November 26, 2023: Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
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, 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. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 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. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
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. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 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.’
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?’ 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.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
As often happens with our encounters with Jesus, we find ourselves wading into the waters of paradox. Today’s feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is no exception.
Perhaps each of us brings a stereotype of a king — how he behaves, governs, makes decisions. It’s possible we bring these stereotypes with us in praying today’s Scriptures. If that’s true, we have to ask ourselves this question: “Was/is Jesus a king?” Certainly the prayers of the liturgy offer enough evidence to strongly suggest the answer is yes and to strongly suggest the answer is no.
The opening prayer asks the Holy One “to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of the Universe; grant we pray that the whole creation [be] set free from slavery.” An interesting king who abolishes slavery but a king nonetheless.
Both Ezekiel and the psalm describe the Lord God as a loving and tender shepherd. Do most kings care for their people with the dedication of a shepherd? Even shepherd kings make hard decisions in order to separate the sheep from the goats — the ones who follow the king’s decrees and those who don’t. If Jesus was/is a king, is the way he loves and judges the same as our stereotypical king behaves?
In the letter to the Corinthians — whoa! Paul describes Jesus coming only when he has “destroyed every sovereignty … put all his enemies under his feet.” Sounds like an accurate description of some kings we know — past and present.
Was/is Jesus a king? Jesus himself presents his usual paradoxical explanation. “When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and the nations will be assembled before him.” Only a king sits on the royal throne. A king hopes to create a certain aura about him, an aura demonstrating his specialness, his authority, his right to rule. An assembly of angels fits the bill. Subduing enemies is so like kings of all ages. It seems Jesus sees himself as a king. A king whose job it is to judge the loyal from the disloyal.
Yet once again Jesus tricks us. His criterion for loyalty seems so un-kingly. How does one demonstrate loyalty? Paradoxically one is loyal if s/he cares for the poor, the worst off in the kingdom — the thirsty, hungry, naked, homeless, the stranger. Why is this the ultimate loyalty test? Because the loyal ones see Jesus in every one in need. Because the loyal ones recognize that “everything you did for these little ones you did for me.” In this gospel, Jesus seems (unsurprisingly) to answer yes and no.
One more time “was/is Jesus a king?” For a very direct (sort of) answer let’s recall an incident not in today’s Scriptures. As Jesus takes his final steps toward his torture and execution, he stands before Pilate. Pilate bluntly puts the question to Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews.” The Gospel of Mark records Jesus’ response in these words: “If you say so.” Matthew writes these words of Jesus: “You have said so.” Finally in the gospel of Luke, we read this version of Jesus’ answer to the question: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus tells Pilate: “Those are your words, not mine.”
Was/is Jesus our king?