Lectionary Commentaries for November 26, 2017
Christ the King

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46

David Schnasa Jacobsen

One of the tricky parts of preaching this text is learning to read it as it appears toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel.

Of all of Matthew’s eschatological parables in chapters 24-25, this particular parable of the goats and sheep is probably the most appealing. This text has been taken up in literature and in the popular mind as disclosing a mysterious ground of opening to the other, as a kind of ethical vision that keeps us attuned to the presence of Christ in neighbors in need. Just think of Martin the Cobbler.

I don’t wish to dismiss such a reading, but as a student of Matthew’s Gospel, I have to be honest. I also need to read this parable in light of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole and in relation to Matthew’s apocalyptic eschatology, too. Such a move gives Matthew 25:31-45 a somewhat different cast and focus — but still can lend itself to preaching in our context.

We begin with Matthew’s apocalyptic eschatology. At the head of this vision is the Son of Man with his angels, functioning as king. While the portrayal of the Son of Man is not consistent across apocalyptic literature (see Daniel 7-12 and compare to the Similitudes in 1 Enoch 37-71), the figure of animals in apocalyptic literature is pretty typical. The longer narrative portrayal of the Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch 85-90 leaps to mind. All this is to say that apocalyptic eschatology frequently appeals to the beastly to work through its themes of injustice, sin, and the ultimate sovereignty of God.

The separation for judgment and salvation is also fairly common in intertestamental apocalyptic literature. What stands out as unique is the shared ignorance of the sheep and the goats: they seem surprised at their fate and were not aware whether they had either neglected or responded to “the least of these.” Most apocalyptic visions reveal (apokalypto = reveal); this one confounds both sheep and goat.

If we place this particular eschatological parable in the context of Matthew as a whole we begin to pick up some characteristic emphases that should also guide our reading. This is the final parable in the series of Matthew 24-25. It is a judgment vision over which the Son of Man presides. The ethical emphasis is no doubt there: Matthew expects not just words, but deeds — and here, given the dual surprise of sheep and goats, rendered as if the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing! But when we look a second time, we see another array of Matthean emphases that push back on the idea that this is just one more ethical judgment scene.

First, the ones being judged are not Jews nor Jewish Christians specifically, but “the nations.” This is a traditional term for the gentiles. The question that Matthew’s Jesus handles in this vision is not about the ethics of the church or even Jesus’ disciples, but the response to the least of these on the part of the nations, the gentiles. Please recall as well that Matthew’s Jesus is concerned to equip and empower a persecuted church.

What concerns this judgment is not the ethics of the faithful, but the judgment of the gentiles: those who would either respond positively or negatively to the “little ones,” the “least of these” that make up Christ’s community. This vision is the final eschatological parable because it answers the question: what will God do with all the others outside the community, those who either persecute Christians or otherwise feed, visit, or clothe them in their time of persecution? If you were part of that little community, you might want to know that the Son of Man, the King, the Shepherd, has got your community’s back, ultimately.

Of course, this view is probably less pleasing to our ears. It seems, frankly, sectarian and may seem to fall short of the ethical heights we had hoped it would aspire to. Yet there are still important things to remember from the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Love of enemies is central to the teaching of the Jesus who narrates this parable. If its concern is the persecuted community, that community is still called to love in line with this radical ethic. Whatever this end vision is, it is not about asserting that our persecutors will get theirs and that Christians will get to watch them suffer. There is, in other words, a mystery here.

The sheep and the goats still do not know. But the church in this final eschatological parable is given a kind of apocalyptic judgment vision to see how the Son of Man, the King, the Shepherd, will respond to the nations. Judgment means that things will be set right. But here, it also means more. The community of faith is given a preview of what is to come and in the process now sees outsiders, the nations, in a different light. God will remember their suffering in persecution. God will also remember the kindness, the mercy, the love from those whom they might think are enemies, to them, to the church, “the least of these.”

The question then becomes: what about us? What is our fate as God’s people? We mainliners may not be persecuted, but we feel more than a little shunted to the side in a culture undergoing profound change. Matthew’s vision of the sheep and the goats relativizes at least some of our assumptions. These others outside of our churches are not ultimately to be “otherized,” but seen in light of the demanding, unconditional love of God, which extends, yes, even to enemies. The mainline white church sometimes seems perilously close to hardened hearts. Could it be that an end-time vision of sheep and goats may be just we need to soften us up as an old age ends and a new one dawns?


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Finally! The devastating words of judgment have begun to fade. Jerusalem has fallen. The worst that can happen lies in the background.

Now God begins to restore. Now God offers hope. The first 32 chapters of Ezekiel have been dominated by words of judgment, primarily against Judah, but against the nations as well in 25-32. Chapter 33 begins the transition to oracles of hope, with the report of the conquest of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 33:21.

