ABOUT THIS SUNDAY
This Sunday is called “Christ the King Sunday”. It is the day that we study and celebrate the concept of Jesus being our king. We get a hint of this in the first lesson. The passage from Ephesians leads us there, too. The Gospel lesson is the final destination.
Oddly enough, this passage is one of my favorites. To get the whole story, you need to read all of chapter 34. But for those who don’t, these four verses sum up the problem:
1The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
The shepherds in this prophecy are the leaders of the people, both the religious leaders and kings. The people are the sheep. The “shepherds” are treating the “sheep” in a very ungodlike manner. This prophecy is a judgement on the shepherds.
- Our reading starts with what God is going to do about that situation. He’s going to shepherd the sheep Himself. (v. 11)
- He’s going to round up his scattered sheep, feed them, provide them good pasture in Israel, etc. (vv. 12-16) At the time God gave this prophecy to Ezekiel, God’s people were returning from captivity in Babylon. Others had fled in many directions, when the Babylonians conquered Judah, 60 years earlier. Those people are called the “Diaspora”, meaning the dispersed ones. God is going to gather them all!
- Since God is our true king, he is going to judge the peoples. He will sort out the fat from the skinny sheep; the abusers from the abused. He will serve justice. (vv. 20-22)
- Then, God makes a bold prophecy. He says that he is going to give us a new shepherd, “my servant David”. Now King David has been dead for about 400 years, when Ezekiel spoke this prophecy, so he didn’t mean that David, but someone from David’s lineage.
What I like about this prophecy is the accountability. Ezekiel 34 makes it crystal clear that God holds governments and religious organizations fully accountable for the care of the poor, the needy, the victimized, and the underprivileged. America is a land where people can choose how they worship God. But that freedom does not exempt our government from the moral responsibility of caring for the less fortunate. God expects people of faith and the government to shepherd his sheep.
Much of the Paul’s writings are like Campbell’s condensed soup. You would never think of eating a can of that soup without diluting it, would you? Paul’s writing is often so jam-packed with God Stuff, that it is hard to digest. Today’s reading is like that. I hope I don’t water it down, but that I only make it easier to digest.
- This passage begins with Paul bragging on the Ephesian’s “love toward all the saints”. (v. 15) The word “saints” here refers to all those who have accepted Jesus as their savior and Messiah. The Catholic concept of canonized sainthood began in 993, some 950 years later. Don’t confuse the two.
- Because of their love, Paul prays to God for them. (v. 16)
- Paul’s prayer starts with verse 17. It is a long and confusing prayer to follow. Let me tell you a story, to maybe help you understand.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Venice, Italy. While I was there, I visited the Doge’s palace. The Doge of Venice was a sort of king, who was elected, and then ruled for life. His palace was an outstanding place. I learned that when you were granted an audience with the Doge, you had to go through several waiting rooms. Each had doors that led into one and on to the next. Each room was painted with murals that explained the greatness of Venice and the Doge. At the end, you finally met the Doge.
Verses 17-20 take us on a similar journey, through seven rooms. Come with me, and see where it takes us.
- Room One: Paul asks God to grant us “wisdom and revelation”, that we may know him. By revelation, Paul means that heavenly wisdom and knowledge are revealed to us by God (v. 17)
- Room Two: Equipped with this wisdom and revelation, Paul prays that our “hearts are enlightened”. (v. 18a)
- Room Three: Now that our hearts are enlightened, that we fully realize the hope we have in Jesus; the hope of eternal life. (v. 18b)
- Room Four: With hope in our hearts, we learn of our “glorious inheritance”. (v. 18c) This is the realization that we are children of God, and thereby inherit the kingdom.
- Room Five: Now knowing about our glorious inheritance, we realize the enormity of God’s power. (v. 19)
- Paul’s prayer for this church and us is that God will reveal all of this, the above “rooms” to us.
- Room Six: God energized Jesus with this power, when he raised him from the dead. (v. 20a)
- Room Seven: God placed Jesus at his right hand on the throne in heaven. (v. 20b)
- We made it! And look where we are—we are in heaven with Jesus and God the Father. Now, we hear that Jesus rules over every ruler, authority, etc., both now and forever. Jesus is our KING! (vv. 21-24)
“Jesus is Lord of all!” We say it so often that we don’t really think about what we’re truly saying. Thanks to Paul and this seven-room journey, we are able to fully understand how awesome Jesus really is.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
How does a king differ from n elected president? How does someone behave in the presence of the President of the United States? How does someone behave in the presence of a King?
The funny thing is that most of us Americans know very little about the relationship between a king and their subjects, since America has never had a king. Presidents are elected, not born to rule. And their rule is subject to inspection by Congress, the Supreme Court, and ultimately the people. A king’s rule is absolute; whatever he says, goes. Finally, a president serves for a maximum of eight years, where a king serves for life.
One thing that kings did was judge. We all know the story about King Solomon, the baby, and the two mothers. His judgement in that case was very wise. Kings in medieval Europe also served as judges, listening to disputes of the people, and handing out judgements. (There were no appeals to those decisions, wise or otherwise.)
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus demonstrates his kingship by judging the people.
This lesson comes to us in the form of a parable or a description of the last judgement.
- Jesus returns to earth, and takes his rightful place on the throne. Now, he does what kings do, he judges. (v. 31)
- Next, he does something similar to what God did in Ezekiel 34:20, he separates the good from the bad, the sheep from the goats. (vv. 32-33)
Here’s where it gets interesting. He praises the “sheep” for all the good things they did to him. They say “when did we do this?” (vv. 34-39)
- His answer is profound, and is the heart of the God Lesson in this story. “When you did it to one of the least of these…, you did it to me.” (v. 40)
- He repeats the same with the “goats”, telling them why they are going to the “eternal fire”. (vv. 41-45)
- His final words of judgement are chilling. (v. 46)
In some circles of faith, you must “work your way to heaven”. You must be good, and do good things. By doing so, you earn “grace”, or what I call heavenly brownie points.
I am taught that God’s grace is a free gift to all who believe in his son Jesus Christ. Eternal life would take many lifetimes of perfection to earn by human effort. And someone as lowly as me would not stand a chance. Thanks be to God that he sent his only son to die for all my sins! I have life eternal for what he did for me. My part or responsibility is to show that gratitude by imitating His kindness and compassion, and serving Him by serving others around me.
For me, the takeaway from this story is not that I must be good or be damned. It is that when I serve those in need, I am serving Jesus. I will never be good enough to earn heaven by myself. Thankfully, Jesus paid that price, and made it free for the taking.