Lectionary Commentaries for November 22, 2020
Christ the King/Reign of Christ

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.1

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.


  1. Commentary first published on Nov. 23, 2008.

First Reading

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

Margaret Odell

The connection between justice and care is often lost in contemporary Christian practice.1

We’ve gotten the memo on the importance of care, and today’s gospel lesson more than adequately underscores that message. When Christ returns as Lord to judge the nations, the only question he will ask is whether we fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless (Matthew 25:41-45).

Christians therefore find countless ways to practice charity through any number of food drives and mission trips. We do not, however, always tend to the underlying causes of these great needs. By contrast, today’s lesson from Ezekiel holds justice and care together. The reading is reminiscent of Psalm 23 in its rich description of God’s care in gathering, resettling, and feeding the flock in good pasture (Ezekiel 34:11-16).

It’s worth noting that God’s care is both implicitly and explicitly associated with justice. The connection is implicit in verse 16, which quite literally reverses the abuses of the false shepherds (Ezekiel 34:1-10, especially verses 4-6). God also explicitly corrects situations that might perpetuate injustice and abuse in the future: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy” (34:16, see also verses 20-22). The connection is summed up in verse 16, where means for delivering care is justice: “I will feed them with justice.” Justice and care are kept in balance, as if they were two sides of the same coin.

Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd; viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.

For one thing, it rules out the exercise of power for its own sake and insists that it be used to support the flock’s flourishing. Invoking the shepherd metaphor in the preface to his Law Code, for example, Hammurabi explains that he was appointed by the gods “to promote the welfare of the people, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil that the strong might not oppress the weak.”2 What the shepherd metaphor emphasizes, then, is the ruler’s responsibility to establish justice so that the people may flourish.

Ezekiel’s use of the good shepherd metaphor is squarely within this political tradition. The condemnation of Israel’s “shepherds,” probably the leaders of Israel and Judah but possibly also the rulers of Babylonia, is a political critique. Because the people have been exploited, the nation has been destroyed.

As Ezekiel puts it, “Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34:2b-3). This exploitation does not simply damage the flock, it results in its scattering, leaving individual sheep vulnerable to further prey and the flock subject to yet further disintegration as it is scattered among the nations (34:5-6). In Ezekiel’s context, this scattering alludes to the disintegration of the kingdom of Judah and the dispersion and exile of its inhabitants among the nations.

As its shepherd, God visits the flock to “take stock” of the damage after it has been scattered (Hebrew biqqer; NRSV “seek”; 34:11-12).3 “Taking stock” is an act of judgment, of discerning need before taking action. What ensues is a rescue operation, as God seeks out the sheep from all the countries to which they have been scattered.

Verses 13 and 14 dwell extensively on God’s action to gather the flock together to resettle them on the mountains of Israel, and to reassert his authority over them as their shepherd. Evoking themes of covenant and promise, the chapter dwells extensively on the re-establishment of the flock as a viable political community. Once again the flock will be known as the people of God; once again will God’s servant David serve as their shepherd (34:24); and once again they will live in safety in the land of Israel.

What is of first importance, then, is the recreation of a viable community. Care for the individual members of the flock—seeking the lost, tending to the injured, strengthening the weak—comes next and is presented as a reversal of the injustices that had been inflicted on the flock (compare verse 16 with 34:3-4). At the same time, God continues to correct the conditions that had contributed to the injuries in the first place: “but the fat and the strong I will destroy.”

All of this is characterized as shepherding justly: “I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:16; see also 20-24). The balance between tending to individual need and addressing structural concerns is striking; it is also pragmatic. If a shepherd could reduce veterinary bills by mending a jagged fencepost or filling in a menacing pothole, she would save a lot of time and money, not to mention prevent a great deal of suffering in her flock.

As an act of deliverance from oppression and injustice, God’s care for the flock is a model not just of good shepherding, but also of wise ruling. As such it provides a basis for reflecting on the nature of Christ’s rule as it is portrayed in today’s New Testament readings—and our role as the people of Christ’s flock. Ezekiel 34 identifies injustice and oppression as a primary cause of the fragmentation of any community, not least God’s people.

The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 23, 2014.
  2. ANET, p. 164, cited by Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 280-281.
  3. Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 21–37: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 22A; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 699-700.


Commentary on Psalm 95:1-7a

W. H. Bellinger, Jr.

Psalm 95 is a bit unusual in that it is a hymn of praise that includes a prophetic warning, as do Psalms 50 and 81.1

The psalm’s combination of a double call to worship (the lectionary reading) and a prophetic word is best explained with a liturgical or festival setting. The psalm celebrates and interprets the reign of God in the congregation’s liturgical setting. We might envision a procession, but the specific festival setting has been debated.

