Commentary on Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, cycle A

History of this Feast Day from USCCB:  On the last Sunday of each liturgical year, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King.  Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas (“In the first”) to respond to growing nationalism and secularism.  He recognized that these related societal ills would breed increasing hostility against the Church.  His encyclical reminds the faithful that while governments and philosophies come and go, Christ reigns as king forever.

1st Reading – Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17

Prophet to his people during their exile in Babylonia, Ezekiel shared their sense of having been failed by their leaders, who, from David onward, had been ideally cast in the role of shepherd of God’s flock, Israel.  As history attests, however, that ideal was not always realized and, as a result, the people of God were left unattended, like sheep left to flounder on their own without a shepherd.  Right before this reading, Ezekiel reprimands failed shepherds in the past.  Only God will restore and lead God’s people to wholeness.  It is a message of hope  (Preaching Resources from 11/20/2005).

From The Word into Life, Cycle A, 122:  Usually we reserve the title, “pastor” for the leader of a religious community.  The pastor is to shepherd . . . But perhaps we fail to recognize that every believer is also commissioned, through baptism, to look to the needs of others. We are a priestly peopleand priestly people “pastor.” Ezekiel responded to the needs of his despondent exiled community in the early sixth century BC. To encourage them, he presented God as a shepherd. Yahweh would focus attention on the lost, the strayed, the injured, and the sick. Later, in today’s gospel we find Jesus who fulfills this image and also identifies with all those who suffer.

Ezekiel’s vision of a new beginning under leadership may seem to be slightly diminished by the ominous parenthetical phrase included in verse 16:  “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy.”  Some scholars suggest that this phrase is a gloss, later interpolated into the text and, as such, should be omitted.  Certainly, it seems unlikely that God would shepherd the people lovingly with one hand and strike them down with the other.  Others may be more correct in pointing out that this surprising phrase may be the result of a copyist’s error. Only a yod (smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet) differentiates the Hebrew text (I will destroy) from the Greek (Septuagint), Syrian and Vulgate translations, which read: “I will strengthen the fat and the strong.” 

What other meanings do you ‘get’ from all this? What if the fat and strong were fat and strong because they took too much for themselves?  (Celebration, Nov. 1999)

What of the reference to goats?  Why are goats generally seen as bad in scripture?  Goats were often used for sin and guilt offerings.  Most Palestinian goats were black (vs the white sheep).  Goats often lead the flock, so they can be associated with political leaders; perhaps Ezekiel was comparing the goats to the failed shepherds (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 315).  More on goats later.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28 

In the Jewish tradition, offering the ‘first-fruits’ of a harvest was a way to bless the entire harvest – a way to consecrate the entire harvest. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, the ‘first-fruits’ of God’s Kingdom, we have the promise and blessing of abundant life in this Kingdom. So death is an enemy that has been overcome!  

 (Mary Birmingham, Word and Worship for Year A, 581): When Paul talks about Adam, he talks about all of us when we choose that which is bad for us. It is our ‘false-self’ – our deeply insecure self that does not trust that God has created us to be God’s image. As Adam, we reject living in a loving, trusting relationship with our creator. In other words, ‘being Adam’ is being in sin. It is giving into our endless capacity to destroy ourselves. As ‘Adams and Eves’, we are faced with death – with the fact that someday the world will have no time or place for us. It is only our faith in the God that Christ Jesus brings us that saves us from this terrible predicament. In Jesus we find a God who loves us despite our insecurities and wishes to show us the way beyond this death sentence. (Thoughts from John Dwyer, “A Retreat with Paul,” Part 2)

The Gospel – Matthew 25: 31-46

From Exploring the Sunday Readings, Nov.2002:  As Jesus explains it, there is only one way to exercise power in this world: for the sake of the powerless.  Those with food and drink, should share it.  Those who are on the inside should be hospitable to those on the outside.  If someone is cold, someone with clothes should keep him or her warm.  If someone is sick, those who are well should be attending.  If people are oppressed, those who have their liberty should look to their needs. If you want to inherit the kingdom, you can do so right now: Put your hat on and go visit the sick Christ.  Set a place at your table for the lonely Christ.  Forgive, support, or lift up the burdened Christ.  Then, the kingdom begins to grow within us – and among us.  At least, as best as we can in a pandemic!

From The Cultural World of Jesus by John Pilch — On Sheep and Goats:  Sheep came to symbolize honor, virility, and strength.  Goats were considered lustful and lecherous animals.  Unlike rams, goats allow other males access to their females. Also, goats were associated with sin, for example, the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21-11) Even in Greek culture, the ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. What is the basis for Jesus’ final, definite determination of in-group (sheep) and outgroup (goats)? Hospitality! The kindness and steadfast love that one owed one’s family was to be extended to others, especially those in need. 

From Good Goats:  Healing Our Image of God (Linns), p. 49:  All of us who have felt alienated, unloved, overwhelmed by shame or helplessly caught in an addiction know what it’s like to be in hell.  And all of us who have been welcomed home, who have seen our goodness reflected in the affirming eyes of another or who have been loved into recovery know what it’s like to be in heaven.  We all have wheat and weeds within us, sheep and goats.  The kingdom of God is within us, and we’re all good goats.

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