Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
The Threat of Judgment
First Baptist Richmond, November 26, 2023 Reign of Christ/Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Our scripture readings for today are full of sheep, and goats, and kings: three things we don’t know very much about. But there was a time when people did know about such things, and as I sat in the Sermon-Writing Chair last week I began to wonder when that changed. It occurred to me that it might have happened around the time of the Industrial Revolution, and so I did a little research.
I went to the Encyclopedia Britannica for Kids because I (singing) don’t know much about history and the kids’ version puts it in a way that even I can understand. Here’s what it said: “The Industrial Revolution occurred just a little more than 200 years ago and greatly affected the way people lived as well as the way they worked. Before that most people lived in agrarian societies, where agriculture, including both crop production and animal breeding, were the foundation of both the economy and jobs.”i Now, those people would have known something about livestock. But not us. We know more about the stock market, about companies, and factories, and CEO’s. We know about mass production and high-speed Internet. We know about the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the
Fortune 500. But we do not know about sheep and goats, most of us. At least not much.
And we don’t know much about kings! Here on “Reign of Christ” Sunday (which used to be called “Christ the King” Sunday) we need to admit that we don’t know much about the monarchy and how it works. We know about Congress and the US Constitution. We know about the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial branches of government. But we don’t know what it is like to live under the rule of a king or queen, and we haven’t for more than 200 years. So, let me invite you to do some time traveling. Let’s go back to 1780, to the year that Richmond’s First Baptist Church was established, when the Revolutionary War was still going on and crazy King George III was on the throne. Let’s imagine that we’ve all gotten up early, milked the cows, slopped the hogs, gathered the eggs and come to church, and that as we sit here in our pews, breathing in the rich, earthy smells of our fellow parishioners, we are confronted by the audacity of the preacher, who on this day has the nerve to talk about someone other than George III being our king.
Old Testament scholar Gene Tucker says, “This passage from Ezekiel is a highly appropriate reading for the last day of the liturgical year, the celebration of Christ as King. On the one hand, the text calls attention to important Old Testament roots of New Testament images and ideas concerning Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. On the other hand, it has its own particular contributions to make to the Christian proclamation of messianic and eschatological themes.”ii It makes me wish there were a children’s version of Gene Tucker’s Old Testament commentary, but let me see if I can summarize.
Tucker reminds us that Ezekiel was a prophet during the Babylonian Exile,
and that today’s reading comes from the part of his book where he starts to talk about the return of the exiles and the restoration of the nation. Ezekiel 34, in which we find today’s Old Testament lesson, uses the imagery of the shepherd to illustrate the history of Israel—past, present, and future.
The chapter begins with an indictment of “the shepherds of Israel,” the kings who did not feed their “sheep,” that is, their citizens (and let me just say that if you were sitting in the pews as subjects of King George III you might begin to warm up to what the prophet was saying. You might decide that old Georgie Boy was not a very good shepherd). But then comes an announcement of judgment against those shepherds: the Lord vowing that he himself will take charge of the sheep. The chapter concludes with an announcement of the restoration of the people and the promise of a “covenant of peace” (vss. 25-31) which would sound especially good in a time of war.
Within that framework we find our reading for today, beginning with verses 11-16, in which the Lord himself is the shepherd. He will search out the sheep that have been scattered, “bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land” (vs. 13). Tucker says that “This clearly is a promise of return from the Babylonian Exile and restoration in the Promised Land.” The Lord further promises to provide the main elements necessary for life: food—in abundance!—and security (vss. 14-15). He will take particular care of the lost, the strayed, the crippled, and the weak” (vs. 16).
