Christ the King (23 November 2014)



  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 & Psalm 100 [Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 & Psalm 95:1-7a]
  • Ephesians 1:15-23
  • Matthew 25:31-46

The Reign of Christ — Judgment Day

This Sunday (known as the Feast of Christ the King in some traditions) completes the annual cycle that began on Advent Sunday last year. The liturgical year ends with a celebration of the cosmic significance of Christ. It may be helpful to consider this week as a time to gather up the insights that have been contributed by the various seasons and holy days throughout the previous twelve months. Each of the readings will contribute in some way to this week’s central theme of Christ the King.

The story of Christ as the great king on the day of judgment is found only in Matthew 25, but it is one of the best known NT passages:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)

Approximately two-thirds of the 522 items in the inventory of historical Jesus traditions developed by John Dominic Crossan are represented in a single independent source. The remaining third occur in at least two independent sources, while just 33 are found in more than three independent sources.

Like this week’s Gospel, some of the best known sayings of Jesus have survived in just one independent source:

While this week’s Gospel has many parallels in the Old Testament and the later Jewish writings from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, it has none among early Christian writings. Even the Revelation to John fails to provide a parallel to this story, despite having its own version of the Great Judgment in Rev 20:11-15.

Jewish parallels

Parallels in Jewish texts include the following:

Break your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked, clothe him. [Isaiah 58:7]

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right– if he does … does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully–such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD. [Ezekiel 18:5-9]

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; [Proverbs 25:21]

Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked.
Give all of your surplus as alms, and do not let your eyes begrudge your giving of alms. [Tobit 4:16]

When he was about to die, <Joseph> called his sons and his brothers and said to them:
“My brothers and my children.
Listen to Joseph, the one beloved of Israel.
Give ears to the words of my mouth.
In my lie I have seen envy and death.
But I have not gone astray: I continued in the truth of the Lord.
These, my brothers, hated me but the Lord loved me.
They wanted to kill me, but the God of my fathers preserved me.
Into a cistern they lowered me; the Most High raised me up.
They sold me into slavery; the Lord of all set me free.
I was taken into captivity; the strength of his hand came to my aid.
I was overtaken by hunger; the Lord himself fed me generously.
I was alone, and God came to help me.
I was in weakness, and the Lord showed his concern for me.
I was in prison, and the Savior acted generously on my behalf.
I was in bonds, and he loosed me;
falsely accused, and he testified on my behalf.
Assaulted by the bitter word of the Egyptians, and he rescued me.
A slave, and he exalted me. [Testament of Joseph 1:1-7 – OTP]

The first thing:
When the congregation of the righteous shall appear,
sinners shall be judged for their sins,
for they shall be driven from the face of the earth.
and when the Righteous One shall appear before the face of the righteous,
those elect ones, their deeds are hung upon the Lord of the Spirits
he shall reveal light to the righteous and the elect who dwell upon the earth,
where will the dwelling of sinners be,
and where the resting place of those who denied the name of the Lord of the Spirits?
It would have been better for them not to have been born.
When the secrets of the Righteous One are revealed,
he shall judge the sinners;
and the wicked ones will be driven from the presence of the righteous and the elect,
and from that time, those who possess the earth will be neither rulers nor princess,
for they shall not be able to behold the faces of the holy ones,
for the light of the Lord of the Spirits has shined
upon the face of the holy, the righteous, and the elect.
At that moment, kings and rulers shall perish,
they shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous and holy ones,
and from henceforth no one shall be able to induce the Lord of the Spirits to show them mercy. [1 Enoch 38:1-6 – OTP]

[The Lord of all Spirits] placed the Elect One on the throne of glory;
and he shall judge all the works of the holy ones in heaven above,
weighing in the balance their deeds … [1 Enoch 61:8 – OTP]

Thus the Lord commanded the kings, governors, the high officials, and the landlords and said, “Open your eyes and lift up your eyebrows—if you are able to recognize the Elect One!” … On the day of judgment all the kings, governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him—how he sits on his throne of glory, and righteousness is judged before him, and that no nonsensical talk shall be uttered in his presence. … After that, their faces will be filled with shame before that Son of Man; and from before his face they shall be driven out. [1 Enoch 62:1,3, 11- OTP]

Commenting directly on Matthew 25, Samuel Lachs (Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 393f]) observes:

All of the deeds mentioned here are acts of kindness (Heb. gemilut hasadim): feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, hospitality, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and freeing captives. He who performs any one of them is considered praiseworthy, and it is as if he has done them to God himself. “He who receives his fellow man kindly, it is as if he has received the Shekkinah.” “He who visits the sick will be saved from Gehinom.”

