Reading Ramblings – November 22, 2020

Date: Last Sunday of the Church Year – Christ the King Sunday – November 22, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46

Context: The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 under Pope Pius XI for the final Sunday in October, and took up its current date of the last Sunday of Ordinary Time and the last Sunday of the liturgical Church year in 1970. It celebrates what is implicit in every Sunday of the year – Christ reigns over all things. This is not simply his future reign in fullness and perfection but his current reign now, even though our experience of that reign is impeded and imperfect by our continued sinfulness and the sinfulness of creation prior to Christ’s return and Final Judgment. This reign is not only over the powers of this earth we may not care for, but over our own hearts and lives, something it is easier (and more convenient) to forget. Our faith and trust in Christ’s return and the judgment He brings will be evident to some degree (known best by God) in our lives and actions.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 – What begins as a comforting assurance of the Son of God as the Lord of the Church who will seek out and find his lost and strayed sheep ends with a rebuke to some of those sheep that contributed to other sheep straying. Some of Christ’s sheep do not act as they should towards their fellow sheep, but rather are abusive to the point they drive other sheep off. There will be judgment for this. Perhaps not eternal condemnation, but certainly judgment, yet another call to the importance of unity within the body of Christ and sober self-examination and openness to honest and loving words from brothers and sisters in Christ. The Church remains imperfect today and until the Good Shepherd returns to directly lead and guide his flock. His rescue will not only be from the external enemies of the Church, but internal threats and misguided behaviors. It is to his glory that all imperfection and sin will be expunged, so that we are truly safe to join together as the people of the God for the first time since The Fall.

Psalm 95:1-7a – This passage is often referred to as Venite, the opening section of traditional Catholic Matins, the first service of the day. Some speculate it is the psalm monks were expected to recite privately to themselves as they assembled for Matins, and it began to be incorporated formally into the service as the monks waited for those who were running late. This makes some sense as it functions literarily more as a call to worship for those who are not there yet and less as a worship piece for those already assembled. The psalm is literally a call to assemble for praise and worship of God based on his identity as the Creator of all things. But He is not an impassive Creator, an unconcerned creator as Deism often imagines him. Rather, He is our God, and we are the people of his pasteur and the sheep of his hand. The language is both transcendent in terms of God as Creator of all things, but also immanent as God is present with and for his Creation and creatures. The call to worship is personal because the relationship to the Creator is personal.

1 Corinthians 15:20-28 – We’ve had readings from 1 Corinthians already this Church year – the first few weeks of Ordinary Time back in January and February as well as Holy Week and Easter Sunday. For some reason though we didn’t continue with it when Ordinary Time resumed in June, and instead come back to it today. Of course today is not just lectio continua, but rather an intentional use of the passage for the theme of Christ the King, intended to work with the other readings for this morning to accent this theme. Certainly we see Christ reigning here. Christ’s reign as King of Kings is predicated upon his sinless incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. His role as King of Kings is grounded in his absolute and perfect obedience to God the Father despite what continues to appear to many today as foolishness, conquering through death and sacrifice rather than brute force. The proper relationship of God the Son and God the Father (as well as God the Holy Spirit though St. Paul is not concerned about that in this passage) continues into eternity. Jesus as King of Kings does not mean Jesus in rebellion against or contrariness to the will of God the Father. It is the Father’s good pleasure that the Son should rule all things. Chaos is not reintroduced with some sort of usurping of the Father’s power by the Son.

Matthew 25:31-46 – Jesus has been preaching and teaching the coming kingdom of heaven since the opening of Chapter 24. He has not talked about the qualities of the kingdom of heaven as He has elsewhere in Matthew’s account, but rather how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. In our reading today we see the first event to follow his glorious arrival – judgment. All of humanity separated into sheep and goats, those destined for eternal fellowship with and those destined for eternal separation from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Oh, and one other category of humanity typically overlooked in contemporary explanations of this passage – the brothers of Christ. The 20th century saw the novel but pervasive interpretation of this teaching of Jesus as applying to all the poor and misfortunate of creation. This interpretation claims the primary demonstration of Christian faith or life is in caring for the poor and marginalized wherever and whoever they might be. The poor in general. But this is a novel interpretation and likely an incorrect interpretation of Jesus’ more obvious teaching here even if care for the marginalized remains a Biblically important theme in both the Old Testament and New Testament.

Rather, this passage has historically been understood to mean that what separates the blessed from the accursed is their reception of the Gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ as brought to them by men and women who are referred to broadly in this passage as brothers. Jesus does this elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel – 12:46-50, for instance, as well as 28:10. Jesus does refer to brothers in a more generalized sense elsewhere in Matthew, but a strong argument can be made (and traditonally has) that this term is particularly used by Jesus to describe his followers.

This passage then, (not really a parable, but an actual teaching of Jesus) leads us to see that what separates the blessed from the accursed is what Scripture always says it is – faith. And faith is not simply an inward attitude of the heart but also an expresssion in practical ways in how we live our lives. In Matthew 10 Jesus sends his disciples out and tells them to rely on the hospitality of those who hear and receive the message they bring. This means those who carry the gospel in some official manner are dependent on the faithful to tend to their needs. Those who refuse the message they bring refuse to assist them and care for them. The two cannot be separated. Abuse the messenger and you are ultimately abusing the message. Abuse the messenger and you are abusing the one who sent the messenger (Matthew 10:40, 18:5).

This is not works righteousness because of the role of the brothers in this teaching. A basic human kindness towards others as may be practiced by Buddhists or atheists or Muslims is not what is being referenced in this passage. Rather, an outpouring of love and care to those who share the Gospel, because of the Gospel that has been received is the point at play. It is not the works themselves that save but the faith that demands and facilitates such works, and a false faith or false belief will not make the works equally pleasing to God. Only in right relationship to God can our works of love to our neighbors or even specifically our Christian neighbors or pastors or missionaries or teachers be termed good.

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