Lectionary Commentaries for November 26, 2023
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.1

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 Philippians 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.'”2

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.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 20, 2011.
  2. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 211.

First Reading

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

Tyler Mayfield

The Revised Common Lectionary has selected two handfuls of verses from Ezekiel 34, but the whole chapter is helpful context for the preacher. Ezekiel 34 is concerned with the issue of leadership and uses the imagery of shepherds and sheep to talk about leaders and the people. One of the rebuked leaders in view here is undoubtedly Israel’s king, so the connection of this prophetic passage to Christ the King Sunday appears obvious. 

I must admit candidly that this specific Sunday in the liturgical calendar fails to engender excitement and hope for me. Kingship is a curious notion for people who live in a democracy; it is a long way culturally and politically from ancient Israel’s monarchy (or Rome’s empire) to America’s vulnerable democracy today. Yet, some of us are so accustomed to hearing about (and singing about!) the admittedly patriarchal concept of kingship that we often fail to admit its oddness in our modern lives. When was the last time you saw a king in real life? As if to prove my point, I sang the words “crown him” just this past Sunday in my church! The preacher navigates then the (overwhelmingly masculine) territory of an incredibly familiar word, “king,” which people seem to believe profoundly and intuitively has some strong connection to God but which also conjures up images of Buckingham Palace. That is the liturgical context for this passage.  

Now add the biblical language of shepherds and sheep to the conversation, and we may move even further from some people’s practical lives. I must admit that as someone who lives and works in a major U.S. city, I don’t regularly encounter sheep. Therefore, I do not have intimate knowledge of a shepherd’s responsibilities.  

Talk of kingship and shepherds then demands interpretation and contextualization. We are actually talking about power, authority, and leadership. We may not need treatises on animal husbandry or an exhaustive history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to understand these images. Still, we need to translate these ancient concepts into our contemporary context.   

The first ten verses of Ezekiel 34, which are not a part of today’s reading, provide the necessary background: God condemns the supposed shepherds/leaders of Israel. These leaders have not truly led the people. They have allowed the people/sheep to scatter and become prey. These shepherds have not fed the flock. This type of leadership is unacceptable and requires divine action in the form of judgment. God judges these shepherds for their poor, inattentive, selfish leadership. They are oppressive! Their job was to watch over the vulnerable 

It is helpful at this point to situate this passage within Israel’s exilic moment. The people of God have lost their land, the temple, and the king. This profound loss leads to not just a social crisis but a theological crisis. 

How are the people to go forward without the land given to them by God? 

How are they to worship God without a temple? Who will be their leader? 

The devastating experience of exile brings a new understanding of God and God’s relationship with the people. 

The exile has exposed the leadership responsible for helping the weak and defenseless. Israel has been thrown to wild animals and needs a rescuer.  

So, in verse 11, God says that God will step in to become the shepherd. God will seek out the lost sheep, rescue them from danger, and feed them. Notice the verbs usedall the actions takenby this newly appointed shepherd (verses 12-16): seek, rescue, bring them out, gather, feed, bring back, bind up, and strengthen. The previous shepherds’ actions led to exile and catastrophe. So, now God is needed to repair the calamity.  

The conclusion of God’s actions in verses 11-16 is the passionate statement: “I will feed them with justice.” The people will go from lack of food to the food of justice. After what happened to them under previous leadership, they need just relations and treatment. God will set things right as the new shepherd. 

The preacher might linger here and reflect on what it might mean today for us to be fed with justice. How are we to set things right? How might the nourishment of God’s justice lead us to action?

Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.¹


  1. “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” by William Williams; trans. by Peter Williams. The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 127


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.¹

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.

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.


  1. Originally published on this site on November 26, 2017.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

Kristofer Phan Coffman

Like Alice through the looking glass, the perspective of the letters of Paul zooms in and out. Many of the issues dealt with in the letters concern small and local matters. For example, Paul and Sosthenes chide the members of the church at Corinth because they do a poor job sharing food (1 Corinthians 11:34). On a more positive note, Paul and Timothy thank the Philippians for their generosity in supporting their missionary journey (Philippians 4:15-16). In both cases, the writers of the letters address people by name and concern themselves with the everyday lives of the recipients. 

