Lectionary Commentaries for November 20, 2011
Christ the King/Reign of Christ

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46

Carla Works

The Lord’s teaching on the final judgment challenges every disciple of Jesus to be a harbinger of God’s kingdom in a broken world.

The teaching opens with apocalyptic images that convey Christ’s kingship. The image of the Son of Man coming in glory reflects imagery from Daniel 7:13-14 and recalls other places in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus foretells the coming judgment (24:30-31; 26:64).

In chapter 24, after Jesus privately warns his disciples of dark days ahead when false prophets will arise and many will lose faith, Jesus tells his followers that the suffering will be interrupted by “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (24:30). He will send out his angels to gather all the elect (24:31). In the passage under study, which marks the end of Jesus’ eschatological discourse (24:1-25:46), the Son of Man has arrived with his angels and is now seated on the throne, where he is called the king (25:34).

The portrait of Christ as King is a fearsome one in this text. All the nations of the world have gathered before him and behold his majesty. This imagery recalls Zechariah 14:1-21 where every nation will recognize the kingship of the Lord as the Lord stands upon the Mount of Olives — Jesus’ own location as he teaches his disciples (Matthew 24:3).

From the throne, the king uses his authority to separate the people. To illustrate the separation of one individual from another, Jesus likens himself to a shepherd who separates his flock of sheep from the goats who are grazing in the same pasture. The sheep receive the place of honor and inherit God’s kingdom (25:34). 

Jesus calls the sheep those who are “blessed by my Father” (25:34). Who are the blessed ones? The blessings of the beatitudes foreshadow Jesus’ eschatological teaching. Although the Greek word for “blessed” in 25:34 is not the same as the one employed in the beatitudes, both convey a blessing from God.

In the beatitudes, Jesus blesses those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake and who are reviled for their faith (5:10-11; cf. 24:9-14). Likewise, Jesus’ teaching on the blessing of the sheep comes after he has warned his disciples that they will be hated by the world and tortured for his sake (24:9). In Christ’s kingdom, the blessed ones are those who do not retaliate with violence, but bear witness to a new empire by serving others (25:31-46).

The blessed ones have demonstrated their faithfulness by performing acts of loving-kindness. The charge to care for the poor and the disadvantaged can be found throughout scripture, but it is especially exhibited in the ministry of Jesus. In this Gospel, Christ has announced the arrival of God’s kingdom while he cures the sick (e.g., 8:28-9:8, 9:18-38; 12:9-14; 14:34-36; 15:29-31), welcomes the despised (9:9-13), and provides food for the hungry (14:13-21; 15:32-39). He orders his disciples to carry on his ministry by doing likewise (10:5-15, 40-42).

The service of the “least” concerns all people everywhere. Since Jesus has warned the disciples repeatedly of their upcoming persecution (10:16-39; 24:9-14), the context of this passage suggests that believers would certainly be among those who are suffering and imprisoned.

The primary purpose of a prison at the time was not to incarcerate individuals for an indefinite period of punishment, but to have a place for them to await trial (consider Phil 1:19-20; 2:23-24). It was often the responsibility of loved ones to provide some basic necessities while the person was in jail. Not only are believers to provide this service for one another, but they are to demonstrate Christ’s love by ministering to others who may have no one to care for them.

The righteous ones performed these deeds with no idea that they were ministering to Christ. Jesus says that whenever they gave food to the hungry, welcomed a stranger, clothed the naked, or visited the sick or imprisoned, they acted in kindness toward Jesus himself. Jesus can identify with the least of these because he has walked in their shoes (cf. 8:20).

On the other hand, those who have failed to see the needs of the disadvantaged have acted as though they have never seen Jesus. They have not followed in Christ’s footsteps.  They have not continued to do the work that the Master has called them to do (24:45-51).  They have not displayed who the real King is.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ teaching has announced and illustrated the kingdom of God. God’s kingdom does not function like a typical kingdom. This divine reign has invaded the world and is good news — especially to those on the fringes of society. This rule welcomes those who have no status and seeks to serve others rather than exploit them.

The righteous have inherited this kingdom. Those who claim to follow Jesus and hope to endure to the end (24:13) are called to live faithfully to God’s righteous empire.

Those who have experienced God’s kingdom cannot go back to life as it once was.  Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid ‘the least of these.'”1

The blessed ones are those who have seen a King who is not like the kings of this world.  They are blessed because they know a King who brings real peace, who sees the needy, and who hears the cries of the oppressed. In God’s kingdom, no one is hungry, naked, sick, or alone. To bear witness to Christ as King is to be a messenger of this kingdom–to serve others and thereby profess the invasion of God’s glorious empire.

1Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 211.

First Reading

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

James Limburg

The Times They Are A-Changin’

These days at the end of November are a season of changing times.

The elections are over and newly elected officials prepare to take their positions. The Pentecost season comes to an end and Advent begins next Sunday. The festival called “Christ the King” is eclipsed for both church and world by the Thanksgiving holiday which marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. 

In this atmosphere of changing times and seasons, the words of Ezekiel 34 have an important message for all who identify themselves as the “sheep of his pasture” or the people of God (Psalm 95:7).

Ezekiel 34 is addressed to those people of God who have been living in exile in Babylon. I am expanding the lectionary text to include verses 1-10 which is essential for understanding what follows. Following will be brief comments on Psalm 95 and Matthew 25, other texts for the day.

The Failure of the Politicians (Ezekiel 34:1-10)

The first saying in this chapter begins with “Thus says the Lord God” and then continues with a harsh word directed at the “shepherds” which is a common metaphor for kings, or political leaders. The saying begins with “hoy” usually translated as “woe” in prophetic writings; the sense of the word is to announce doom, even the funeral of the ones being addressed (cf. the NIV “woe”).

These “shepherds” have totally failed in their responsibilities. Instead of feeding their sheep they have been fattening themselves. They have neglected the sick, the injured, the lost. Their rule has not been kind but harsh. The “scattered” sheep is a clear reference to the exile. The saying consists of a sharp criticism of the failure of the shepherds, but with a glimmer of hope of rescue for the sheep, i.e. the people Israel.

Applied to our own time, this criticism of Israel’s leaders has a word for those who hold public or pastoral (the word “pastor” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd”) office. By telling what these leaders have failed to do in Ezekiel’s time, they give a picture off what public officials ought to be doing.

Bob Dylan’s song catches the sense of this first part of our text effectively:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall…
There’s a battle outside
And it is a ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a changin’.

Put succinctly, Ezekiel the pastor to those in exile says to the political leaders of his time, “You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep.” These leaders ought to be caring for the sheep, not exploiting them and fattening their own lives. In these times that are a-changing, both world and church need politicians and pastors who will care for their people responsibly.

A Search and Rescue Operation (Ezekiel 34:11-16)

And now for the good news. The people’s leaders have failed but there is a search and rescue operation going on. Everyone knows the story Jesus told about the good shepherd who went in search of the one sheep that was lost (Luke 15:3-7). Now, says Ezekiel, just such an operation is going on.

The Lord, the Good Shepherd, has not forsaken those who are scattered in the gloom and darkness of exile, but is searching them out. That God will rescue them and bring them home (13-14). That God will make them to lie down in green pastures and will be their caring Shepherd (15-16). And they will be fed with justice (Hebrew, mishpat) which is the final, climatic word in this saying in both the Hebrew and English.

At this point the preacher may wish to digress briefly and say something about the prophetic notion of justice. Justice (mishpat) is the expected response of God’s people to what God has done for them (Isaiah 5:1-7). It is a response which is not static but dynamic (Amos 5:21-14; Micah 6:6-8) and which involves taking up the cause of the powerless — represented by the widow, the orphan and the poor (Isaiah 1:17; 21-26; 10:1-4). In our time, as in Isaiah’s, the special responsibility for those in positions of public responsibility is care for the powerless (Isaiah 10:1-4; Bob Dylan’s song).

So What’s This Got To Do With Us? (Psalm 95; Matthew 25)

This text from Ezekiel 34 suggests application for us in two ways. 

First, verses 1-10 can remind all who hold positions of leadership in public or church life of their responsibilities. They will want to look at the mirror in Ezekiel 34:1-10 and see whether they recognize their own image there.

Second, the Psalm for this Sunday can serve to remind us who we are. The refrain tells us who God is and who we are:

For he is our God,
And we are the people of his pasture,
And the sheep of his hand (Psalm 95:7).

We are sheep and the Lord is our shepherd! Psalm 23 tells us about that. Jesus spoke about that in Luke 15. It makes a great deal of difference, when you are lost (in the night of despair and depression, or in the reality of a coal mine or the collapse of a building) to know that there is a search operation going on! The Gospel of John tells us that we do have a Good Shepherd who is roaming the world searching for the lost — none other than Jesus Christ (John 10).