But then, in verses 20-24, the “one shepherd” is not Yahweh but his servant David, “and he shall feed them.” Tucker says, “The promise of a future David is not to be taken literally, but is a messianic hope, the expectation of a new and righteous king from the Davidic line.” Again, if you were sitting in the pew in 1780
you might begin to dream of a king better than George III, one who would actually care for his people. And you might appreciate what the prophet says next, that there will be judgment for those fat sheep who have pushed the others aside, keeping them away from the food trough, turning them into the lean sheep pitied by the Lord. “There will be judgment!” says the prophet, talking about the kings of ancient Israel. “There will be judgment!” says the preacher, speaking perhaps of King George III. And if you were sitting there in the pews you might begin to say, “Hear! Hear!” Until the preacher turned to the Gospel lesson, and began to talk about judgment in a whole different way.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,” he would say, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”
Fred Craddock says you could hardly have a more appropriate text for Christ the King Sunday than this one. “It’s not a parable,” he says, “but an apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment. The heart of it is the coming of the Son of Man. His coming is not to the earth, but to the throne in heavenly glory. The scene is an enthronement, the Son of Man being installed as King and Judge. The ‘coming’ has been dealt with already in this Gospel: it will be sudden as the lightning (24:27); it will be on clouds of glory and with great power (24:30-31); the day and the hour are unknown (24:36-42); it will be as a burglar entering at night (24:43); it will be a time of reckoning and woe to the unprepared (24:45-51). Three parables have dealt with the delay of the coming (24:45-25:30). But now comes the full vision, glorious in appearance, cosmic in scope, and yet personal in that every life must
appear before the judgment seat.”iii
And how will they be judged? People living in an agricultural society would understand the reference to separating the sheep from the goats. They would know that this is how it was done in those days: that the sheep and the goats would go out to pasture together, and the shepherd would watch over both, but that when they came back to the sheepfold at the end of the day he would separate them from each other: sheep in one place, goats in another. He would do that on the basis of what they were. But in today’s Gospel lesson people are separated from one another not because of what they are, but rather because of what they have done—or haven’t done—for others.
“I was hungry and you fed me,” says the King “thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. So, come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And the righteous will marvel, wondering when it was that they saw their king in any of those wretched circumstances. But he will say, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
And then he will turn to those on his left and say, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” because they saw him in all those same circumstances and yet did nothing for him. They will try to defend themselves, asking, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison?” And he will say to them just the opposite of what he said to the others: “Whenever you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away
into eternal punishment, Jesus says, but the righteous into eternal life. And, good gracious! Wouldn’t you want to end up on the right side of that judgment?
Well, there’s a way to do that, apparently, and that is to begin looking, now, for the most vulnerable people in society and caring for them as if you were caring for Christ himself. And I think this is where the agricultural analogy might be especially helpful, because a shepherd is used to looking over his flock for any sheep or goats who might need his special attention. If one of them is limping he’s going to inspect its hooves, run his hands over its legs feeling for broken bones or swollen tendons. If one of them is being butted away from the food trough by a bigger, stronger animal, he’s going to see to it that it gets its share of the food. If one of them is sick or diseased in any way, he’s going to do whatever he can to make it better. This is just what shepherds do—good shepherds, that is. They look over the flock. They pay attention to the sheep or goats that need extra care. They make sure that they get what they need so that they can be healthy and whole. If we really had traveled back in time we would know that, and we might begin to see the difference between a king like George III, who didn’t seem to care much about his flock, and Christ the King, who once described himself as a good shepherd, and who was always looking out for those who needed his help.
Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members,” but there is no evidence that he actually wrote or said those words. There is a related quote where Gandhi is speaking about cruelty to animals and says: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.” That’s close, but a scholar named
Alexander Atkins thinks the quote in question may actually belong to American writer and novelist Pearl S. Buck who wrote, “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”iv Buck was the daughter of a missionary who spent a large part of her life in China. When she came back to America she became a passionate advocate for mixed-race adoption, minority groups, and women’s rights.
But another close contender for the quote is Hubert H. Humphrey, who served as U.S. Vice President from 1965 to 1969. In an address to the Democratic National Convention in New York City on July 13, 1976, Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the weakest members of society as a reflection of its government: “The ultimate moral test of any government is the way it treats three groups of its citizens. First, those in the dawn of life—our children. Second, those in the shadows of life—our needy, our sick, our handicapped. Third, those in the twilight of life—our elderly.”v
If it really were 1780, we would be aware that our little nation had already declared its independence and was fighting for its freedom. I don’t know much about history, but I know that the Revolutionary War didn’t end officially until 1783. And we might be thinking that if we won (which seemed unlikely) we would have the chance to do things differently. We might even dream of establishing a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and imagine that if we ever had a president who didn’t lead with compassion we could simply vote him out of office and replace him with one who did.
Jesus has provided us with the perfect model of servant leadership. He has taught us that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. But in today’s
Gospel lesson he also warns us that in the end it will not be our government that is judged, but us—each one of us. And that even if our government has not cared for the most vulnerable members of society, we can. We can learn to not only look at them, but to see them, and to see Christ in them, and when we do we will care for them. We won’t be able to help ourselves. If we do it right, no one will be more surprised than we are when the King of Kings says to us, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023