SOLEMNITY OF CHRIST THE KING (Cycle A)

Readings:
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
Psalm 23:1-3, 5-6
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
Matthew 25:31-46

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

The two Testaments reveal God's divine plan for humanity, and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and King of Kings
On the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King.  In our readings, we end the Church's liturgical year with a vision of the Divine King's return and the end of the age as we celebrate Jesus' universal kingship.  As heirs of Christ the King, we are anointed at our Baptism when we become members of a royal family in Christ's Kingdom of the Church.  We are a royal people, and we share in our king's crown.  Most earthly kings wear jewel-encrusted crowns and sit on golden thrones, but our King wears a crown of thorns, and His throne is the wood of the Cross.  We are called to share in His Kingdom of justice, self-sacrifice, peace, and freedom; and we recognize our royal ruler in the faces of the impoverished, the hungry, and the oppressed (Gospel Reading).

The First Reading, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel Reading describe our Lord as a king over His people, using the imagery of a shepherd who cares for his flock.  The last verse in the First Reading is the link to the Gospel Reading where the king judges the righteous and the wicked in the imagery of the shepherd separating the sheep from the goats in a flock.  In the Psalms, we acknowledge the Lord as our divine Shepherd who lovingly provides for His people who are the sheep of His flock.  In the Second Reading, St. Paul teaches that Jesus' reign as king, inaugurated in His Resurrection, will last until His Second Advent when He will return to collect His Bride, the Church and sit as divine judge over humanity.  After the Last Judgment, He will take His Bride to Heaven for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb when He submits Himself and His Church to the Father. 

In our Gospel Reading, Jesus identifies with the poor and the oppressed, and He makes the Christian's outpouring of active love toward those who suffer a condition for entering His eternal Kingdom.  We cannot hope for an eternal reward without loving God, and love of God is tied to love and concern for our brothers and sisters in the family of mankind (CCC 2443).  St. John wrote in 1 John 3:14-15: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love remains in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murdered, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him (see CCC 544, 1033).

The Gospel teaching describing the Last Judgment marks the end of the Liturgical year.  Jesus' teaching on the Last Judgment should call us to an examination of conscience in recognition that we must keep our souls pure in preparation for this event that will come upon us without warning.  We must remember that the event of Christ's return does not mark the end but a new beginning for those who love Jesus and are faithful to His command to love.

The First Reading Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
11 Thus says the Lord GOD:  I myself will look after and tend my sheep.  12 As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.  I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. [...] 15 I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.  16 The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.  17 As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.

Ezekiel's 6th century BC prophecy is a covenant lawsuit against the failed leaders of the Sinai Covenant who do not rightly "shepherd" the flock of God's people.  The symbolic imagery of a shepherd-king was common in the ancient Near East, and the Bible uses this same imagery (for example 2 Sam 5:12).  Jeremiah used it for the kings of Israel to rebuke their failures (Jer 2:8; 10:21; 23:1-3) and to proclaim that God would give His people new shepherds who would lead His people ("pasture" them) with integrity (Jer 3:15; 23:4).  God also promised through His prophets that from the ancestral line of the shepherd-king David would come a righteous "Branch," the Davidic Messiah, to "shepherd" His people (Is 11:6-9; Jer 23:5-6; Ez 34:23-24).  God takes up the same "shepherding" theme through the prophet Ezekiel that will be resumed in the prophecies of Zechariah (Zec 11:4-17; 13:7).

After listing the failures of past "shepherds" of Israel in Ezekiel 34:1-10, God contrasts each abuse with His remedy (Ez 34:11-16). Yahweh begins His response to the failed shepherds with His promise that "I Myself" will come to "look after and tend my sheep" (repeated four times in Ez 34:11, 15 twice, and 20). Yahweh fulfilled that prophecy in the Incarnation of the Christ.  God Himself came to restore His people and to seek out those lost in the darkness of sin.  Jesus announced to the people that He is the Davidic "Good Shepherd" who came according to prophecy (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32-33; Jn 10:1-18).  During the years of His ministry, He cured the sick, healed the blind and the disabled.  He tended to the brokenhearted, forgiving their sins and restoring the old Israel in preparation for His Kingdom of the universal Church.  At the same time, he "came against" (Ez 34:10) the elders, chief priests, scribes and Pharisees for their abuses in seven curse judgments against the Old Covenant hierarchy (Mt 23:1-36).  God will come to "shepherd them rightly" (Ez 34:16) by judging their abuses.