Finally, the Matthew 25 text tells us something of how we ought to live. Once we’ve been found we are asked to become a part of God’s search operation. Note the two groups described in this text. Neither group knew what they had been doing (verses 37, 44). Their acts of kindness or of neglect turn out to have been acts directed toward the Lord himself.


Commentary on Psalm 95:1-7a

Jerome Creach

Psalm 95 appears in a grouping of psalms that focus on the reign of God (Psalms 93, 95-99).

These psalms are sometimes categorized as “enthronement psalms” because of their focus on God’s eternal kingship. One popular theory about their origins is that they were recited in the Jerusalem temple during a New Year festival that revolved around the celebration of God’s enthronement. If the theory is right, Psalm 95 was part of a grand celebration of God’s universal sovereignty with the implicit claim that God was superior to all other deities. This theory, however compelling it may be, is not as certain as the role of Psalm 95 in the book of Psalms.

This psalm and the larger group of enthronement psalms appear in a section of the book of Psalms (Book IV, Psalms 90-106) that seems to be organized to deal with the theological crisis of the Babylonian exile in 587 B.C.E. The theological crisis is expressed in many of the psalms that precede this section (Book III, Psalms 73-89). Such psalms painfully related doubts about Israel’s core beliefs (the central role of Jerusalem and the Davidic king in God’s plan, for example). But Psalm 95 along with the other enthronement psalms reminded those who doubted that God was still in control, that God was still “a great King above all gods” (verse 3).

Psalm 95 contains two calls to praise and worship God that provide structure to the work (verses 1, 6). Verses 1 and 6 both begin with imperatives that connote movement, perhaps movement of the human spirit to a posture of praise. These imperatives are followed by verbs that invite praise and singing. Verse 1 begins specifically with the imperative “Come!” Then a string of jussives (third-person verbs with invitational character) in the rest of verse 1 and in verse 2 invite praise and worship: “let us sing;” “let us make a joyful noise;” “let us come into his presence;” “let us make a joyful noise.”

Verse 2 suggests worship is to be offered specifically with thanksgiving and songs of praise. “Thanksgiving” may refer to a type of song (like Psalm 30, for example). If this is what the word means here, the psalmist is calling for music that represents two major genres. The word thanksgiving, however, may also refer more narrowly to a certain type of offering (Leviticus 7:11-18). If this is the intention of verse 2, the psalmist invites both sacrifice and song to be offered to God. Whatever the meaning of “thanksgiving,” verse 2 clearly calls for worship that is comprehensive and inclusive of all expressions of reverence.

Verses 3-5 give reasons for the praise called for in verses 1-2. The most basic reason for praising God is that God is “a great King above all gods” (verse 3). As noted already, this theme is central to Psalm 95 as well as to the other enthronement psalms in Book IV of the Psalter. The statement here assumes a polytheistic background. Among all the gods, the Lord has no rival. Verses 4-5 give the primary evidence that God is “a great King above all gods.” Namely, God is the creator, the one who ordered and sustains the world. The elements under God’s control are listed so as to make a comprehensive statement: the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the sea, and the dry land all are in God’s hands. In fact, verse 4 begins and verse 5 ends with reference to “his hands” to make this statement emphatic.

The second major portion of the psalm begins also with an imperative “O come” (though with a different word than in verse 1). The invitation that follows, however, concerns not the elements of worship but the right posture for praise: “let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” Just as verse 3 gives reasons to sing praise, verse 7 states why one should bow and kneel: “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (verse 7a-b). The idea that God is a shepherd complements the earlier declaration that God is king. Ancient Near Eastern people often described their monarchs as their shepherds. Pharaoh was sometimes depicted with a shepherd staff in his hand.

Verse 7c really concludes verse 7 with an exclamation that expresses the proper response to God the shepherd: “O that today you would listen to his voice.” But this conclusion to verse 7 also leads directly into verses 8-11 which recall Israel’s disobedience during the period of wilderness wandering (see references to Meribah and Massah in Exodus 17:1-7). These verses present a broad sketch of Israel’s faithlessness during this time. The Israelites were mainly guilty of not responding in faith to God’s miraculous deliverance. “My work” in verse 9 probably refers to the exodus. The Israelites, the verse says, continued to ask for proof of God’s might even after God rescued them from Egypt. As McCann says, the main message of verses 8-11 is “Do not repeat that mistake.”1       

The central theological message of Psalm 95 is that “the Lord is a great King” (verse 3). To recognize God’s kingship is to recognize that God created us and sustains us. For that reason God is worthy of our praise. The psalm also suggests that our praise is more than words lifted heavenward. It is an expression of faith and it should be lived out in faithfulness and trust. This is precisely what the Israelites in the wilderness did not do. To learn from their mistakes and to connect praise and obedience is our calling.

