Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – Ez 34:11-12, 15-17; Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28; Mt 25:31-46
In the 10 verses that precede our first reading from Ezekiel 34, the Lord God condemns the errant leaders of his people, who have neglected the flock of the Lord to feather their own nests: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!” The Lord God delivers a stinging indictment of their behavior — exploitation and abuse of the ones in their care — and vows to put a stop to their shepherding.
Today’s reading then unfolds with tender images of the Lord God gathering his scattered sheep and taking care of their needs for rescue, sustenance, rest and healing. The sleek and the strong meet their end, however, likely headed for the banquet table.
This sounds harsh coming on the heels of such kind care and feeding, though it points back to the ousted shepherds described above, who are sheep, too, from the Lord’s point of view.
Psalm 23 follows, bringing King David to mind — one who came from the lowly work of shepherding the family flocks only to be anointed for kingship in the midst of his older and far more impressive brothers. These humble beginnings, i.e., caring for sheep, set the pattern for his service to God and the people as shepherd and king of Israel. (Not surprisingly, when he fails miserably, a poignant sheep story brings him to repentance.)
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46), Jesus warns us of the consequences of our inactions toward those in need. I sense, however, that he also offers a promise: When we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit the sick or imprisoned, we will see his face in some mysterious way. Remember, the sheep in the parable did not know they had met Jesus; the goats did not know they had missed him.
A few thoughts come to mind. First, we need to get close to see someone’s face. Sharing our resources at long distance can give us a good feeling and a tax deduction, and it surely helps support worthy efforts to alleviate poverty, but writing a check rarely brings us close enough to look into the eyes of a person in need. Think “Jesus in disguise.”
Second, sometimes we find the disguise impenetrable. Those in need appear prickly or crabby or downright unpleasant. Recipients of our help fail to show the gratitude or humility that we think appropriate. To see Jesus in these people, we must look at them through his eyes.
Third, meeting Jesus in one of his least brothers or sisters can happen in our own homes and families, as we care for children, aging parents or sick loved ones. Thus, a hidden blessing belongs to the devoted caregivers among us. The rest of us must reach out beyond home and family to encounter Jesus in the least ones. Meeting Jesus in disguise might require leaving the neighborhood and our comfort zone.
Finally, once given, our material assistance ceases to belong to us. We can no longer control it or see to its proper use. Only the investment of ourselves remains under our charge, whether we choose to stay involved and in what way.
Jesus challenges us to respond to persons with an investment of personal presence: to give food and drink, to welcome strangers, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. This seems particularly daunting in our present circumstances, yet with imagination, ingenuity, masks and Zoom, it can happen.
This parable of the final judgment, coming as it does on the threshold of Advent, sets the tone for the season and the good works that it inspires. Loving actions declare our readiness to meet the Lord, whether at the end of our lives or at the end of the world. Let us wait in hope with open hearts, keeping an eye out for Jesus incognito.
Melanie Coddington holds a Masters in Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in New Orleans. She serves as Catechetical and Music Minister at Christ the King Church, Abingdon.