17 As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.
God will also come as Divine Judge.  It was the common practice to keep goats and sheep in the same flock.  In bad weather, the shepherd had to separate them at night and take the goats into a warmer enclosure since their coats were not sufficiently heavy to keep them warm (Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, page 206).  God "tends" all peoples together, but the time will come when He will separate by divine judgment the "sheep from the goats."  After God the Son's condemnation of the Old Covenant hierarchy in Matthew 24, He gave a discourse in Matthew 25 on the Last Judgment (our Gospel Reading), using the same imagery of sheep and goats.  The "goats" are men and women who stand in opposition to the will of God for their lives while the sheep are those who respond to God's love by sharing His love with others who are in need.  The fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy will take place when Jesus returns as the Divine Judge who separates the "sheep" of the faithful from the "goats" of the wicked and sends "the goats" into eternal punishment and the sheep to eternal life:  And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mt 25:31-46).

Responsorial Psalm 23:1-3, 5-6
The response is: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.  2 In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful [still] waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul.
Response
3 He guides me in right paths for his name's sake. 
5 You spread a table before me in the sight of my foes; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Response
6 Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.
Response

The 23rd Psalm is probably the best-loved of the 150 psalms.  Attributed to King David, God's anointed king of Israel and the ancestor of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus Christ (Mt 1:1-16, 19-20; Lk 1:30-33), this psalm expresses a personal reflection of the relationship between the psalmist and the nearness of his God.  Two metaphors frame the psalm reading: the Lord as the Divine Shepherd (verses 1-3), and the Lord as the Divine Host of the sacred meal (verses 5-6).  In the secular literature of the ancient Near East, the role of a shepherd was often a metaphor for a king who leads his people in the same way a shepherd leads his flock.  Sacred Scripture uses the same metaphor (2 Sam 5:2; Is 44:28; etc.) to express the role of God the Divine King, the protector and judge of His covenant people (Ps 28:9; Ps 96:9-10; Is 40:11; Ez 34:11-16; Mal 1:14; etc.). 

Describing the aspects of shepherding, perhaps from David's perspective as a shepherd in his youth, the inspired writer provides a picture of his relationship with God as he seeks to live a life of holiness (verses 2-3).  The psalmist writes that he and the people who members of are God's flock are under the Divine Shepherd's constant guidance as He leads them with tenderness and compassion. The Divine Shepherd takes into consideration the fears and weakness of His people, leading them not by the fearful raging rivers but by the quiet waters (sheep have a fear of drowning and will only drink from still waters). 

God's tender care gives the psalmist confidence that with God's shepherding he will reach the green pastures of God's heavenly kingdom (1 Pt 5:4; Rev 7:17).  Even in the midst of trials and sufferings, the psalmist feels a sense of security as he trusts in God to lead and protect him.  Despite his enemies, he knows that God, the Divine Host, has prepared a table for him when the time comes for him to enter into God's eternal rest.  God anoints him with His spirit to keep him on the path of holiness and provides His cup of salvation. The psalmist is overwhelmed by the abundance of God's mercy and covenant love.

For Christians, this psalm takes on its full meaning in Jesus' statement "I am the Good Shepherd" (Jn 10:11, 14; Heb 13:20) and in the sacred meal of the Eucharist.  At the table of the Last Supper, Jesus fulfilled the host metaphor of this psalm.  As the host, Jesus invited His disciples to the sacred feast of Unleavened Bread and offered them His Body and the cup of salvation of His precious Blood for the first time (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20). As the Good Shepherd and  Divine Host, Jesus continues to offer His faithful the sacred "thanksgiving" meal of the Eucharist on the altar table at every celebration of the Mass.  It is a banquet that looks back in time to the Last Supper and forward in time to the heavenly banquet in God's eternal kingdom when the righteous enter into God's eternal rest (Rev 19:5-9).  It is the banquet of the just and the wedding supper of the Lamb and His Bride that we hope to share in the presence of all the saints, including the faithful David.

The Second Reading 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28
20 Christ has been raised from the dead, the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  21 For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man.  22 For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, 23 but each one in proper order: Christ the Firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ; 24 then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.  25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. [...] 28 When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.

St. Paul writes about the end of the age when Christ returns as the glorious Davidic King promised by the prophets (Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-17; Ez 34:23-24), having overcome sin and all elements of its power over the world.  He writes that just as death came into the world through the sin of the man Adam, so now the promise of life through the resurrection of the dead has been brought about through Jesus' Resurrection and His conquest over sin and death.  Christ is the first resurrected in body and spirit to new life, but those who belong to Him will also arise to new life at His Second Advent to join Him in eternity (1 Thes 4:14-18).

