Readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe: EZ 34: 11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-3, 5-6; I COR 15: 20-26, 28; MT 25: 31-46.
This Sunday’s readings raise the central political question of our day: what is the purpose of government? Is it simply to protect the private property of the well-to-do? Or is it to sponsor programs to directly help the poor who (unlike their rich counterparts) cannot on their own afford adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education – even if they are working full-time?
For the last forty years or so, the former view has carried the day in the U.S. So it has become fashionable and politically correct even (especially?) for Christians to advocate depriving the poor of health care to help them achieve the American Dream, “ennobling” the unemployed by removing their benefits, criminalizing sharing food with the poor, and “punishing” perpetrators of victimless crimes by routinely placing them in solitary confinement.
Currently, the idea that government’s task is to help corporations even it means hurting the poor, elderly, and newly arrived has been incarnated in Washington’s response to Covid-19. It has amounted to a giant give-away to billionaires including the president’s own family. Today’s poor, middle class and future generations will pick up the tab for that particular wealth redistribution upward.
Today’s readings reject all of that. And they do so on a specifically political liturgical day – the commemoration of the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Yes, this is a political liturgy if ever there was one. It’s all about “Lords” and “Kings” and how they should govern in favor of the poor. It’s about a new political order presided over by an unlikely monarch – a king who was executed as a terrorist by the imperial power of his day. I’m referring, of course, to the worker-rebel, Jesus the poor carpenter from Nazareth.
Today’s readings promise that the rebel – the “terrorist” – Jesus will institute an order utterly different from Rome’s. That order recognizes the divine nature of immigrants, dumpster-divers, those whose water has been ruined by fracking and pipelines, the ragged, imprisoned, sick, homeless, and those (like Jesus) on death row. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” It’s what we celebrate on this “Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.”
(Btw: in the eyes of Jesus’ executioners, today’s commemoration would be as unlikely as some future world celebrating the “Solemnity of Osama bin Laden, King of the Universe.” Think about that for a minute!)
In any case, our readings delineate the parameters of God’s new universal political order. To get from here to there, they call governments to prioritize the needs of the poor and those without public power. Failing to do so will bring destruction for the selfish leaders themselves and for the self-serving political mess they inevitably cultivate.
Our first selection gets quite specific about that mess. There the prophet Ezekiel addresses the political corruption Lord Acton saw as inevitable for leaders with absolute power. Ezekiel’s context is the southern kingdom of Judah in the 6th century BCE. It found itself under immediate threat from neighboring Babylon (Iraq). In those circumstances, the prophet words use a powerful traditional image (God as shepherd) to inveigh against Israel’s pretentious potentates. In God’s eyes, they were supposed to be shepherds caring for their country’s least well-off. Instead, they cared only for themselves. Here’s what Ezekiel says in the lines immediately preceding today’s first lesson:
“Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! . . . But you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally.”
In other words, according to Ezekiel’s biblical vision, government’s job is to address the needs of the weak, the sick and the injured. It is to tenderly and gently bring back the wayward instead of punishing them harshly and brutally.
A great reversal is coming, Ezekiel warns. The leaders’ selfishness will bring about their utter destruction at the hands of Babylon.
On the other hand, Judah’s poor will be saved. That’s because God is on their side, not that of their greedy rulers. This is the message of today’s responsorial psalm – the familiar and beloved Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd. . . “) It reminds us that the poor (not their sleek and fat overlords) are God’s “sheep.” To the poor God offers what biblical government should: nothing but goodness and kindness each and every day. Completely fulfilling their needs, the divine shepherd provides guidance, shelter, rest, refreshing water, and abundant food. Over and over today’s refrain had us singing “There is nothing I shall want.” In the psalmist’s eyes, that’s God’s will for everyone – elimination of want. And so, the task of government leaders (as shepherds of God’s flock) is to eradicate poverty and need.
The over-all goal is fullness of life for everyone. That’s Paul’s message in today’s second reading. It’s as if all of humanity were reborn in Jesus. And that means, Paul says, the destruction of “every sovereignty, every authority, every power” that supports the old necrophiliac order of empire and its love affair with plutocracy, war and death instead of life for God’s poor.
And that brings us to this Sunday’s culminating and absolutely transcendent gospel reading. It’s shocking – the most articulate vision Jesus offers us of the basis for judging whether our lives have been worthwhile – whether we have “saved our souls.” The determining point is not whether we’ve accepted Jesus as our personal savior. In fact, the saved in the scene Jesus creates are confused, because their salvific acts had nothing to do with Jesus. So, they ask innocently, “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?”
Jesus’ response? “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
But more than personal salvation is addressed here. Jesus homage to Ezekiel’s sheep and shepherd imagery reminds us of judgment’s political dimension. So does Jesus’ reference to the judge (presumably himself) as “king.” And then there’s the church itself which centralizes this climactic scene precisely on this Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe. All three elements say quite clearly that “final judgment” is not simply a question of personal salvation, but of judgment upon nations and kingdoms as well. To reiterate: in Matthew’s account, the final judgment centralizes the political.
And what’s the basis for the judgment on both scores? How are we judged as persons and societies? The answer: on the basis of how we treated the immigrants, the hungry, ill-clad, sick, and imprisoned.
On that basis, Jesus’ attitude towards the United States as earlier described ought to be quite clear. It’s the same as Ezekiel’s when he predicted the destruction of Israel at the hands of Iraq:
“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.”
Ironically enough, that “fire prepared for the devil and his angels” is today embodied in the west coast’s raging fires kindled by our mistreatment of Mother Nature – whom we routinely submit to the most horrendous form elder abuse.
Referencing his own text, Ezekiel might say, “You read it here first.”