Did I say that the words of judgment had begun to fade? Not for the leaders! The first part of the chapter contains angry denunciations of the “shepherds” of Israel. (Even though the book of Ezekiel deals with the southern kingdom of Judah, “Israel” is a theological term for God’s people as a whole.) The first part of the chapter accuses the shepherds (leaders) of Israel of looking after themselves and ignoring the needs of the people.

That word of judgment against the leaders of Israel sets up God’s promise to act as the true shepherd of Israel, starting in Ezekiel 34:11. “Shepherd” served as a metaphor for king. Other Old Testament passages that refer to God as “shepherd” include Psalm 23 (of course), Psalm 80, Jeremiah 23:3, and Isaiah 40:11. Other passages that talk about God gathering the exiled people as would a shepherd include Micah 4:6 and 7:14.

The part of Ezekiel 34 that forms the reading for our purposes describes God’s actions in taking initiative and showing compassion. The people have been scattered in the exile. As Psalm 137 indicates, the deportation caused great suffering and humiliation.

Now God promises to act as a shepherd. God will seek out the exiles and bring them back. God will not wait for them to return, but will search out the exiles. God will feed and nurture them, and will heal them. God will provide justice for them by confronting those who have failed them. For experiencing displacement, God will bring them back. For their misery, God will nurture and feed them. For their hurt, God will heal them. For their neglect and mistreatment, God will vindicate them. Within the world of the text of Ezekiel, the words of comfort come right on the heels of the announcement of the fall of Jerusalem. Historically, of course, the restoration did not happen for decades. Even though the distance between Ezekiel 33 and 34 does not reflect the historical experience, Ezekiel gives us profound theology.

Even a casual reading will reveal the connection between Ezekiel 34 and the sheep and goats judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46. In Matthew, God also separates animals, only God separates the sheep from the goats. A clear connection forms in the way that God, in both passages, notices the victims, and identifies with those who suffer.

This passage, and the whole book of Ezekiel, gives the preacher/theologian the opportunity to reflect on God’s judgment. Contemporary Christians do not like to hear about judgment. We naturally resist the notion that we need judgment. Christian teaching about God’s judgment has fallen prey to distortions from the “fire and brimstone” crowd. Ezekiel proclaims a God who punishes, even shames, but as part of a process of forming the people into a community that can be in relationship with God. The passage (and book) invites reflection on the God who plunges the people into exile, but also seeks them out, feeds them and binds their wounds.

The preacher can reflect theologically on the purpose, nature and efficacy of judgment. Ezekiel assures us that God does not punish out of cruelty, unreasonableness, pettiness, or vindictiveness. For the “fat sheep,” God judges because they have hurt the vulnerable sheep, and failed in their duty. The exile itself, however, was a judgment, affecting the whole community. Ezekiel insists that the exile was an integral part of God’s intention to restore and renew. In what ways does judgment get our attention, break down our defenses, puncture our self-assurance, rip away our arrogance? In what ways do we need those things before we become available to experience God’s restoration?

This passage lends itself to a number of situations to which contemporary preachers must speak. Although Ezekiel considers the exile a step in God’s program of renewal, the text does not give support to the idea that all suffering is part of “God’s plan.” The exile happened because of the people’s sin. Not all suffering derives from punishment for sin.

A primary way in which a preacher can use this text is to speak to those who feel displaced, hurt, broken, abused, or betrayed. The passage speaks specifically to those who feel out of place. To displace homemakers, immigrants, the unemployed, or simply the homesick, Ezekiel announces that God cares, and offers healing. The preacher might not have warrant to preach that God will change the circumstances of all those who need a new situation. Nevertheless, Ezekiel gives support that God cares about those who feel like they are in the wrong place.

God notices. God reaches out. The passage might offer a special word of healing to those who feel abused or guilt-tripped by the church. Within Ezekiel 34, God offers care to those who were hurt by the failings of shepherds, those in authority positions. For those who have felt damage from the church, this passage offers God’s initiative-taking care. God will hold accountable those who have caused the hurt.

The ambiguity in Ezekiel — that the God who worked in the exile also brings back from the exile — opens up an opportunity to explore how life can hurt. God created the world, and may have — in some sense — called into ministry those who have caused hurt, also offers healing from the hurt. The preacher will want to explain carefully that abuse or suffering is not God’s punishment for sin. God does bring healing from the hurt of the world God created. That is how God (and Christ) reign.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 95:1-7a

James K. Mead

If you are considering this psalm selection for Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday, one of the first decisions you’ll need to make is whether your sermon text will be only verses 1-7a or the entire eleven verses of the canonical psalm.