Jewish tradition ties the psalm to the beginning of Sabbath; others have suggested the Feast of Tabernacles or a covenant renewal festival. The movement of the psalm does suggest a connection to the beginning of worship, but it is difficult to be more specific. Verses 1-7 offer praise to God in the form of a double call to worship. The first summons to praise is in verses 1-2 followed by reasons for the praise in verses 3-5. The second call to worship in verse 6 narrows the focus to God’s covenant people, and verse 7 gives the reason for that call to praise. The last line of verse 7 introduces a prophetic word from God, an oracle. In contemporary terms, the first seven verses call the congregation to come to worship and the last verses deliver the sermon.

It was a sunny day in eastern North Carolina when I asked the congregation of Union Baptist Church to come outside with me and we re-enacted the suggested liturgical setting of Psalm 95. We spoke the opening call to worship in verses 1-5 and then processed inside while singing in praise. Inside the sanctuary, we joined in the second call to worship (verses 6-7) and bowed and knelt to our God. We then heard a prophetic word in the tradition of verses 8-11, a call to faithfulness. Re-enacting the liturgical setting helped us all to envision the movement and import of the psalm.

In the book of Psalms, this text comes in a cluster of psalms that celebrate the kingship of YHWH, an emphasis appropriate for Christ the King Sunday. The emphasis on YHWH’s kingship forms a response to the crisis of exile urgently articulated at the end of Book III in Psalm 89. The Davidic Kingdom has fallen, but the kingship of YHWH endures as a sign of hope for the community.

The psalm opens with a call to praise. The NRSV rendering “come/make a joyful noise” is probably too tame for the Hebrew verbs that call for shouting and singing aloud, a noisy shout of homage similar to the shouting at the entrance of a human king. The call is for a procession to worship with this joyful singing. The movement is to the outer courts and then toward the sanctuary, the holy place of worship and the place of divine presence.

With verse 3, the liturgist brings the congregation to the reason for offering praise to God. The call to praise followed by the reason the congregation should offer praise is the classic style of praise in the Hebrew Psalter. The reason given in Psalm 95 is that YHWH is king, here tied to creation language. God created the world from its depths to its heights, from the sea to the dry land, all the world, and God reigns over it. The psalm begins with the broad realm of creation, a call to praise applicable to all peoples.

Reflecting its common ancient Near Eastern setting, the psalm portrays YHWH as preeminent among the gods, as king throughout creation and ruler over the powers of chaos and disorder. God created and reigns over creation. Thus all God’s creatures are called to praise.

The second call to praise narrows the focus. The congregation is now called to come and bow down, to kneel before the creator. The scene is analogous to an encounter with a human king with kneeling and bowing in homage. Now the congregation comes into the presence of the sovereign and bows awaiting a royal declaration. The opening call to worship portrays God as creator and ruler over creation.

The emphasis in the second call to worship is that the congregation belongs to God. God created this people and leads them and provides for them and protects them. The reason for praise in verse 7 alludes to the ancient Near Eastern royal image of God as shepherd of the people. God is “our Maker” and “our God.” The reference reminds the congregation that God’s mighty acts in history created this covenant people.

This double call to worship then makes it clear that God as both creator and redeemer is central to ancient Israel’s faith tradition. These verses at the beginning of Psalm 95 call to mind the familiar Psalm 100. These emphases characterize the cluster of psalms that celebrate the kingship of YHWH. The psalm’s concluding verses speak a prophetic warning by bringing to mind historical events in which the community did not trust YHWH. The call is to live a life of trust and faithfulness.

The sequence of Psalm 95 is important for readers. The psalm begins with the praise of God and moves to a prophetic warning spoken by God. The warning hopes that the community will trust in God, that is, will live out the praise articulated in verses 1-7. God’s gracious acts of creation and of calling out the community lead to the challenge for a response of praise and of lived faith.

Psalm 95 sings praise to God as sovereign and calls for faithfulness in response, in contrast to their ancestors’ response in the wilderness. So the psalm brings the past to bear on the present liturgical context. Those who do not heed the warning of history may have the misfortune of repeating it. The solemn warning that concludes the psalm hopes for a better response to the praise sung in verses 1-7.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 23, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Karoline Lewis

Perhaps many of us remember a typical childhood conversation.1

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 Eighth through the Fourteenth Sundays after Pentecost (Ordinary 15-21) 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 reading 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; Ordinary 15). 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 (ekklesia) 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).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 23, 2008.