1 J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et. al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 1062.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

C. Clifton Black

It is a sad commentary on our times that, if many Christians think at all of eschatology, they do so equipped only with the anxious, warped boilerplate of Left Behind.

This year’s epistolary lection for Christ the King offers a very different eschatological vision: more spacious, glistening, and healthier. This is scriptural mind-expansion, sans hallucinogenics.

Begin by noticing that Ephesians 1:15-23 — indeed, the letter in its entirety — is an uninterrupted thanksgiving: “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (verse 16). Thanks are extended, not to the letter’s recipients, but to God for stimulating the church’s faith, love, insight, and hope (verses 16-19).

In Ephesians theology is not a tool deployed for homiletical preparation or an apology for faith after the fact. Theology is doxological; doxology is theology. To lead worshippers in glorifying God’s magnificent gifts is, for this biblical author, the essence of theology and its reason for being. To those who take up this text for preaching: please check all moralism at the door. This lection is no memorandum of ought and must and should. This is a hymn for singing.

The heart of this pericope is praise of God’s majesty: “the Father of glory” (verse 17) who has bestowed on Jesus Christ a lordship befitting resurrection from death and a seat at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named,” now and in the age to come (verses 20-21). Here lies the lection’s gospel edge, which prevents this hymn from curdling into sour mush.

If the church’s witness is true, if in fact God has made Christ the King, then no other power on this earth is sovereign and deserves ultimate obedience: neither the United States nor its Democrats, Republicans, nor Tea Partiers; neither K Street nor Wall Street nor Goldman Sachs; no social or economic construction by this world’s wise and well-healed, however high-minded or mean-spirited. Before Christ the King, all our idols collapse beneath his feet as rubble before the One who has subjected all things to his Messiah (verse 22).

Therein lies judgment: on this of all Sundays, the impostors to whom we have pledged our allegiance are exposed. Herein lies grace: on this Sunday we receive afresh “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him” who alone is Lord of our lives (verse 17). On the Sunday of our King, Jesus Christ declares the church’s independence from every fraudulent lord to whom his children have sold their souls.

Ephesians pulls away our confusion, drawing back the curtain to reveal reality as Christians know it by faith. This letter does not deny deep human divisions (2:11-22), the fragility of peace (4:1-16), alienation and ignorance and callousness (4:17-24), “bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (4:31). We inhabit a diseased and disfigured world, as pastor and congregation know too well.

Ephesians’ faith — the faith it elicits in its preachers, for the fortification of their people — is that none of these things can or will defeat God, shackle his Christ, or enslave his church.  Christ Jesus occupies the heavenly throne now. And so even now, in spite of all temptation to surrender, Christians trust their Lord Jesus (1:15a). They love one another (verse 15b).  “The eyes of [their] hearts” light up (verse 18a: my translation of a brilliant image).

The hope to which Almighty God has called the church, not some self-fabricated delusion, kindles assurance of an imperishable inheritance beyond and apart from all wealth as this world reckons it (verse 18b). If Christ is King, then Christians are not helpless victims. They are conduits of Christ’s immeasurably redemptive power (verse 19): the church is the very body of his fullness that fills all things with loving goodness (verses 22b-23; also 2:8, 10, 19-22; 3:10, 17-19). If the Holy Spirit has sealed Christians for the day of redemption (4:30), then nothing — unemployment, poverty, cancer, war, terrorism — nothing can break God’s self-bonding to us through Christ the King.

Christ is King every Sunday, every day of the week. On this Sunday, however, the church has decided that it will state the matter plain to ourselves and to the world: Jesus alone is the true Lord of our lives. In such a claim there is rich hope but no shabby sentimentality. 

To stake that claim is nothing less than announcing the death of all that is bogus in the way we have lived. On this day sleepers wake up and arise from the dead, so that Christ may dawn upon them (5:14), as hymned by Thomas Ken (1637–1711):

All praise to thee, in light array’d
Who light thy dwelling-place hast made:
A boundless ocean of bright beams
From thy all-glorious Godhead steams.

This Sunday all our inconsequential distinctions melt away. No longer are we Jew or Gentile, black or brown or white, laity or clergy, partisans of one special interest or another. Christ is King. Our true citizenship is in Heaven, as heirs of an indestructible salvation whose sole purpose is ceaseless praise of God’s glory. That is why the church gathers in worship this Sunday. Finally it’s the only reason we ever do.