Year A: Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King

Matthew 25: 31-46

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe the way you treat others is the way you treat Christ? How does this affect your actions?
  2. In this passage Matthew’s criteria of judgment is our ability to recognize the Lord in the dire circumstances of others, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned and the stranger. How does this make you feel?
  3. Do you struggle with the human (quid-pro-quo) tendency to only give to those who give back, lend to those who can repay and do good to those who do good to you? Explain
  4. The Christian ideal is for our ethics and our spirituality to form a unified whole. In what ways are you experiencing or not experiencing this in caring for the least of your brothers?

Biblical Context

Matthew 25: 31-46
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

The description of the last judgment begins with the triumphant Son of Man coming in glory. It’s a scene filled with references to apocalyptic images from the Hebrew Scriptures and first-century politics. This is the glorious Christ, surrounded by angelic agents of resurrection and judgment.

The parable is the crown of Jesus’ reversal stories; contemporary scholars suggest that it does not say what most people generally think it does. When the triumphant Son of Man identifies with the lowliest of his brethren, we have learned to think of them as the poor of the world. But based on how Matthew has used the terms for the lowly and brethren, most commentators suggest that they are not the poor in general; they are the Christian missionaries, the new family of Jesus, who go out representing him. This does not disparage service of the poor it simply says that Jesus was not referring to the generic poor of the world in this parable. He was talking about his missionary disciples, the lowly ones who evangelized in his name.

A second dimension of the parable that we often fail to note is that the historical Jesus spoke of the glorious Son of Man just before he entered into his own passion, the time when he would appear in public at his weakest and most rejected. Except when we read the Gospel of John, the images of Christ in glory and Jesus who suffered in weakness and rejection seem to be polar opposites. But the parable actually weaves them together, indicating that the Son of Man will appear before humanity in hunger and thirst, imprisoned, naked and weak. He appears this way both in his historical passion and death and through those brothers and sisters who carried on his mission. Therefore, the judgment of the nations rests on whether they accept and love a God who does not mirror the powers of the world but comes among them as a suffering servant.

Pope Pius XI established this feast in 1925 as an antidote to secularism and the church’s loss of power and prestige in Europe. At a time when the Vatican had very little tolerance for democracies and freedom of religion, Pius wrote the encyclical Quas Primas which established the feast. Pius explained his hope that the fruits of the feast would give royal honors to our Lord and that “Men will doubtless be reminded that the Church [was] founded by Christ as a perfect society” (QP 31). There is evangelical irony and a sign of the work of the Spirit in the fact that the readings for the feast of Christ the King of the Universe all depict Jesus in his weakness, yet the feast itself was established in protest to the church’s loss of power and prestige.

Today, our celebration of Christ our King invites us to consider what we believe about where we and the universe are ultimately headed. Do we consider the difference the resurrection makes?

Loving the Powerless

By Pat Marrin

The Solemnity of Christ the King concludes the liturgical year with the assertion that, despite the ominous end-of-time imagery featured in the preceding weeks, God is the ultimate power in the universe.

But what does God’s power look like? If Jesus represents God’s kingship, then divine power is both mysterious and paradoxical. Earthly power is the capacity to force others by threat or violence to do what you want. Kings are the image of power, dominating their subjects and their adversaries.

The title of “king” applied to Jesus is ironic in that, throughout his earthly life, he never claimed political or physical power other than the power of words. He was a preacher, teacher, storyteller. He sought out powerless people, often the victims of power — the poor, sick and social outcasts. In his confrontation with the power structures of his own time, he did not resist, but surrendered himself to violent abuse and an unjust death. The evangelists depict his death as a kind of parody of kingship. Jesus is cloaked in purple, crowned with thorns, enthroned on a cross between two thieves, mocked as the “King of the Jews.” His crucifixion is a sign of contradiction that turns upside down any notion of power and control.

It is a fact of history that the emerging institutional church found two of Jesus’ radical witnesses — pacifism and voluntary poverty — too difficult to sustain in practical terms. By the third century, the official church was on its way to becoming one of the wealthiest and most dominant powers in the West.

Spiritualizing Jesus as a king is one way to distinguish his power from earthly power. But we should not miss the witness of his life as radically poor and powerless as his way of revealing that God shares these characteristics. As absolute Love, God does not force the divine will. God does not threaten transgressors to get them to obey. God does not withhold forgiveness to shame sinners. God does not prevent us from making mistakes or hold our failures over us when we seek to repent.

The power Jesus practiced was self-emptying love and unlimited mercy. He mirrored perfectly his Abba in this, for God is the source of unconditional love, a never-ending offering of divine life to sinners. This is God’s very nature, and God has no other name than Mercy.

What does this love and mercy look like in Jesus’ disciples in today’s world? Today’s readings offers two views. First, in Ezekiel, God is presented as a compassionate shepherd. Jesus found this image a perfect description of God. Shepherds were, in fact, the lowliest of peasants, hired to wander with the flocks in search of pasture. Jesus’ parable of the good shepherd is less about power than vulnerability and extravagant love. His shepherd leaves the whole flock to find a single lost sheep. His shepherd will offer his life for the sheep. What sensible person would do either?

In Matthew, Jesus tells us where to find him. The Lord of the Universe has disappeared among the hungry, thirsty, naked, lost, sick, imprisoned, alien and persecuted of this world. Our King is hiding in the least of our brothers and sisters. The one power he exhibits is to move our hearts to compassion. His very poverty invites us to exercise the power we share with God as his image and likeness — the power to love. This is the essence of our royal priesthood, the power to sacrifice ourselves for others. This is how we honor and imitate our King.