Lectionary Commentaries for November 23, 2008
Christ the King (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46

Dirk G. Lange

We come this Sunday, in Matthew’s Gospel, to the final discourse of Jesus before his passion.

It is also the last “parable” (it is really more a description of judgment than a parable) in the eschatological discourse.

The theme of judgment in Matthew’s Gospel plays a central role. We encounter it already at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3. Throughout the Gospel, we are continually made aware of a tension between obedience and disobedience. Like the person who came to Jesus and asked “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16-24), so we too wonder on what side we will find ourselves — the right or the left?

The question, however, is simply an excuse for doing nothing, as Bonhoeffer has pointed out. The person attempts to engage Jesus in an endless ethical discussion about works or good deeds. In this parable, the question resurfaces but in an importantly different way: “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?” (25:44). Those at the left hand of the Son of Man seek an excuse and almost put the blame on the Son of Man himself as if to say, “You didn’t reveal yourself; how could we see you?”

The curious and also amazing aspect of their question is that it is repeated twice in the parable — once by those on the right and then by those on the left — and yet there is an enormous difference in meaning! When it is asked by those on the right, the question stems from what might be called a holy ignorance. These were people who had entered the joy of their master without even knowing it. Such participation is not self-evident. The joy they knew was not complete; it was mixed with suffering, danger, risk, tribulations and most likely many disappointments. And yet, it was joy. They acted out of mercy. They went the way of the cross and now find themselves at the right hand of the Son of Man.

On the contrary, those on the left did not know mercy or joy and we might add they did not know simplicity either. They complicated every situation allowing their own judgment as to whom they had to serve deafen them to the cry of those who were calling out in need. They did not live in the spirit of the beatitudes.

Judgment, as it appears in this parable, has more to do with mercy than it does with works. Has the community of believers been formed in a spirit of mercy? Those on the right hand of the Son of Man (also designated the “King”) are those who have gone through the great tribulation, those who have lived out their baptism, not those who have conscientiously performed good works or have been morally upright. They are the ones who have risked dying and rising with Jesus in this world and are not waiting for some other future world or life.

In this final discourse, we rediscover another theme that has been running throughout Matthew’s Gospel−the theme of discipleship. At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is this call to an obedience that is not prescription or law or sacrifice but joyful living in mercy without calculation. This joyful living takes believers to an unexpected place. It takes them to the cross; it takes them to the cross in human lives, to the cross in the life of family, community, society, nation, and world. It takes them to the place of God’s suffering in the world.

Much attention has been given in the history of interpretation to the identity of the lowliest “brothers.” Are they part of the community of believers or are they outsiders? Do they belong or not? Yet, the parable itself doesn’t seem to be concerned about their identity other than to identify their suffering (hungry, naked, imprisoned, etc.). The parable of judgment is far more focused on the life of mercy that has or has not been lived by those who call out “Lord, Lord!” The criterion of judgment is not one’s confession (not even one’s ecclesial appurtenance) but the mercy we have lived. The parable is far more concerned about how believers have lived out their baptismal vocation and let their light shine before others so that all may see their good works and give glory to God (5:16). The only identity that seems to worry Matthew in this description of judgment is the identification of the other with the King, the Son of Man, with Jesus.

Once again, the “good works” has less to do with ethical actions than with living a life of mercy in which the Son of Man is revealed — if only on the last day. This entails, for the believing community, a considerable change in self-perception. Rather than considering themselves holders or keepers of the mystery of God (in their liturgy, in their works, in their piety), they discover that God is always already outside the circle they draw and the boundaries they create. Mission itself becomes redefined when we consider the move outwards as a move towards God! The community is sent out from the Lord’s Supper as body of Christ only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting for the community in those suffering in the world. Then, in yet another Gospel reversal, it would appear that the judgment we are all subject to is not one from on high but a judgment that is spoken through the need of our neighbor.

We are at the end of the church year. The final judgment concludes both the year and this section of Gospel readings from Matthew. We stand continually within that final judgment — in the Gospel, the passion story of Jesus Christ; in our liturgical year, the advent of this passion in the incarnation.

First Reading

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

Carolyn J. Sharp

Luminous promises radiate from this passage in Ezekiel.

