By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King
First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Response: Psalm 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
Editor’s note: This is Father Donald Dilger’s final “Sunday Scriptures” column for The Message (see his note at the bottom of this column and a story on Page 1). On behalf of a grateful diocese, we thank him for 36 years of service as a columnist, and we offer prayers and best wishes for a wonderful future. Thank you Father!
Ezekiel, priest and prophet, was among the 8,000-10,000 exiles taken to Babylon (today Iraq) after the Kingdom of Judah surrendered to the Babylonian army in March 597 B.C. (see 2 Kings 24:10-16). There, he was called to his work as a prophet to the exiles in 593 B.C. (see Ezekiel 1:2-3:21). In 586 B.C., the Lord recommissioned him (see Ezekiel 33:1-22). His last dated oracle was in 371 B.C. (see Ezekiel 29:17-21). The Lord has been keeping Ezekiel in touch with events back in Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah. In today’s first reading, speaking for the Lord God, he denounces the civic leadership of the kingdom, perhaps including priestly leadership. See Ezekiel 34:6, a possible reference to worshiping false gods on “high hills.” This very long denunciation includes a section in which the Lord himself will take over as shepherd of the sheep. Part of this, of which we will hear only a brief, chopped up part, forms our first reading. It will become the model for the parable of the Good Shepherd many centuries later in the Gospel of John. It will also influence the formation of Matthew’s parable of the last judgment – today’s gospel.
Our first reading begins by noting that Ezekiel speaks for the Lord God: “Thus says the Lord God.” In the preceding denunciations, the prophet pointed out how the sheep of the flock were neglected by the shepherds: scattered, lost, subjected to cruelty and violence, became prey to wild animals, and ignored. The shepherds themselves became predators. So, here is what the Lord will do. He will be with his sheep, tending them as a shepherd should tend his flock. He will rescue them, assemble them, pasture them, give them rest, bring home the strays, treat the wounded and heal the sick. Then, a confusing sentence: “…but the sleek (fat) and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” Though this translates the Hebrew, it does not fit the context. There is an alternative. The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) reads, “I will guard the strong, shepherding them rightly.” Besides that, in the Old Testament, the Lord is generally favorable toward extra pounds. However, the translation about destroying the sleek and the strong may be looking forward to 34:21, where the fat or sleek sheep are accused of “butting all the weak sheep with your rumps and shoulders and horns, chasing them away.” The Lord has to step in judge between them and the weak. Then, the translation from the Hebrew, as given in the Lectionary, makes sense.
Psalm 23 is the best choice to respond to the first reading. Even most Catholics are familiar with the first line, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want (need),” because the Lord takes care of us, his flock. We have various metaphors – pastoral and domestic. The pastoral: the Lord leads me to water, to green pastures, on right paths. Domestic: he sets a table before me, anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows. His goodness and kindness are always present.
Since the gospel of the day is about the last judgment, the second reading is from the resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians. The gist of this section is that our own resurrection is possible because Jesus himself rose from the dead. Adam, through sin, brought death to all. Jesus, through death, brought life to all. Artists have expressed this thought by depicting the skull of Adam at the foot of the cross.
In today’s gospel, we arrive at the end of the fifth and last of Jesus’ discourses in Matthew’s gospel. The themes of this discourse include: signs of the end times; the end times; the return of Jesus; and final judgment. Some of the discourse was expressed in parables. That is the case in today’s gospel — the Parable of the Last Judgment. It must be kept in mind that this is a parable, an imaginative story to teach a lesson. It is not a blueprint or prediction of how the end will come and how the last judgment will take place. There are also allegorical elements — individual elements of the parable — for example sheep and goats, symbolizing something. The end of today’s first reading leads into those symbols. There, we read: “I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” The originator of the parable, Jesus or Matthew, chose the title “Son of Man” as the first title for Jesus in the parable. Other titles are shepherd and king. The opening scene: The Son of Man appears in glory with angels. He will be seated on a glorious throne. All nations, Jews and Gentiles, will appear before him. The sheep will be on the right, goats on the left. To those on the right the shepherd/king will extend an invitation, “Come you blessed of my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” God knew from all eternity who will and who will not freely cooperate with the grace he gives to all. Respecting free will, he forces no one.
Why were they so blessed? Because when Jesus was in need, they fed him; quenched his thirst; welcomed him though they did not even know him; clothed his nakedness; took care of him when he was sick; visited him in prison. These are called corporal works of mercy (See Catholic Catechism 2447). The invitees are, at this point in the parable, called “the righteous.” They pose an obvious question: “When did we see you and do all these good works to you?” Jesus now answers as king, and with an oath: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” A profound statement proclaiming the incarnation through which he became one of us, and we became one with him, in him, through him. The king still speaking turns to those on the left. Even though they did not see him in the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned, they had the obligation to do so. Even from a merely human point of view, even if God had not been present with his grace to move us to help, we are, by nature, inclined to help our suffering, fellow humans. (For the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II on eternal reward (heaven), purgatory, and eternal punishment, Google “John Paul II, heaven, purgatory, hell.”)
This ends the 36th and final series of commentaries on the Sunday Readings completed in the 64th year of priesthood by Father Donald C. Dilger, age 92. Thank you to the Bishops of Evansville and the editors of The Message who gave me this opportunity to serve the Word and the people. Thank you also to my readers, including my critics. Deo Gratias! Soli Deo Gloria!