Ez 34:11-12, 15-17
Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6
1 Cor 15:20-26, 28
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by Dr. Tom Bolin, Professor of Religious Studies
It should come as no surprise that three of the four readings for today’s celebration of Christ the King talk about shepherds. The image of the shepherd is one of the oldest metaphors for kingship in ancient Near Eastern cultures, with descriptions of kings as shepherds going back roughly 4500 years to ancient Mesopotamia. In the reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, God affirms that in the future he will no longer rule his people through surrogate kings, but that rather he himself will be their shepherd. Moreover, God’s rule, his shepherding of his flock, is characterized by love for those who are lost and weak, and judgment for “the sleek and the strong,” i.e., those who prospered at the expense of others’ suffering. The tender care of God the shepherd is repeated in the well-known lines from Psalm 23, most familiar in the King James translation: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . . . Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
The Gospel builds on Ezekiel’s prophecy. Now Jesus describes himself as the great shepherd who will do exactly what is foretold by Ezekiel: comfort and bless those who took thought of their neighbors, and condemn those who ignored “the least brothers of mine.” Matthew here, in Chapter 25 of his Gospel, repeats the message he stressed in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matt 7:21). These readings remind us that being a follower of Jesus has very little to do with our words or empty gestures. There is no room for bumper sticker or T-shirt Christianity here. The single most important criterion by which those who will be numbered among the shepherd’s flock is our treatment of those in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned.
Paul’s remarks to the Corinthian Christians makes explicit what all of the shepherd imagery has already affirmed: that the only true king is God, whose kingdom is the entire universe gained for him by Jesus.
The Solemnity of Christ the King is a relatively new feast in the Church’s calendar, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI at the end of the Jubilee Year 1925. Part of the Pope’s motivation behind putting a celebration of the kingship of Jesus into the liturgical year was as a response to fascism which had already taken hold in Italy, Spain and Germany. Fascism, like many other forms of radical “patriotism” asks individuals to see their country or its government as an absolute good. In the words of the great theologian Paul Tillich, state is viewed as an “ultimate concern,” something to which one owes absolute allegiance. Put more bluntly, it is held up as a substitute for God, a form of idolatry akin to the Israelites’ worship of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32.
Unlike Pope Pius XI, we are not faced with the threat of fascism. Nevertheless, we are constantly tempted to treat transitory things as if they were ultimate goods, to commit numerous acts of idolatry both small and large in a culture that holds up power, wealth, youth, violence, and narcissistic individuality as ultimate goods. Today’s readings remind us that there can only be one king, and that those who wish to be numbered among his subjects will be judged by their actions, and not by their words.