“I’m telling you the truth: when you did it to one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
With today’s gospel, the church year comes to its conclusion. Jesus announces himself to be the eternal king. And with this comes the revelation that as king he will judge his subjects. The judgment of his subjects will be according to the same measure by which kings themselves were judged. Psalm 72 records the standard in a prayer for the king.
Teach the king to judge with your righteousness, O God; share with him your own justice, so that he will rule over your people with justice and govern the oppressed with righteousness. He rescues the poor who call to him and those who are needy and neglected. He has pity on the weak and poor; he saves the lives of those in need. He rescues them from oppression and violence; their lives are precious to him.
This standard, further articulated in the criteria used in separating the sheep from the goats, reveals the essentials of our religious experience. When all is said and done this is what the king is most concerned with. All of our religious experience, boiled down, amounts to charity and justice. The rest, our prayers, our liturgy, our study of scripture, our life in Christian community, all these things are to lead us to a conversion that would change us to be like the king in all respects to charity and justice. If they have not achieved this then they have achieved nothing.
We are judged according to the standard of kings because this is the standard we entered into at baptism where we were anointed as priest, prophet and king. Our entire life then is to be oriented toward this ministry, and it is by that life of ministry that we are then judged. This judgment should not be a frightening thing. Those sheep who were called to the king’s right-hand side did not even know that they had fulfilled the standard. God’s grace had so worked that standard into their hearts that they did these acts of charity and justice with freedom and spontaneity. It is not, however, that a life of solidarity with the poor and oppressed comes naturally for it does not. We may at first even be frightened by the suffering and be repulsed by the stench of poverty. But it is as we are aroused in conscience to the needs present before us and then choose to do something about them that a change by grace begins to occur within us. In time we do these things readily for we learn that hidden beneath that veil of poverty’s ugliness is the face of Christ. We may not recognize immediately that Christ is hidden there among the poor and the oppressed, but we will find ourselves drawn to them for our own sustenance and life even as we are drawn to Christ’s presence in Eucharist.
As we approach the specter of the King’s final judgment, we fear being herded as goats to his left hand and displeasure. We recount in dread all the things that we have done wrong. But this passage makes it clear that it is not what we have done that brings forth the king’s rejection, it is what we have failed to do, the sins of omission. It is not a matter of individual, isolated acts. We all slip and fall from time to time. Rather, it is the practice of the heart.
The conclusion then of the church year does stand as a warning but also as an inspiration. It is not too late for us to begin doing the work of kings! It is not too late for us to inherit the kingdom, a kingdom where the king is found not in a mansion but in a hovel. He banquets not on laced linen in fine restaurants but on plastic table cloths in soup kitchens. He is clothed not by Calvin Klein but by St. Vincent de Paul. He is received not in great halls but in dark prison cells. It is as we do as the king does that the Messiah reigns, putting all enemies under his feet. It is as we find ourselves with him and like him in all these regards that the kingdom becomes complete and that God becomes all in all.
Christ the King Sunday Ez. 34: 11-17; I Cor. 15: 20-28; Mt. 25: 31-46
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.