Only here in this otherwise alarming book is God a nurturing Shepherd who rescues and heals God’s people. The preacher may be tempted to treat these lyrical images in isolation from other oracles of Ezekiel, many of which are disturbing prophecies of doom. But the impact of this passage is best appreciated in the context of the prophet’s entire witness.

Ezekiel’s understanding of God is rooted in a terrifying vision of the enthroned Holy One (Ezekiel 1) and expressed through graphic images of sexualized violence as divine punishment for Israel’s sins (see Ezekiel 16, 23, and elsewhere). If God refrains from destroying Israel, it is only for the sake of the divine Name, not for any love of the covenant people (Ezekiel 20). The prophet insists that believers are helpless before an indomitable and wrathful God who is utterly intolerant of sin. For God to guard the sanctity of God’s holy Name, Jerusalem must be purged of its idolatry and moral corruption (Ezekiel 8-9). Only then can it be reconstructed as God’s enduring dwelling-place (Ezekiel 40-48).

Ezekiel prophesies in Babylon from 593 to 571 BCE among Judean exiles. The anguish of witnessing wholesale death and cultural decimation, along with the extraordinary stress of involuntary dislocation, makes for a heavy burden on the exiles, as anyone who works with refugees will recognize. Ezekiel himself comes close to breaking under the strain of what is required of him, suffering powerful cognitive disruption from his visions. Some of his behavior may be interpreted as symptomatic of catatonia (3:15, 24-26; 4:4-8); recent interpreters have suspected post-traumatic stress disorder as well.

Ezekiel is to serve as a sentinel for the diaspora community, warning them that they will die if they do not turn from their iniquity. If he fails to perform his task, God will hold him personally responsible for the deaths of his fellow Judeans (3:17-18). The shocking nature of much of Ezekiel’s prophesying reflects the urgency of his mandate. Ezekiel is desperate to shake his people out of their spiritual complacency.

In Ezekiel 34, the prophet launches into a searing indictment of Israel’s leaders: they have ruled harshly, enriching themselves at the expense of the people and failing to safeguard the interests of those who depend on them. So God will step in as the new Shepherd of this traumatized flock. The image of shepherd was a metaphor for kingship in ancient Israel and throughout the ancient Near East; we may hear not just nurture but power in this metaphor. A wonderful catena of promises spills forth: God will seek the lost and bring them home, feed them with rich pasture, and make them lie down in safety. The preacher here might offer a new perspective on motifs more familiar to believers through Psalms 23 and 100. God’s rule over the community of faith is full of healing and justice, not exploitative in the way that human power so often is. In fact, God’s nurture involves putting an end to the threat of exploitation and harm. God will protect the people from “the fat and the strong” and promises to feed the flock with justice (34:16).

Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.

Many Christian groups these days are riven by internecine strife over social and theological issues, as has been the case throughout the history of Christianity. The preacher may use this passage to extend a rhetorical invitation to church leaders at national and local levels to stop jostling each other and muddying the water for everyone else. The message is especially appropriate for those who are driven by ambition for their own ecclesial careers or who manipulate others to ensure the success of pet projects in the church. God requires that believers treat each other with love and forbearance. The bitterness of global disputes over theology and liturgy, the dynamics of conflict and triangulation that disturb the peace of many congregations, and the competitive posturing that goes on even in seminary faculties would indicate that the faithful still need to hear Ezekiel’s message.

Christ is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11-18). We who follow Christ must reconfigure our understanding of power so that we devote all of our passion and energy to the heartfelt love of God and neighbor. Are the sheep of your own flock a bit too relaxed, chewing contentedly on their rich pasturage every Sunday morning without much concern for their behavior during the week? Preach a word of promise that holds them accountable! Use irony, unexpected tenderness, or the element of surprise. Employ a familiar metaphor in a new way that startles your congregation. Do whatever it takes to remind your congregation that though they are beloved of God, there is no cause for smugness. The gate is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14), and the Gospel will require their very lives of them (Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, John 12:25).

Ezekiel insists that we acknowledge ourselves to be abject sinners before a God who is both nurturing and terrifying. Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), so we may trust that Christian witness affirms this same insight, challenging though it be. As we listen eagerly for Jesus’ call (John 10:27), we would do well to remember that grace and accountability together make up the timbre of our Shepherd’s voice.

Alternate First Reading

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

Ralph W. Klein

The “kingship” of Christ is problematic for some of us today because of its male and hierarchical overtones.

