The liturgical year comes to an end with Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. As we ponder what it means for Christ to be king, it is perhaps fitting that the gospel reading for the day focuses on judgment. One of the roles an ancient king had was that of judge. Solomon, we’re told, was renowned for his wisdom as exemplified in the judgment rendered with the women who contested to whom a child belonged. It was said that Israel “stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute judgment” (1 Kings 3:16-28). With knowledge that monarchs were charged with being the final judges in their realms, we end this cycle of readings knowing that judgment has been a central theme of recent readings from Matthew’s Gospel. Since the moment that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem being hailed as Son of David, this has been at the heart of his message even as he faces imminent arrest.
In the aftermath of Jesus’ entrance into the city, he had been warning the crowds that that the timing of the Son of Man’s return in glory was unknown and would come when least expected (Matthew 24:36ff). While the timing wasn’t known, he assured the audience that the Son of Man would return in glory. Therefore, they should keep prepared for that day. This message comes through clearly in the parables about Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) and the Talents (Matthew25:14-30). Be prepared and be at work is the message he was conveying. With each message came a further message of judgment. If you’re not ready when the reign of Christ comes its fullness you will be shut out.
The parables of judgment are often troubling, especially for those of us who want to emphasize the love of God rather than the wrath of God. The image of “sinners in the hands of any angry God” doesn’t sit well. Yet, as we come to the end of the liturgical year, judgment is front and center. According to Matthew some will face judgment, which involves in some form exclusion from the blessings of God’s realm. If we read the gospels from a Trinitarian perspective, then it is fitting that the Son of Man (whom we understand to be Jesus) would offer that judgment. It is helpful to remember that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel we are closing in on the moment when Jesus himself will face a human judge (Pilate) who will rule against him. On the cross, Jesus will find himself on the margins, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Therefore, it seems appropriate that the Son of Man brings in the realm of God with a word of judgment that overrules the judgment of Caesar.
The gospel reading for the Christ the King Sunday is a familiar one. This is especially true for those who embrace the call to engage in the work of transformative justice. We have heard about our responsibility to care for the “least of these.” We have heard that by caring for the poor and the marginalized, we are caring for Jesus. It is as we read in Hebrews – “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2 CEB). Showing hospitality to strangers was an important virtue in the ancient world, and so there were in many cultures stories like the one spoken of in Hebrews. So, ministering to the stranger or the one in distress was a concept that was readily understood by Jesus’ audience (and that of Matthew as well).
The parable of universal judgment suggests that one’s eternal future is dependent on how one ministers to Jesus. The righteous are those who have given the Son of Man food when hungry, drink when thirsty, welcomed him when a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when sick and visited him when in prison. A list like this should be troubling to those who have embraced the principle that we are justified by grace through faith, and not by our works (Galatians 2:16). James offers a different perspective, suggesting that works were the true expression of faith. “Faith,” he says, “without works is barren” (James 2:20). There appears to be conflicting opinions in the early church about how we demonstrate our faith before God. While Paul and James seem far apart, are they really? Paul is concerned about imposing circumcision on Gentile followers of Jesus. James is concerned about the ethical implications of the Christian faith. I don’t think Paul would disagree with either Jesus or James about the importance of our faith exhibiting itself in transformed behavior, which would include good works.
One way of resolving the tension in the passage is to interpret the “least of these” as Christian missionaries.” Thus, the nations (panta te ethne) that have been gathered before the throne of the king are being judged by how they have treated the missionaries. This is a common interpretation and it resolves the tension about salvation by grace. But, in resolving the tension, we may let ourselves off the hook. Maybe it is good to keep the tension in place lest we fall victim to cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
All our good works are nothing but God’s own good works for which God has already prepared us. Thus good works are, on the one hand, demanded of us for the sake of our salvation; and they are on the other hand, always only the works which God is doing in us. They are God’s gift. [Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4), p. 279].
The judge has come. The nations stand before the judgment seat. They are called upon to give account of their “good works.” Whether the “least of these” includes simply Christian missionaries or those living on the margins (there is textual support for the former, but I’m not ready to let go of the latter), can we not agree that “faith without works is dead.” Can we not agree that if we truly are followers of Jesus we will not only love God, but we will love our neighbor as well? While the neighbor could be a fellow follower of Jesus, can we not extend the definition to include any who is in need? In our own context, as opposed to that of the early Christians, should we not make every effort to care for the true “least of these”? Are not they Jesus’ brothers and sisters?
These are the questions we must ask ourselves as we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign – on earth as in heaven. The kingdom is not mere social service, but it is a reflected in the way in which we observe the two great commandments – loving God and loving neighbor. The Sheep are those who understand, the goats are those who do not. The king has been charged with sorting us out. We are not – as James puts it: “There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12). With that the word comes – we all stand before the judge. So, where do we stand?