Although St. Paul is only referring to the resurrection of the just (verse 23), he does speak elsewhere of the resurrection of all mankind, both the righteous and the sinner (1 Cor 15:51-53; 1 Thes 4:13-17; etc.).  Mary's assumption into heaven prefigures the resurrection of the just, and we, who have died to sin with Christ in Christian baptism, will also be resurrected to reign with Him.  However, the Virgin Mary is the one who has a special place among the redeemed because she is the mother of the Redeemer and the first Christian.  She is also the Gebirah, the Queen Mother of the Davidic King of the new and eternal Covenant.

25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death, for "he subjected everything under his feet."
In verses 25-26, Paul refers to the destruction of death.  This event will take place at the Last Judgment.  St. John witnessed a vision of this future event in the Book of Revelation: I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened.  Then another scroll was opened, the Book of Life.  The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls.  The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead.  All the dead were judged according to their deeds.  Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire.  This pool of fire is the second death.  Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the pool of fire (Rev 20:12-15; emphasis added).

Hades is not the hell of the damned but is instead the abode of the dead, called Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek (see CCC 633-34).  Notice in the quote from Revelation 20:12-15 that it is a state that continues to function until the end of time.  Under the old covenants, before the advent of the Christ, neither blessings nor punishments were eternal—all the dead, both the righteous and the wicked went to Sheol/Hades, the abode of the grave.  Sheol/Hades was a state where the righteous waited for the coming of the Messiah, and the wicked suffered in punishment for their sins (see Jesus' description of Sheol in its two parts in Lk 16:19-31).  After Christ descended to Sheol from His grave and liberated the dead who accepted Him as their Savior (1 Pt 3:18-20; 4:6), both blessings and judgments became eternal.  Sheol/Hades then became a place of purification for the saved who died with unconfessed venial sins or for atonement for confessed and forgiven mortal sins where further atonement was still necessary (1 Cor 3:13-15).  We know this state in which for those destined for Heaven but still in need of soul-cleansing by the Latin word for purification: Purgatory (CCC 1030-32).  The "pool of fire" is not Sheol/Hades; it is the hell of the damned that Jesus called Gehenna (see CCC 1033-34).

28 When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.
In the present age, God acts toward the world through our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  At the end of time when Jesus returns, God's relationship with the redeemed will be a direct one.  In the meantime, Jesus' kingdom is in constant warfare with the forces of evil, and Christ must reign until God "has put all his enemies under his feet."  We are part of that warfare as members of the Church militant as we continue Jesus' ministry on earth, fighting evil, caring for the venerable, and continuing to share His Gospel message of salvation.

The Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46 ~ Jesus' teaching on the Last Judgment
31 Jesus said to his disciples:  "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be assembled before him.  And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33 He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  34 Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'  37 Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'  40 And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'  41 Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'  44 Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison and not minister to your needs?'  45 He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.'  46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Jesus taught the people daily at the Temple during His last visit to the holy city of Jerusalem in the spring of 30 AD. This passage is the conclusion of Jesus' teachings, and He ends with a vision of the Last Judgment when the Son of Man judges all the people of every nation on the earth.  In verse 31 Jesus identifies Himself as the "Son of Man" the prophet Daniel saw in a vision of the Divine Messiah.  Daniel saw someone who looked like a human being but who had authority from God to judge mankind: As the visions of the night continued, I saw one like a son of man coming, on the clouds of heaven.  When he reached the Ancient One and was presented before him.  He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:13-14).

The Church teaches that there is an individual judgment at the end of each person's life on earth (Heb 9:27; CCC 1021-22).  However, at the end of time, Jesus promised to return in glory.  His return will signal the resurrection of the dead followed by humanity's Final/Last Judgment (CCC 1038, 1040).  This is the event St. John describes when he wrote: Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation (Jn 5:28-29; see CCC 1038-41).

32 and all the nations will be assembled before him. 
The words "all nations" suggests Jesus is referring to the Last Judgment.  After Jesus' return as the Divine King of all nations, the dead will rise along with those still living to join Him in the clouds.  This event will usher in the Last Judgment and the end of time as we know it (see Rev 20:11-15). 

32b And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  This verse recalls Ezekiel 34:17 in the First Reading: As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.  It was the practice in the ancient Near East and among other peoples who kept herds of animals (and continues to be the practice in that region of the world today) to keep both sheep and goats in the same flock.  In cold weather, the shepherd had to separate them at night and take the goats into a warmer enclosure since the coats of the goats were not sufficiently heavy to keep them warm (Jeremias, Parables of Jesus, page 206).  However, these sheep and goats from the same flock, meaning either the same flock of covenant believers or the same flock of mankind, are to be separated out by the Divine Shepherd who will judge the righteous sheep from the wicked goats.  In the Last Judgment, all nations of the earth will face judgment including the Christians of God's flock and all others from the nations of the earth.

