Few of us have been subject to a king, and the few kings left in the world do not have the power over their subjects’ lives that a king in the Ancient Near East or the Roman Empire had. It is not surprising, then, that when Jews of that time imagined what it would be like for God to finally take complete control of the world, they used imagery of kingship and of great battles between good and evil. The most powerful use of that language, however, made its point by turning typical ideas of kingship on their head, as our readings today show.
In the first reading, Ezekiel sees that eventually the devastating reigns of Israel’s recent kings, as well as the kings of other nations who conquered Israel, would come to an end. God will be their king, but his reign will be not of pomp and majesty but of the kindest of shepherds, tenderly giving care to the most vulnerable of the flock.
For Paul, Christ’s resurrection signaled that the end times had begun, and very soon, he thought, Christ will reign as king. But again, he will be a king far different than the Jews were experiencing under the Roman emperors. Christ the King will bring not more money and prestige to the rich, but life eternal to those who belong to him. He promises just judgment both for them and for those who have oppressed them.
The Gospel tells us how to belong to Christ. Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats continues the theme of the messianic king who will judge justly. In the Roman Empire, honor was everything and money was able to buy you that. Money also bought what could only roughly be called “justice.” It is not money or power or worldly honor that gains one admittance to Jesus’ kingdom, however – it is acting like God, the Good Shepherd, who binds up the injured and heals the sick. To be with him and in him, Christ the King chooses quite simply those who give food, drink, clothing, and comfort to those most neglected.
It is a topsy-turvy kingdom, this reign of Christ, compared to the values of the wider society, both in ancient times and in our time. Choosing Christ’s kingdom is an act of both exceptional bravery and extreme humility. Let these thoughts be with us as together we receive the body and blood of Christ, our king.