Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.
God’s special care is for the lost sheep, “the least of these,” to whom God sends the good shepherd, Christ the King.
This Sunday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. This Sunday is traditionally called the festival of the Reign of Christ (formerly the festival of Christ the King). It caps the year by acclaiming the royal figure through whom God’s care and justice are exercised.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.
The last fifteen chapters of the book of Ezekiel are devoted to prophecies of Israel’s future restoration, after thirty-three chapters of judgment and doom on Jerusalem and its enemies. Our first reading this Sunday is the beginning of this restoration prophecy.
The whole prophecy, all of chapter 34, concerns Israel’s kings, spoken of as the “shepherds of Israel” (34:2). (Overall Ezekiel did not care for kings very much; he was a man of the temple, a priest. He did, however, grudgingly admit the “prince” into his vision of the future glory of the restored Temple, Ezekiel 44:3.)
God first indicts and judges the past kings for their exploitation and abuse of the people (34:1-10). The shepherds had turned into predators. This part of the chapter is worth noting, even though it is not in the Lectionary, because it is a direct parallel to today’s Gospel reading about the judgment of the nations.
Ah [Woe to], you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? … 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. … my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them (Ezekiel 34:2-4 and 6, NRSV).
After these false and corrupt shepherds have been eliminated, what is to happen? The prophecy announces that God, in person, will become the shepherd of the people.
I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. … I will bring them into their own land; …and I will feed them with good pasture. …I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (verses 11, 13-14, 16).
Even among restored flocks there are innocent ones and there are trouble-makers.
Therefore…I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock… (verses 20-22).
God’s own judgment, however, needs some specific implementation. That is where God’s representative comes in, a renewed Davidic king.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them (verses 23-24).
God’s appointed representative, continuing the good shepherding work of the great king David, will shepherd—and maintain justice among—God’s restored sheep, the people of God’s hand.
The Psalm reading is an exuberant call to worship. It calls for singing, joyful noises, thanksgiving, and songs of praise before the Lord, “a great God, and a great King above all gods” (verse 3, NRSV). It concludes with a delightful reversal of images, putting the people in the pasture and the sheep in God’s hand.
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. (Verse 7.)
In the Epistle reading the writer is engrossed in a long, convoluted thanksgiving (actually a report of what he prays concerning the Ephesians). This thanksgiving first includes the faith, love, and hope of the Ephesians’ new life (faith and love in verse 15, hope in verse 18). The thought of the glories of what Christians have to hope for carries him on to an ecstatic vision of God’s great power working through Christ.
This power of God, the source and means of salvation for all humans, has established Jesus Christ as the kingly ruler over all powers—cosmic, demonic, human—that can threaten or in any way determine the lives of the elect who are gathered in the church.
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named not only in this age but also in the age to come. (Verses 20-21, NRSV.)
This whole passage is probably guided by early Christian use in their liturgies of Psalm 8, where the “son of man” (= Son of God) exercised such rule over the created realm.
…what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
[Yet] You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet…
(Psalm 8:4-6, NIV; the NRSV translation loses the reference to the son of man.)
The closing words of our Ephesians reading pick up this Psalm’s theme: “And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (verse 22).
This is the celebration of the Reign of Christ in the apostolic church.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday is the last of the eschatological parables given by Matthew in Jesus’ final discourse to the disciples.
Actually this is not technically a “parable.” It does not begin, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (25:1), or “For it is as if a man…” (25:14). Here Jesus tells the disciples what will take place in that transcendent time when all history has run its course and there will be a final settlement of God with “all the nations.”
The scene could be modeled on Ezekiel’s indictment of the wicked kings and their replacement by the Davidic king as the good shepherd (see the prophetic reading above). Here, however, it is the chosen king who carries out the judgment on the nations. “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” (verse 31, NRSV). And a little later, “Then the king will say to those at his right hand…” (verse 34).
All the nations are judged according to how they treated the needy ones, “the least of these.” (In the Greek text at verse 40 they are, literally, “to my brothers, the least ones,” which the NRSV gives as “the least of these who are members of my family.” At verse 45, they are simply “the least of these.”).
The interpretation of this vision turns decisively on the anonymity of “the least of these.” If the needy LOOKED LIKE they would be important in the last days, folks would care for them and run after them eagerly. If those who ministered to the anonymous needy did so because of some great reward in it, they would have disqualified themselves as true servants. It is precisely the improbability, the cast off and unimportant nature of these neglected ones of the nations that makes them so important to God and God’s royal representative. (The Ruling Lord is ruled by compassion!)
The least of these are precisely those ignored by the “important people” of the world!
This Biblical passage was a kind of charter text for Protestants for the Common Good (now carried on in Community Renewal Society’s Policy work). From its organization in 1996, PCG held its mission to be rousing awareness of and advocating for “the least of these.” We understood “the least of these” to be the neglected, invisible, poor and excluded ones hidden within our abundant society—those so often lost in the systems of this world. We understood the Biblical message to be that these are the special concern of God and God’s representative, Christ the King.