Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will fed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:
The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
where he gives me repose. (R./)
Near restful waters he leads me,
to revive my drooping spirit.
He guides me along the right path;
he is true to his name. (R./)
You have prepared a banquet for me
in the sight of my foes.
My head you have anointed with oil;
my cup is overflowing. (R./)
Surely goodness and kindness shall follow me
all the days of my life.
In the Lord's own house shall I dwell
for ever and ever. (R./)
Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.
Jesus said to them, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'
Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Paul visualises Jesus Christ handing over the kingdom to God the Father at the end of time. This ideal kingdom is not something merely hoped for as a future gift, but something being worked for by Christians in the present time. The kingdom is indeed to be hoped for, but somehow it is also in our midst, in the process of becoming. Today's gospel shows how we are to promote the fuller coming of God's kingdom in our world. It comes whenever justice is done for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. To behave in this way is to imitate the Shepherd-King himself who is presented in our Gospels as one who eases alienation, who feeds, gives rest, heals and makes strong. Among his final words was a promise to the thief being crucified at his side, that he would be enfolded by the eternal love of God, in paradise.
The best way to honour Christ our King is to work for the unfolding and promoting of his kingdom. In working for the relief of deprived, oppressed or marginalised people, we are serving Christ in person, because he fully identified with people in need, right up to his final moment in this life. The disciple of Christ the King cannot afford the luxury of living in a gated community, resolutely secure in a fortress, comfortably "keeping myself to myself" with the lame claim that "I do nobody any harm." To be deaf to the cries of my neighbour in need is to be deaf to Christ. To be blind to the anguish of the dying is to be blind to Christ. To recognise Jesus Christ as our Shepherd-king involves being carers or shepherds in some way ourselves; for the work of the Kingdom goes on until he comes again.
A random act of kindness, a glass of water given out of goodness, seems like a very low threshold for a personal friendship with Christ. Christians have always had a strong trust in Christ's humanity; he was like us in every way except that he did not sin. Although this Sunday portrays him returning in regal splendour, the judgments of Jesus are not like ours either. He seeks good among the ordinary and the bad alike; too often we seek bad among the ordinary and the good alike. For Jesus, the sinner who does a single act in kindness can be saved. For the rest of us, the saint that does something wrong is tarnished forever.
His hands stretched out in forgiveness to those who had nailed them down. Ours stretch out to point in criticism at the wrongdoer. But we have a dominant image of what a judge is like and how a judge should act. It is not surprising that the image of Jesus as a fair but stern judge is deeply set with many Christians. There are even some who delight in the idea of bad people getting their just deserts.
Just as Jesus told the soldiers arresting him that his kingdom was not of this world; his standard of judgment is not of this world either. That should be good news, although not everybody sees it that way.
"Vengeance is mine," said the Lord. Traditionally Christ has been represented as coming in majesty and power. From Michelangelo's ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the mosaics in many a church apse, that image is prominent in western art. It is familiar because it is like what we do in every way, except that we don't forgive. The classic picture includes tormented souls being dragged off to eternal flames.. It is likely that almost all of us have an idea of some of the people who should be in that category.
In the 1970s musical Godspell, Stephen Schwartz recreated that judgment scene. Only, this time, Jesus has second thoughts and brings the damned along too. They had sung a song asking for mercy and they received it. That is an image which is very much in keeping with the words of Christ the King: "Judge not and you will not be judged. Condemn not and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven."
He brings a different kind of rule, a rule where boundless mercy trumps self-righteous justice. (Fergal Mac Eoinin)
You might have had the experience of doing something for somebody and only subsequently discovering that it meant far more to that person than you realized at the time you did it? We are not always aware of the good we might be doing. We don't always appreciate how significant our actions are for others or how much our presence means to them. In some ways that can be a good thing, because it can prevent us from becoming too proud, or taking ourselves too seriously. In other ways it may not be a good thing because we can fail to value something in ourselves that others value much. We may be tempted to give up doing something that people really value because we are unaware of how significant it is. We may think we are doing nothing particularly worthwhile, when we fact we may be doing something of real value.
The thought came to me from the two groups of people in this gospel parable. The first group were amazed to discover that what they had done in life was far more significant than they had realized. Only at the end of their lives did they realize that their ordinary simple acts of kindness and consideration were in fact serving the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. To their amazement, they discovered that there was a much deeper dimension to what they were doing than they had ever suspected. In attending to the ordinary, they were, in reality engaging with the eternal. "When did we see you?... " they asked the Son of Man. His reply was, "In so far as you did this to one of the least, you did it to me." What they did in a matter-of-fact way turned out to have eternal significance. In dealing with their broken and troublesome and unfortunate neighbours, they were, in reality, dealing with the Lord of the Universe. What they had been doing was far more significant than they could ever have dreamt, and ha consequences far beyond what they realized at the time.
It can be difficult for us to realize that in our ordinary dealings with each other we are in a real sense dealing with the Lord, and that is especially true when we are confronted with others in all their brokenness and need. It is in the ordinary, every day affairs of life that we are responding to the Lord. The care that someone gives to a sick relative is care given to the Lord, whether that is realized or not. The welcome we give to a stranger who feels vulnerable in a foreign environment is a welcome given to the Lord. The way we relate to prisoners or ex-prisoners reveals how we relate to the Lord.
In the parable, Jesus doesn't say "I was imprisoned for no good reason and you visited me," or he doesn't say, "I was imprisoned because of my witness to the gospel and you visited me." No, it is much simpler than that, "I was in prison," full stop. No attempt is made to distinguish one prisoner from another or one crime from another. How we treat our prisoners, regardless of what they have done, is a commenary on how we treat the Lord himself. This gospel reading gives no encouragement to the attitude of lock them up and throw away the key. How we try to integrate ex-prisoners into our community, our society, is also making a statement about how we are receiving the Lord's coming to us. As a society how many resources are we putting into the important work of helping ex-prisoners to find a meaningful role in our society, so that they can build a new life for themselves that is crime-free?