The pericope for this week from the letter to the Ephesians starts on that same familiar level. Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians, not in general, but because he has heard particular things about them (1:15). He makes the point that the Ephesians fill his prayers with thanksgiving because of what they have done (“for this reason” 1:15). In many of the churches that I have attended, the prayers that the pastor and the congregation offer are primarily made up of concerns: prayers for healing, safety, comfort, changes in the world, et cetera. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but perhaps by making this point, Paul seeks to remind followers of Jesus that they also have an obligation to give thanks for the faith and love that their fellow Christians show.

The letter to the Ephesians does not dwell on the local for long though. Like Alice eating cake and then growing enormous, Paul’s rejoicing leads his letter out of the local and into the cosmic. This bouncing between the local and the cosmic occurs in many of Paul’s letters and leads to some of the more well-loved passages in the epistles. It occurs in Philippians 2, where Paul goes from instructing the Philippians to praising Christ’s humility and exaltation (Philippians 2:1-11). Likewise, in Romans 8, reflection on the hardship faced by the community in Rome lead to the assertion that nothing in the cosmos can separate Jesus Christ from his beloved people (Romans 8:31-39). 

In this pericope, Paul repeats this pattern, beginning with Christ’s death and then moving on to his exaltation. In describing Jesus’ exaltation, Paul touches upon one of the themes that his modern interpreters often underemphasize, namely Jesus’ conflict with demonic powers. The underemphasis is in some ways a result of a problem in translation. The letters of Paul consistently refer to the demonic powers with abstract terminology. Here in Ephesians, the list is “rule and authority and power and dominion” (1:21). In Romans, Paul lists “angels, rulers, things present, things to come, [and] powers” (8:38-39). In Philippians, it is “every knee … in heaven and on earth and under the earth (Philippians 2:10). 

In the modern world, each of these terms slips into the mundane world. To many hearers’ ears, they refer to governments and other ways that humans exercise power. That the letters of Paul have something different in mind can be seen most clearly in the letter to the Colossians. Colossians describes the work of Jesus on the cross as “disarming the powers and the authorities, making a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]” (Colossians 2:15, my translation). This must refer to something beyond government on earth, because at the earthly level, the opposite happened. Pontius Pilate and the chief priests made a public disgrace of Jesus by crucifying him. Paul maintains over and over, however, that the apparent defeat of Jesus on earth is in fact his triumph over the demonic powers that hold humanity in slavery.

It is easy to understand why modern people have a hard time getting themselves in the same mindset as the letters of Paul. For one, as already noted, Paul’s world zooms in and out, from the local to the cosmic, sometimes without warning. More importantly, this worldview is often at odds with the idea that people are free actors and that the world can be explained. The world that Paul describes when he talks about “powers and authorities” is a world in which forces beyond the control of humans wreak havoc in their lives.

Perhaps, however, in 2023, Paul’s worldview has lost its foreign character. The list of things that plague the modern world sounds suspiciously beyond the control of most people: pandemic, climate change, racism, even inflation. These powers and authorities wreak havoc in people’s lives and even the best intentions of governments have failed to eradicate them. Even more depressing is the fact that some governments seem complicit with these powers, profiting from them even. 

In this kind of world, the cosmic triumph of Christ begins to preach again. If Jesus Christ has triumphed over all of these authorities and dominions, their rule must be temporary. If Jesus Christ stands above every name that can be named, nothing new can threaten the fate of his followers. Christ the King Sunday continues to have relevance because rulers and authorities of all kinds continue to try and assert their will over the beloved of Jesus. 

Christ the King Sunday is not an assertion of how Jesus Christ stands above the cosmos, as though Jesus were just another earthly ruler, content on selfish gain. Christ the King Sunday is a negation of all earthly rulers. It is the assertion that faith in Jesus and love toward all the saints triumphs over the naked power of government and the cruel mathematics of pandemics. Christ the King Sunday is the proclamation that local acts of faith and love are rooted in cosmic certainty.

It takes a spirit of wisdom and revelation to know this reality (1:17). It takes unceasing prayer and thanksgiving to understand the difference between the kingdom of Jesus and the kingdoms of this world. But the prayers of Christ’s church will continue to be that “with our eyes enlightened, we may know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (1:18).