So this Sunday is referred to in the lectionary cycle as "Christ the King" or "The Reign Of Christ" Sunday. With that in mind and looking at this week's scriptures, there are three things we feel are important to think about: How this Sunday fits in to the Liturgical year; The relationship between Sheep and Shepherd; And what does it mean to be subject to a King?
Christ the King Sunday is the very last Sunday of the Liturgical year. The next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent and a change in the tone and direction of our reading and our attention. This Sunday celebrates the role of Christ as the ultimate ruler. If you think about where we have come, both in terms of the Hebrew scriptures and the teachings and miracles and parables of Jesus throughout the gospel of Matthew read throughout ordinary time, we've learned a lot about leadership. Along the way, we've learned a lot about who the ancestors were as human beings, and we can probably draw some conclusions about who we are as well. And, even in our popular political culture, we've just spent a full year trying to determine what makes a good leader. We've got definite ideas of what works and what doesn't...and perhaps of the limitations of our humanness to lead, to reign, to be supreme. Christ the King Sunday is a reminder that no human leader draws near the divinity or supremacy God's incarnate Son. This is a bridge Sunday – the bridge between our Ordinary time journey through history and teachings to a season where we watch and wait for incarnation...for God with us.
Important to gaining insight to the Ezekiel passage is understanding the relationship between Sheep and Shepherd. Because of the inherent natures of sheep and humans, this is not a democratic relationship. Sheep, while possessing many endearing qualities, are not "smart" (at least according to traditional human standards). They are almost completely defenseless (they can jump, but they have no upper teeth), they are prone to disease and infection, they do not have a good sense of direction, and they cannot even lay down on their sides and get back up again easily (they mostly crouch down). Especially in the arena of sheep being domesticated by humans for their wool and meat, sheep are heavily dependant on human care and intervention. Sheep need someone to look out for them and help them find food, water, and a safe place to rest. When they are given a Shepherd, Sheep loyally respond and follow; but without one, they often find themselves lost and unsafe.
With all of this in mind, read the description Ezekiel offers of how God will be a Shepherd for God's people--God's sheep. It reads like a paternalistic love story. Ezekiel is writing to the Israelites as they are in exile in Babylon. He is reminding them God will not leave them lost and on their own, but will search them out and offer protection. However this will evidently not be blindly offered because there will be a judgment between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. This likely refers to the folks who, as they were conquered by Babylon, chose to side with the Babylonians and prospered while the bulk of Israel went in to exile.
In the Matthew passage we get more sheep references, but this time to being separated from the goats in a time of judgment. We are told that one of the primary reasons this division falls along these lines is because of the willingness to follow found in sheep. Now part of this has also to do with the greater intelligence (and as a result, greater stubbornness) of goats. Another way to read the passage is, "those who heard my voice and followed me will be at my right hand, and those who heard my voice and did not follow me and chose to go their own way will be at my left hand."
Another important part to understanding this passage is the power / dominance / authority / judgment offered by a King. We do not have much experience with Kings / Queens / Ultimate Authorities in our day. It is hard to imagine (for most of us) what it is like to be completely under the power of someone who can decide if we live or die. Jesus was sharing this teaching in a time and place where folks understood what it meant to be under an authority (the Romans) and their families had recent histories of what it meant to be under the authority of a King. The deeper explanation of this judgment that we get from the mouth of Jesus does not need much interpretation--the ones who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the imprisoned will be blessed by the Father and inherit the Kingdom; those that offered no food, no water, no welcome, no clothing, and no visitation will be sent into the eternal fire.
Are we willing to be subjects? Are we willing to let a Shepherd guard the flock to which we belong?
This week, how do these readings and their topics / concepts / ideas work together? What do they tell us?
Do you feel the changing of the season? What are you anticipating?
What potential will rest under the surface until a warmer day?
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.