Commentary for The Reign of Christ 22 November 2020

Texts for the day are: Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; and Matthew 25.31-46.

By Father Doug Woods

Hi! How are you? How’s the family? We’re keeping well. 

 

Sunday will be the last Sunday of the Christian year: Christ the King (or Reign of Christ) Sunday. 

 

Ez. 34.11-16 – Our gospel reading for today comes from Chapter 25 in Matthew’s gospel, the chapter which contains the “Judgment Parables”. The Old English word for judgment is dōm, from which we get our word doom. At its base, doom means ‘judgment’, though its semantic field includes all sorts of other related meanings. There’s lots of “doom” in the Book of Ezekiel, but today’s reading is actually very hopeful in its own way.

 

One of the words which often gets used for king in the Hebrew Scriptures is shepherd. In short, the job of a shepherd is to take care of the flock. That’s also the job of a king, but a king’s “flock” is a whole nation. The “doom” in today’s reading from Ezekiel is that the “shepherds” of Israel have not been doing a good job; they’ve allowed their flock to be scattered and killed. But the good news is that God’s message to Ezekiel is, “That’s it. I’ve seen enough. I’m taking over as shepherd of the flock.” Finally! A shepherd whose mind is on the job! A shepherd whose heart is in it!

 

I can’t read Hebrew, but I’ve been told that all the first person singular pronouns (“I”) in this passage are in the emphatic form. In English we do that with our voice (higher, louder, and longer), the tone with which we say the word. So, God is saying, “I’m taking over as shepherd of the flock—letting others do it hasn’t worked.” It’s a sad situation when God has to do this, but it’s good news, nonetheless.

 

There’s even trouble within the flock; the stronger, more powerful sheep (the “fat sheep”) are taking advantage of the weaker sheep (the “lean sheep”). The good news is that that’s going to stop, too.

 

The reference to King David at the end of the reading is odd; David lived and died before Ezekiel. We assume it’s not literally David, but a David-like shepherd, who will be a “prince among them.”

 

Ps. 100 – You may be saying to yourself, “That’s funny, I know that one.” If you’re old enough, you might. Are you old enough to remember the day when we did Communion once a month—often the first Sunday—and Morning Prayer the other Sundays? Well, Psalm 100 was used as a canticle, the Jubilate, in Morning Prayer.

 

This psalm has the structure of a hymn, by which I mean the technical term hymn, not just any song we sing during worship. A hymn starts off with a call to worship, and then gives the reasons for worshipping.

 

So, Psalm 100 begins “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”—that’s the call to worship—and the reason for worshipping is 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.” Ah, there it is again: “the sheep of his pasture.” We’re talking about shepherds again—kings.

 

That’s the first three verses. The last two repeat the process: a call to worship and a reason for the worship. Do you see them?

 

Eph. 1.15-23 – An important concept in this letter to the church in Ephesus is power. Ephesus, itself, was a regional seat of power within the Roman Empire. Second of all, it was a centre of religious power, and the religious cults made a point of saying that they were able to make things happen, by the power of the principalities and powers, two orders of spiritual beings.

 

So, Paul reminds the church in Ephesus that they have power. They are the church, “the body of which Christ is the head, and all baptized people are the members.” (Do you remember that quote? Did you learn it in confirmation class?) So, Paul prays for them that they will have “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that they can see that power.

 

Revelation. That’s interesting. Have ever heard someone say, “He didn’t know his own strength”? That’s it. Sometimes, we don’t know our own strength. It comes to us as a surprise—a sudden revelation. We have strength we don’t even recognize. Bishop Tom Wright uses the image of a telescope here; there are things out there we can’t even see, but they’re there. We just need something to help us see. That’s what Paul prays for: that God will grant the church “a spirit of wisdom and revelation”. When we get a revelation about ourselves, we learn to see ourselves in a new light, and it affects how we judge ourselves. Come to think of it, that’s part of the message of The Book of The Revelation to John: judgment. When you get beyond the introductory remarks in Chapter 1 and into Chapter 2, look at what’s there:

 

The Message to Ephesus

1 ‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:

2 ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

 

That’s an excellent picture of how I believe God’s judgment works: a list of all the good things about you … and then “but I have this against you”, a list of the things which need improvement. Of course, this is a message to the church in Ephesus, but I suspect it works the same for individuals—and it’s good news; God’s judgment consists of coaching! In case you’d missed it, your coach is on your side!

 

We need to come back to the thing the judge thought needed improvement. We don’t need to pick it apart; it’s just that the judge has seen something which needs improvement. Can we see what it is, even before the judge gets to it? Sure we can because we already know the will of God; we know it through our knowledge of scripture and through our life of prayer. When we know that, we’re in a position to judge ourselves and put things right. More good news!

 

Mt. 25.31-46 – I don’t know why this is called The Judgment of the Nations. Maybe because it’s meant for everyone? So, at this judgment, God divides the people into two groups: the sheep and the goats. I don’t know why it’s “sheep” and “goats”, or why the goats are the “bad” ones. My experience with goats is that they’re pretty nice. However, we have to look at it from the point of view of culture at that time. One very important thing is that on the Day of Atonement, a goat was to be chosen the atone for the sins of the people—a scapegoat—see Leviticus 16. The other thing is that, in the Temple in Jerusalem, it was usually sheep which were used for the daily sacrifices.

 

There isn’t time to go through this reading in detail. I’ll leave that for you; read it several times and notice the patterns. Let’s just say that God speaks first to the sheep, who are at his right hand, and commends them for what they’ve done: feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, and visiting those in prison. Perhaps we could sum it up by saying that these are all ministries of compassion. The compassionate respond, “When did we do that? We weren’t even aware of it.” God then speaks to the goats, the ones at his left hand; they have failed in all the ministries of compassion. These are what you call sins of omission, and the “goats”, in like fashion, are completely unaware of what they’ve failed to do.

 

And that’s an important thing about doing the will of God. It’s something anyone can do; it doesn’t require superhuman effort or abilities. Those who do the will of God are usually not even aware they’ve done it; it’s so easy that it’s not even something you really notice. It’s done from the goodness of the heart.

 

So, what about those who don’t do the will of God? We just said that good works come from a good heart. Where do evil deeds or sins of omission come from? From an evil heart? Can a person with an evil heart change that? Is it possible to change from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh? Perhaps through listening when God speaks—however that may be—and opening one’s heart and letting God in when God knocks? Just a thought …

 

And a perennial question: “What if a person has never heard of God? Can s/he still be saved? Can s/he do good works? Can such a person have a good heart?”

 

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