Christ the King Sunday first emerged, as I understand it, as an attempt to counter the outlandish claims of some European dictators in the twentieth century. The real ruler of this age is Christ! The choice of Ezekiel 34 as the Old Testament reading is quite helpful in any case because while the shepherd metaphor, like the term king, is also royal, its overtones are much more nurturing and caring.

The first ten verses of Ezekiel 34 are a sustained indictment against the shepherd-kings of Israel. Ezekiel censures these political leaders for fattening themselves up at the expense of the sheep-citizens. The shepherd-kings have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured, brought back the strayed, or sought the lost (v. 4). Instead of feeding the sheep, they have made sure that they fed themselves. Verse 10 even asserts that they have fed literally on the sheep. Because of such corrupt rule by the shepherd-kings, the sheep-people have been scattered into exile. Describing the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE as a day of clouds and thick darkness (v. 12) makes the unusual claim that the day of the Lord is an event of the past.

In the Old Testament lesson, God counters this word of judgment with the promise of being a good shepherd for the people, one who promises to bring the people back from exile, feed them, and make them lie down in good grazing land (cf. Psalm 23:2). This divine shepherd will seek the lost, round up the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Provision of food is essential to this divine reign (vv. 13-14). This good shepherd provides a remedy for any ailment or distress of his sheep-people. Jesus both reaffirms and expands this picture when he asserts “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). John 10 is heavily dependent on the imagery proposed in Ezekiel 34.

This coming good and all-providing shepherd will also practice justice (v. 16) and make a distinction between the prosperous sheep-people and those whom they exploit (vv. 20-21). The corrupt leaders have had many followers and imitators. This theme of grace mixed with judgment also permeates vv. 17-19 which are left out in the lectionary. The attention in those verses shifts from the corrupt shepherd-kinds to the equally corrupt or fat sheep-citizens, whose lack of faith is shown by the way they treat their fellow citizens.  In many ways these verses form a parallel to Matthew 25:31-46, the Gospel for Christ the King, where the Son of Man distinguishes between the goats and the sheep on the basis of their deeds of social compassion toward the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. God promises the people salvation, but God also promises to judge between those who oppress and those who are oppressed (v. 22). In a similar way, God promises Israel a new Exodus in chapter 20. But then, after the Exodus, God will lead the people into the wilderness, where he will sort out the rebels and those who transgress against God (v. 28) before taking the rest of the people home to the land.

In the final two verses of this periscope, God the shepherd promises to set up a human shepherd, “my servant David,” over them. This messianic promise institutes a reformed kingship that will replace the evil shepherds mentioned in vv. 1-10. Scholars debate whether Ezekiel predicted only a better king or whether he might even have expected a return of David himself. The words “I, Yahweh, will be their God” is often followed in the Old Testament by words like “they shall be my people,” the technical term for this being the covenant formula.

This is one of the simplest and yet most profound ways of depicting the divine human relationship at its best. Ezekiel changes this formula by replacing its second part with “my servant David shall be prince among them.” Significantly Ezekiel does not call the new human ruler a king, but uses instead an old term, here translated as prince (cf. 37:25 and 44:1-3). In a sense, this new ruler will be “king” in quotation marks.  The prince in a reformed Israel has few duties, and his primary perquisite is that he gets the best seat in the house at future religious celebrations (44:3). The coming king will not continue the oppressive and self-serving ways of his predecessors.  The current unease with the term Christ the King finds an ancient echo here. Our setting aside a Sunday for Christ the King should not imply that this king will bank on his maleness nor exert his rule in a hierarchical fashion.  He is a king, not according to human expectations, but rather a “king” after God’s own heart.

The pericope ends with the reassuring words “I, Yahweh, have spoken.” That is, everything said in this chapter is a promise, and God’s promise is the only reason for us to believe in God. This is a sufficient reason indeed.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Karoline Lewis

Perhaps many of us remember a typical childhood conversation.

Approaching our mom or dad, we would say something like, “Mom, when I turn my head like this,” (which was then demonstrated with great intent and vigor) “my neck hurts.” The response was always, “Well, then don’t turn your head like that.” This is a logical answer, indeed, but frustrating for a child of eight-years-old or so. It may be the case that a similar conversation occurs in the minds of preachers for this Sunday. “When I try to preach Christ the King Sunday, my neck hurts.” The answer may be something like the following, “Well, then don’t preach Christ the King Sunday.”

