Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Christ the King Sunday has arrived and with it the year long journey through the church’s story comes to an end. Yes, with the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll pick up the story again, and then a year from now we’ll be back here at the Day of Judgment, only to begin again the journey. On and on we go in anticipation of that day when this cycle will come to an end and our hope for a future marked by justice for all will be fulfilled. The image of Christ reigning over all is one that has given hope to countless generations, promising a future where every tear will be wiped away and every heart comforted and strengthened. On that day, when the spear will be turned into plow and lion will lay down with lamb, the struggles of this life will give way to perfect peace. That day has yet to come, but the promise remains, even if the fervor has long since dissipated.
The image that emerges from these texts that marks this final week of the liturgical calendar lift up the idea of judgment, something that many Christians don’t find all the attractive. Especially those of us left of center prefer a loving and merciful God – though even liberals seem attracted to the idea that there are those who will be judged, and perhaps judged harshly. They may not embrace the idea of people roasting for eternity in the fires of hell, but from what I can see from the rhetoric surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement, there seem to be few tears for the world’s bankers. Perhaps the denizens of Wall Street deserve judgment. Possibly they are the goats who are to be sent off to the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
There is another issue to address on a day like this. We live in an age where hierarchy is suspect. Even many monarchies exist more as symbol of the past than a political player. Feminist theology also raises questions about the symbolism of Christ the King, which is rather masculine in orientation. Like many I struggle with these images, but even as I struggle with them I also find this image rather compelling. I’m not really sure I’m comfortable with the idea that Jesus is my BFF. And so with this mixture of emotions we turn to texts that offer hope but also speak of judgment.
This text from Ezekiel 34 begins with a beautiful picture of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep and gathering them together, rescuing them from far off places, and restoring them to their rightful place. The context, of course, is that of the exile. Israel has been scattered and hope seems far from secure. To this people that wonder what the future holds comes this word or restoration. The Shepherd promises to feed and care for them, binding up the injured and strengthening the weak. But in this word of hope is a word of judgment. God will bind up the injured and care for the weak, but as for the fat, they will be destroyed in God’s justice.
In context the image is that of the strong getting strong by pushing aside the weaker. This image hits home after watching a much larger cow/bull push its way into a group of feeding cattle. It’s so easy for the strong to push aside the weaker members of society and get what they want at the detriment of the other. We sort of assume this is par for the course, but is it the way God envisions a properly ordered society? In answer to that question, we hear in verses 20-24 that the Lord will judge between fat and lean, because the strong had pushed aside the weaker animals with should and flank and horns, scattering them across the land. The judgment here likely falls on Babylon, the empire that had scattered Israel (Judah). In the course of this process, the flock will be restored and no longer fear being ravaged by its enemies. This promise is accompanied by another, for the prophet says on behalf of Yahweh, “I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them; . . . .” There will be one who will lead, the one who comes as the new David. Then there will be judgment, justice, and security.
The author of Ephesians takes us in an apparently different direction, but there is here the image of God’s final triumph, which is shared with Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority and dominion . . .” It is a vision that is designed to offer hope that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. It is a vision of a God who shares with us the riches of Gods inheritance that by rights belongs to Christ. The promise is that this one, whom God, in God’s power, raises to this heavenly seat of glory, will provide us with a “spirit of wisdom and revelation,” so that we might see realized in our own lives the hope to which we’ve been called. Yes, we must take this promise by faith, but knowing that the one who seeks to push aside the least of these is not the one who has the final word offers us hope. So, even if we don’t yet see this fully expressed in our own circumstances, the promise keeps moving us forward. Indeed, it serves as an invitation to take hold of the inheritance and with it go into the world and make a difference. We depend on the Spirit to guide and empower us, but unless we’re willing to take hold of the promise and engage the world, the promise will not be fulfilled.
From this vision of Christ sitting at the right hand of God, with the powers and principalities under foot, we turn to Jesus’ vision of judgment. Many of us know this text well. We quote it and it informs the politics of at least some Christians. The phrase “the least of these,” which emerges from this passage is one of those easily recognized phrases that has a resonance far beyond the religious realm. It is a passage that cuts a couple of ways. First it holds out the promise of judgment and it lays out the basis of judgment. For those uncomfortable with the idea that God will judge us on the basis of our behavior in the world – this will be unsettling. For those who believe that the way to evade divine justice is to say yes to Jesus this can also be unsettling. But, perhaps equally unsettling is that it’s the nations not individuals who stand ready to be judged.
So, we turn to this scene in which the imagery is rather stark. The Son of Man will come in glory, we’re told, accompanied by his angels to take up his place on the throne of Glory. Gathered around him are the nations of the world. The Son of Man, this eschatological figure whose identity is rooted in the apocalyptic imagery of Daniel, begins to sort out the nations as one might separate sheep from goats (note both the similarity and the difference between this scene and that in Ezekiel). The one who sits in the seat of judgment says to those on the right – the sheep – “come you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Did you catch the word inherit that resonates with the Ephesians text? And did you hear the word about the kingdom being prepared for the sheep from the beginning? God may adapt to our choices and situations, but God isn’t making it up as things go along. There is a vision and a purpose that guides the process. There is a right and a wrong way of doing things. And the reason why the sheep are invited into the kingdom is that “when the Son of Man was hungry, they fed him. When he was thirsty, they gave him drink. When he was a stranger they visited him. As to when they had done this, the one offering judgment says – “when you did it to the least of these who are members of my family.” I know that there are those who would limit this “family” to the church, to the community of faith, but isn’t the family of God bigger than this? Is God only concerned about those who have joined up? Or is God concerned about everyone, no matter their connection to the church? To think that it’s a matter of taking care of our own would seem to let us off the hook.
As for those on the left hand, the goats, they’re accursed. Why, well, when they saw the “least among these” they walked on by. They didn’t feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty, visit the stranger or the one in prison. Their alleged religious devotion seems not to have been sufficient. They seem rather surprised to hear this word of critique. Isn’t piety enough?
So, what do we do with these images of judgment? How do we understand the inheritance of God? As this liturgical cycle comes to an end and we contemplate restarting the journey with Advent on the horizon, are we ready to join with God in the work of living out the reign of God? Or are we content with the way things are and have always been?