By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King, Year A
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46
The priest and prophet Ezekiel is in exile with his fellow-Israelites in Babylon, probably since the first wave of exiles in 598 B.C. His ministry there began in 593 B.C. The last of his oracles included in the Book of Ezekiel is dated in 571 B.C. In 593 he receives his first commissioning from the Lord God — to be the watchman, (sentry, religious policeman), for Israel in exile. In chapter 33 of the book, he receives his second commissioning in approximately 585-6 B.C., again as watchman for the exiled Israelites in Babylon. The reason for his commission: warning the wicked to turn from their evil ways. By this time the Kingdom of Judah and its capital city were in the power of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. His first oracle after his second commission emphasizes personal responsibility — that God does not punish anyone for the sins of others, but punishment is incurred only for one’s own sins. The second oracle speaks to the Israelites now living in the ruins of their country and its cities. The people come to hear Ezekiel sing or chant his oracles. The Lord says, “They listen to your words but no one puts them into practice.” The third oracle brings us to the first reading of this Solemnity.
Ezekiel begins, “The word of the Lord was addressed to me as follows. Son of man (human being), prophesy (speak) against the shepherds of Israel.” The shepherds, the religious and civic leaders of Israel, face prosecution from the Lord God. He accuses them of feeding themselves but not the sheep. They did not strengthen the weak, nor heal the sick, nor assist the crippled, nor look for the strayed, ruled with force and harshness. The result: the sheep became prey for wild beasts and were scattered over the whole earth. Therefore “I am against the shepherds. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths . . . .” Here, our first reading begins what can be called the Old Testament parable of the Good Shepherd. It is the foundational material from which authors of John’s gospel formed the final form of Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd. The Lord God says, “I myself will look after and tend my sheep . . . . I will rescue them from every place they were scattered. I myself will pasture my sheep . . . and give them rest. The lost I will seek, bring back the strayed, bind up wounds, heal the sick . . . shepherding them rightly. I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” With this oracle before our eyes, we can conclude that the gospel has to be Matthew 25, the last judgement scene separating sheep and goats.
There is especially one Psalm, 23, which has to be the Responsorial Psalm for Ezekiel’s parable. This is one Psalm, the first verse of which is known to most Christians, “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want (need).” The Lord is said to bring his sheep to green pastures, to restful waters, to right paths, After these pastoral metaphors, the metaphors become domestic. The Psalmist sings, “You spread the table before me. You anoint my head with oil. Goodness and kindness follow me. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord years to come.” On a Solemnity one expects a similar theme in all three readings. Since the gospel reading is about the last judgment, a resurrection of the dead is presupposed. Therefore, the liturgy turns to St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, for the most detailed treatment of the resurrection of the dead in the New Testament. Paul speaks of Christ having been raised from the dead, the first of all who have fallen asleep (died). Death came through one man, so resurrection comes through one man. In Adam, all die. In Christ, all shall live again at the end. In the resurrection of the dead death itself will be destroyed.
With the Son of Man vision from Daniel 7:13-18 on his mind, Matthew begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory seated on his glorious throne, the angels with him, all the nations will be assembled in his presence.” The next title, “As a Shepherd separates sheep from goats, he will separate them from one another, sheep on his right, goats on his left.” Third title, “Then the King will say to those on his right . . . .” The list of corporal (bodily) works of justice and mercy follow, which the Shepherd/King claims they did to and for him: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. They did not understand that in doing these good deeds they were doing them to the King himself, as Jesus is given a fourth title, Lord. Therefore, “As long as you did it to these, the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them to me.” That’s profound, and is one foundation of the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ. It also proclaims unity of the human race, since “all nations” were assembled before Jesus. It proclaims that when we see a human being in distress, we see Jesus Christ. The reward: “Enter into the kingdom of my Father prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The goats are on the left. Scripture is generally prejudiced against lefties. They symbolize those who did not do the corporal works of mercy. Like the sheep, the goats also address Jesus as “Lord,” unaware that in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mountain, 7:21-22, he attributes these words to Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Now the reverse of the statement, the Son of Man, Shepherd, King, Lord spoke to the sheep who were called “the blessed of my Father,” “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” It should be noted that neither right nor left knew that when they did or did not do the corporal works of mercy, they did not know that they were either nurturing or ignoring those in need. Nothing is said of faith. Are the sheep to be understood as anonymous Christians? Is their faith implicit in their good deeds? The Letter of James 2:18, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I from my works will show you may faith.”