who represent the four great empires of the age—Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome—followed by “one like a human being” who was given kingship over all the world by the Ancient of Days, the Most High God. The title has nothing to do with gender but with identity: this is a fully human one—one truly made in the image of God.
Our second clue is in the second verse of our passage: the nations will be assembled. This king, this “human one” whose empire follows after the beastly ones, is not judging individuals but is separating nations one from another. The nations of sheep are those who care for the least, while those of goats ignore the victims in their midst.
This is a parable of the judgement of nations, of political entities.
How do we judge nations in our world today? What is the criteria for success? Maybe total population is a bragging right for some, or total land mass. Some might talk about natural wonders, or places tourists most want to visit. Others like to point to historical events, or cultural heritages.
But let’s be honest. The most common things we think of when judging nations are economics and the military. What is your Gross Domestic Product or GDP? How big, well-funded, and effective is your army/navy/air force?
Our country, the United States of America, is a shining star in these metrics.
We have 4% of the world’s population while producing 22% of the world’s GDP. Twice that, 41%, of the world’s personal wealth is held here. Our military— budget, equipment, and personnel—is far and away the best around.
How do we fair based on this story of Jesus’s though?
The hungry and thirsty: 13% of us experience a lack of regular access to enough nutritious food to remain healthy. 41 million struggle with hungry, 13 million of which are children. All while half of our produce is thrown away.
The naked, those without protection from the elements: There are 3.5 million people in this country with no home. 500k on any given day need a shelter. 2.5 million kids, 1 in 30, have experienced homelessness. Half of these people have jobs. All while there are 5 times as many vacant homes as there are homeless, 19 million of them.
Strangers and aliens: Up to half our farm workers are immigrants, and many production and service jobs are held by them as well. They are often abused and left without protection from wage theft due to deportation fears for themselves, coworkers, or family. We are closing our borders tighter and tighter just as our world needs more welcome for refugees.
Those who are ill: We spend twice the 1st-world average on health care for worse-than-average care with 10% of the population still having no coverage. The uncertainty caused by bills and coverage has compounding effects of stress on so many of us even with insurance. All while the healthcare industry brings in record profits.
Those in prison: Here in the land of the free we house 22% of the world’s incarcerated population. We have for-profit prisons which rely on a steady supply of inmates for business. 20% of our inmates have experienced solitary confinement, with 3-5% ongoing at any time, in conditions described as psychological torture.
The truth of our nation, of our society, is not in our measurements of power but in how our least are treated. This is what we are judged on by Christ our King.
This is not a parable of a far-off end-time judgement of individuals. It is a parable that gives us metrics for knowing if Christ is our King. Is our nation the herd of sheep inheriting what was prepared for us from the foundation of the world, or are we the young goats headed for another round of chastisement and discipline—brought on by our own commitment to violence and oppression just like the rebellion a generation after Jesus brought on the destruction of Jerusalem that Matthew’s author had witnessed?
I believe this is a picture of ongoing judgement. Jesus has given us a clear vision of what nations of humans should be like, and it is up to us to be those sheep or those goats.
When Jesus’s early followers said “Christ is King!” it meant Caesar was not. It meant the beastly empire way of doing things is no longer valid. This Feastday was established by the Pope in 1929 as fascism was rising in Italy. It is no less urgent a call to action in our country today. The ideology of fascism creates scapegoats out of “others” to avoid internal problems, whereas in Christ’s kingdom it is in the faces and broken bodies of the discarded others that we find the truth of our issues and may begin to heal from the bottom up.
We are about to enter into Advent, a time when we look forward to the coming of the True Light into the Darkness of this world. Our acclamation of Christ as King often rings hollow in our nation and world today, to the point that at times we are tempted to give up our delusions and succumb to despair. Yet as people of the resurrection we MUST BE committed to faith, hope and love: not in confidence that the world has already been remade into the image of the King, but that it can so become as much as we recommit every day to building a society that feeds the poor, houses the homeless, sets free the imprisoned, clothes the naked—which does right unto the least of these, the downtrodden and the victims. The victims of our economy and our power are the truth of our society.
Do not believe the lies of the Slanderer: our truth is not held in our power, but hidden amidst our weakness. Our savior, our path to salvation, is found in the least of these. Until that blessed day when we can say Christ is King in our nation and our world with full sincerity, let us say it again in hope: “Christ is King!”