The result of moving back and forth between text and liturgical context can indeed be a pain in the neck. We are given texts that are rich and unique on their own merits, yet in our efforts to preach the day we do not preach the text. Sometimes the chosen lens through which to read them can seem forced or even manipulative. We find ourselves searching for what Christ the King Sunday says about the text rather than what the text might say about what it means to claim Christ as King. On Sundays such as this, it is a good reminder that the sermon takes place within the context of a worship service. It may be best to let the rest of the hour preach Christ the King and not the sermon itself.

This commentary will suggest that the particularities of this text can offer the preacher a thicker understanding of and presentation toward how we interpret Christ as King. It is important to note that in the coming lectionary year, Year B, the Fifteenth through the Twenty-First Sundays after Pentecost (Propers 10-16) will be devoted to reading through Ephesians with the exception of the passage chosen for today. This affords the preacher an opportunity to dive deep into the rich and varied theological images and claims offered in this letter. Today, we just get our feet wet, but it is important to utilize the entirety of the letter to help in the interpretation of the pericope set aside for today.

The first chapter of Ephesians establishes the cosmic scope of this correspondence. As is typical of the Pauline adaption of the Greco-Roman letter, the opening greeting immediately clues the reader into the letter’s focus on God’s plan and purposes, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” yet verses 1-2 are left off the lectionary selection in Year B (Ephesians 1:3-14; Proper 10). While the thanksgiving usually follows the salutation, verses 3-23 resemble more of a prayer than general thanksgiving. “Blessed by the God” is a common Jewish prayer opening, and direct language of prayer is found in the first verses of the passage for today. Indeed, chapter one reads like a combination of thanksgiving and prayer. It is worth considering not only what difference this makes for the tone and direction of the letter itself but also how it will be heard by the recipients. What meaning is communicated by the language of prayer not otherwise made available?

The will, purpose, and plan of God dominate the language and images in verses 3-14 which is couched in the language of blessing, praise, and glory. There does seem to be a slight shift in verse 15, taking on the feel of the thanksgiving section of Paul’s letters. As such, the gratitude for the Ephesians is cast in the form of a prayer. The aspects of God that were given glory and praise are now that which is requested be given to the Ephesians. That is, as wisdom is God’s (1:8), the author prays that God “may give you a spirit of wisdom” (1:17); as hope is set on Christ (1:12), the prayer is for knowing “the hope to which he has called you” (1:18); as he chose us in Christ (1:4), so also may we know that it is hope to which we are called (1:18); as we are destined for adoption (1:5), the prayer is that we see with the eyes of our hearts “the riches of the inheritance” given to Christ. The cohesion of chapter one underscores the union between God, Christ, and the believer and looks toward the participation of the believer in the cosmic plan that will be addressed beginning in chapter two.

In fact, it would be worthwhile to extend the pericope through 2:10, as 2:1-10 is not included in the lectionary reading in Year B. The reason for this is twofold. First, the first section of chapter two (2:1-10) foregrounds oneness with Christ and will be more explicitly stated in the rest of the chapter (2:11-22). The inheritance of Christ is also our inheritance (1:14), because the power with which God raised Jesus from the dead (1:20) is the power that “made us alive together with Christ” (2:5). It is the same power that “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). Destined to be children of the heavenly father (3:14-15) through adoption (1:5), that which Christ has received is also for us.

Second, given the fact that these verses (1:15-23) are read on Christ the King Sunday, the notion of power, dominion, rule, and authority are re-imagined through the life of the believer. That is, God’s power at work in Christ is also God’s power at work in the believer toward good works (2:10), in the life of the assembly (ekklēsia) that makes known the gift of God’s grace and the riches of Christ (3:10), and in the struggle against the powers of this world (6:10-17). The sheer use of synonyms for power in this small section of text (ischys, exousia, dunamis) reinforces that God’s power in Christ is all-encompassing, all-embracing, and all-in-all (1:23). It is worth considering, on this Christ the King Sunday, the ways in which we exercise this power−a power that first raises from the dead (1:20; 2:5), a power that makes us servants (3:7), a strength that enables us to realize “what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ,” that means the “fullness of God” (3:18-19). Finally, it is a power at work within us, “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (3:20) toward God’s plan “for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10).