The declaration of Jesus' kingship began in Matthew's genealogy and the infancy narrative (Mt 1:1, 20; 2:2, 13-14).  It is again declared in the Passion narrative (Mt 27:11, 29, 37, 42).  Some scholars interpret this passage to mean that there will be a separate judgment for believers as opposed to non-believers.  Others suggest there is a separate judgment for Jews and Gentiles.  This interpretation is not the teaching found in the New Testament, nor is it the teaching of the Catholic Church. The New Covenant puts an end to the Old Covenant under which the Jews were promised a future salvation through obedience to the Law (see Heb 10:8-10; CCC 614). Salvation is a gift from God alone through the sacrifice of the Redeemer-Messiah, Jesus Christ (CCC 169, 588, 600-02, 617, 620, 1811).  The Old Covenant Law only offered a path to salvation under obedience to the commands and prohibitions of the Sinai Covenant. 

With the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, obedience to rituals of worship under the old Law was no longer possible.  The Jerusalem Temple was the only place where the Old Covenant faithful could offer the blood of animal sacrifice in atonement for their sins and receive forgiveness (Lev chapters 4-5). From that time forward, atonement for sins is only through the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29; 1 Jn 4:10; 2 Cor 5:19; CCC 608, 620).  

Jesus states that the Last Judgment will take into account one's works of righteousness for the sake of the Savior. In His judgment, Jesus lists six unfortunate conditions and six acts of compassion in response to those conditions:

  1. hungry – gave food
  2. thirsty – gave drink
  3. stranger – welcomed
  4. naked – clothed
  5. ill – cared for
  6. in prison – visited

He equates those acts of compassion for the unfortunate with acts of love extended to Himself and to the failure to act with compassion with withholding one's love from Him (verses 35-36 and 42-43).
Question: What is Jesus' message concerning humanity's relationship with Him?  See the Letter of St. James Chapter 2.
Answer: If we truly love Jesus, we will express the love we have for Him by acts of compassion to those in need of love and compassion in the human family. Our acts of compassion and mercy are an expression of a living and active faith.

The Church lists the acts of compassion described verses 35-36 among "the works of mercy" (CCC 2447).  The Church imitates Christ's love for the poor and oppressed as "part of her constant tradition" (CCC 2444).  St. John Chrysostom reminded his congregation that all the material blessings we enjoy are from God, and we should not look upon them as ours alone: Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.  The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs (Homilies in Lazaro 2.5).

As mankind's Divine Judge, Jesus will separate the "sheep from the goats."  The sheep are those who demonstrated their love for Christ by extending that love to those who suffer in the world.  The goats are those who are either indifferent or refused to acknowledge their duty towards those who suffer.  The sheep stand on the King's right (the place of honor), and He sends the goats to the left.  The sheep inherit eternal life in the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world while the goats are sent into eternal punishment.

Jesus identifies with the poor and the oppressed, and He makes the Christian's outpouring of active love toward those who suffer a condition for entering His eternal Kingdom.  We cannot hope for an eternal reward without loving God, and love of God is tied to love and concern for our brothers and sisters in the family of mankind (CCC 2443).  St. John wrote in 1 John 3:14-15: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers.  Whoever does not love remains in death.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him (see CCC 544, 1033).

The Gospel teaching describing the Last Judgment marks the end of the Liturgical year.  This passage should call us to an examination of conscience in recognition that we must keep our souls pure in preparation for this event that will come upon us without warning.  We must remember that Christ's return does not mark the end but a new beginning for those who love Jesus and are faithful to His command to love.

Catechism References:
Ezekiel 34:11-31 (CCC 754)
Psalm 23:5 (CCC 1293)
1 Corinthians 15:20-22 (CCC 655); 15:20 (CCC 632, 991); 15:21-22 (CCC 411); 15:24-28 (CCC 2855); 15:24 (CCC 668); 15:26 (CCC 1008); 15:28 (CCC 130, 294, 671, 674, 1050, 1060, 1130, 1326, 2550, 2804)
Matthew 25:31-46 (CCC 544, 1033, 1373, 2447, 2831); 25:31-36 (CCC 2443); 25:31 (CCC 331, 671, 679, 1038); 25:32 (CCC 1038); 25:36 (CCC 1503); 25:40 (CCC 678, 1397, 1825, 1932, 2449); 25:41 (CCC 1034); 25:45 (CCC 598, 1825, 2463); 25:46 (CCC 1038)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2014; revised 2017