There are good reasons for each option. On the one hand, reading and proclaiming Psalm 95:1-7a as a distinct unit of scripture seems to be consistent with its earliest poetic form and setting as an enthronement psalm. These six and a half verses have a clear literary integrity of their own by virtue of their well-knit structure: verses 1-2 and 6-7 form an obvious and echoing frame of first-person plural call to worship that surrounds verses 3-5 with their third-person description of the Lord’s kingship over and stewardship of creation. Finally, only a few vocabulary words in verses 1-7a overlap with verses 7b-11, the most significant of which are “people” (verses 7 and 11) “come/enter” (verses 6 and 11; same Hebrew verb bo’).

On the other hand, there are also good reasons for treating the eleven verses together, not the least of which is that they obviously form the canonical psalm. This version of it may be confirmed by a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls that shows verse 7 with both praise and warning language. Moreover, there are other psalms that combine different genres, such as the preceding Psalm 94 with its community lament and wisdom overtones or Psalm 92, a personal thanksgiving with wisdom imagery. Furthermore, the limited vocabulary overlap noted above nevertheless creates quite a strong contrast of the kind of nation Israel is. Finally, the theology of Christ the King Sunday fits the psalm to a tee, inviting praise for the returning Lord and recognition of his role as the righteous judge.

After wrestling with that decision, I think one historical issue should be addressed, namely, the language about the Lord being greater than “all gods” (verse 3). Worshippers may be unfamiliar with — or disturbed by — the fact that ancient Near Eastern cultures assumed the existence of a collection of greater and lesser deities. The Old Testament historical books testify that Israelites themselves on occasion took part in polytheistic belief and worship. Of course, it’s safe to say that the Old Testament canon represents an “official” rejection of these other gods (Exodus 20:3), even declaring that “they are no gods” (Isaiah 37:19; Jeremiah 5:7). That being said, one can imagine a worship leader of ancient Israel exercising the kind of rhetorical flair in verse 3 to persuade those uncertain of YHWH’s solitary divinity that, at the very least, Israel’s God was superior to all contenders.

As I did with last Sunday’s psalm selection, I would now like to consider the shared theological framework of Psalm 95 and the other lectionary texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46. Although these three other passages don’t contain all of the same literary and thematic elements, one can prepare an effective comparison and contrast of divine imagery of shepherding and judgment. Here I am building on the two specific verbal echoes between Psalm 95:1-7a and 7b-11: the noun, “people” and the verb, “to enter, come in.”

In the first section of the psalm there is reassurance that Israel is indeed “the people of (God’s) pasture” who are called to come and worship God. However, in the second section, Israel becomes “a people whose hearts go astray” and “shall not enter (God’s) rest.” How do the other lectionary passages inform our understanding of this tension between shepherding and judging in order to enhance our proclamation of Psalm 95 as scripture? Each passage makes its own contribution to understanding how the beloved community of worship could become the heart-hardened people who put God to the test.

Ezekiel 34 considers the responsibility of Israel’s failed leadership. The selection of verses does not quite capture the contrast portrayed in the full chapter, but it reflects some of the message that Israel itself is a divided flock because of the false “shepherds,” most likely unjust kings who have used and abused the sheep of God. God, the shepherd, “will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (verse 20). Consistent with the Old Testament hope for a messianic king, God “will set over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (verse 23). Although Psalm 95 refers more generally to Israel’s “ancestors” rather than making specific leaders responsible for the wilderness apostasy, some narratives such as Numbers 16 identify individuals who sought to undermine Moses’ authority.

The parable of the “sheep and the goats” in Matthew 25 has obvious parallels to the division of the flock in Ezekiel, but Jesus directs judgment toward “the nations” (verse 32) who did not care for “the least of these who are members of my family” (verse 40). The scene of judgment is now global in scope and those in need are Jesus’ family (“brothers” in the original Greek) who have gone out among the nations. To the extent that the nations received and ministered to the believing community of faith, they are welcomed into eternal life (verse 46). Each generation of human history has its time to respond with open hearts to God’s poor and needy children.

Finally, the prayer in Ephesians 1 seeks God’s grace for the church as the body of Christ to live with wisdom and hopefulness. Two clear allusions to Psalm 95 are the references to the “hearts” of the Ephesian believers being enlightened (verse 18) and Christ’s rule above all “authority, power, and dominion” (verse 21). There is no undertone of the judgment found in the other passages we’ve discussed, but the fact that the apostle is praying for the church to live into their “faith in the Lord Jesus” and “love toward all the saints” (verse 15) implies that diligence is required to be God’s people. The upshot of this tour through these passages is that Psalm 95’s combined themes of worship and warning cannot easily be dismissed as someone else’s concerns. We’re all responsible to answer a call to worship and heed a call for just discipleship.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Amy L.B. Peeler

In light of goodness that cannot be fully articulated, even with a profusion of words, Ephesians expresses hope for a maturing faith that comes to grasp Christ’s place in the universe and the church’s participation in his sovereignty.