Critical scholarship

With such an extensive overlap between the underlying message of this story and traditional Jewish lore over several centuries, it is hardly surprising that the Jesus Seminar voted this passage Black, indicating that it preserves neither the words nor the ideas of Jesus, and that is an opinion shared by the conservative Roman Catholic Jesus scholar, John P. Meier. Gospel scholars of all persuasions seem to agree that we are listening to Matthew here, rather than to Jesus.

Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus, 236f observes:

This concluding text of Jesus’ eschatological discourse fits Matthean theology seamlessly. After the paraenesis in 24.32-25.30 the judgment by the Son of Man is depicted in a great painting. The judgment is of all human beings, but Matthew has his community in particular in view: cf. 13.37-43,49-50. In view of this similarity we must seriously consider whether the whole passage should be regarded as a Matthean construction.

John P. Meier, the conservative Roman Catholic Jesus scholar, shares the same view. When commenting on the use of phylake (prison) in Matt 11:2, Meier [Marginal Jew II,198] notes that “the whole passage depicting the last judgment is either a Matthean creation or heavily redacted by Matthew.”
The wisdom embodied in this famous story is found in all the great religions: a kindness done for the stranger is an act of devotion to one’s God. What is interesting here is that Matthew associates that older wisdom with Jesus. And Matthew may have been right in doing that, for this universal religious insight does fit well with what we know of Jesus from other traditions.

Not everything said by Jesus had to be original to him. He doubtless thought and said many things that were also taught by others, and especially by his own Jewish religious tradition. In this case, we may have a story created after Jesus’ lifetime which still captures something of his sense that God’s kingdom is not so much a future dream as an immediate possibility. Acts of kindness and service are not simply good things for religious people to do, but signs of God’s kingdom already present in our midst.

The kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ teaching and action. The Greek phrase (basileia tou theou) used in the gospels is best translated as “God’s rule,” or even as “God’s empire.” This reminds us that Jesus lived at a time when people thought there was only one empire that mattered: Rome. Such hierarchical language can pose problems in today’s world when used as a primary symbol for God’s gracious presence, but Jesus seems to have challenged Rome’s imperial pretensions with his radical idea of a kingdom of nobodies found wherever two or three of “these little ones” gathered to break bread, declare each other’s sins forgiven and celebrate the pax christi.

While this story has often been understood as teaching that admission to heaven depends on how we treat other people, it may also be helpful to read it as affirming that our religion should make the world here and now a better place for others. When read that way, this story has been a classic text for those who stress the social justice implications of the “good news.”

At its core, this story is about the final judgment. As the parallel texts from 1 Enoch demonstrate, this is an idea that comes from an apocalyptic belief system that despairs of human capacity to build a just and godly society, and instead awaits a divine intervention to set things right. In the past, the prospect of “meeting one’s Creator” and giving an account of one’s life has been a powerful influence on both private and public behavior. While this belief continues to be affirmed in the creeds, it is not clear that it still exercises much of a hold on the contemporary imagination.

If we lose a sense of ultimate accountability to God, do we also lose an important moral element of being human?

Are there ways to visualize our collective and individual responsibilities for the Earth and for other living creatures that avoid the hierarchical power structures implicit in many biblical symbols?

What would mutual responsibility look like in a Wisdom context?

Tolstoy, Where Love Is, God Is

Leo Tolstoy’s 1885 story, Where Love Is, God Is, (also known as “Martin the Cobbler” in a Claymation video) retells this classic NT story.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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