This passage begins with the phrase, “because of this” which should automatically prompt the question, “because of what?” Most immediately the answer is the faith of the Ephesians. They heard the gospel message, believed, were given the Holy Spirit who acts as a guarantee of their future redemption. They are evidence of the great mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9) having just now been revealed at the fullness of time (Ephesians 1:10). Because of their response to God’s revelation, Paul responds with unceasing thanks to God. In a situation in which Paul could pat himself on the back for his work among this community or brag to others, he directs his excitement about the community to God in prayer.

He does mention the things the Ephesians are doing that cause him to be grateful: faith in Jesus and love towards all the saints. He mentions these in prayer to God so that they will increase still more. They have been enlightened he says (Ephesians 1:18), but he is hopeful that God would grant them more knowledge, more wisdom. He desires that they possess a spirit of wisdom, a thoughtfulness and reasonableness about their new identity, as well as a spirit of revelation, knowledge so superior no human mind could intuit it. He prays for a gift of both mind and mystery. In these, he wants them to know some specific things: the particular hope of God’s calling and the abundant greatness of God’s power. In other words, he is very thankful for their faith, but he is not satisfied with it.

The sovereignty of God in Christ

The mention of God’s power propels him to proclaim (with loquaciousness!) the evidence of God’s strength in Jesus Christ. That power he wants them to know still more about has been made active (literally energized, energew) in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here, as in many places in the New Testament, Psalm 110 provides the language for Christ’s exaltation. He is invited to sit at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1). Paul clarifies where this right hand is located, specifying that Jesus is seated in the heavenlies (epouranos). He is no earthly Messiah sitting on the throne of Israel. His kingdom is much broader.

Lest his readers forget that heaven is above all the earth, he specifies in Ephesians 1:21 all the things that Jesus is Lord over: every ruler, authority, power, lordship, every name that is named, in Paul’s day and in the time to come. What a powerful word to Ephesian Christians in the time of the first century. No matter how comprehensive Caesar’s power seemed, Jesus was above him. In our own time, we too need to hear the comfort or the challenge that no human authority will win the day. Jesus reigns over them no matter how exciting or dismal our current situation may seem. This is the counter-cultural power of Christ the King Sunday.

When Paul quotes from another Psalm after this powerful rhetorical list, he quotes Psalm 8:2 and applies it to Jesus. Originally about the status of humanity, Paul (just like the author of Hebrews in 2:6-8) follows an allusion to Psalm 110:1 with Psalm 8:2 in application to Jesus. Jesus is the human under whose feet God has subjected everything. On the eschatological scale between already and not yet, this passage leans heavily toward the realized side. God’s power is displayed in the fact that Jesus is now currently in charge.

The reign of the church

At the close of this chapter, Paul telescopes this comprehensive authority into a realm of particular importance for his readers. In putting everything under the feet of Jesus, God also gave him the position of head over everything in the church; this is his body. The picture given here is that Christ is sovereign over everything, and the church, which flows from him and constitutes his body, also has a position of authority in the world. He fills everything; as the sovereign over all, his kingdom knows no limit. It follows that his body, the church, extends throughout his realm in time and in space. The church’s presence everywhere is evidence of Jesus’ sovereignty and therefore God’s power. We, the church, participate in the Kingdom already here.

In response to such confident assertions, a question calls out to be addressed: Why can the church not always see nor experience Christ’s sovereignty? If he reigns and the church reigns with him, why is the world in the state that it is?

Paul will go on to recognize the reality of a kingdom opposed to God. He mentions his imprisonment (Ephesians 3:1; 4:1) suffering (Ephesians 3:13) the powers and principalities opposed to God (Ephesians 6:12), and the struggles he and others have against them. His assertion of Christ’s sovereignty is not a facile claim that turns a blind eye to the reality of evil, but an unflappable assertion that recognizes evil and arises from the very midst of a struggle with it. Hence, in the first part of this section, Paul’s prayer for them includes several elements of a future promise. He wants them to hold on to the hope of their calling and the rich glory of their inheritance (Ephesians 2:18). Christ reigns and they as the church reign with him, but the experience of sovereignty is not yet fully realized. They still need to hope.

Paul has begun and ended this section with comments about the Ephesians, their faith and their participation in the church, but it is the meat in the middle that gives the bread on the outside its identity as a sandwich. In other words, they know who they are because they are coming to know who God in Christ is. He has much to praise about the Ephesians because they have been invited into the sovereignty of the King. With excitement almost too great for words, or at least too great for few words, he reminds them that they have now found identity with the winning team. No matter what is going on in their world, all the world is truly under the power of God in Christ, and when they come into their inheritance, they will see and experience it to be so.