The King of Love, my Shepherd is
(Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28: Matthew 25:31-46.)
Today is the feast of Christ the King and the end of the Church year. The readings for today’s Mass draw out attention to Christ’s mission as one who came to serve rather than be served, and our own obligation to extend the bounds of his Kingdom by following his example.
To begin Mass we think of the times we’ve fallen short of that standard and we ask God for pardon and strength.
The image of Christ as a king and the origin of today's feast had its roots in an earlier age when the Catholic Church across Europe was a more powerful and prestigious institution than it is now, when it was used to exercising a powerful influence in society and when office-holders in the Church enjoyed a close relationship to the people who held political power.
It was very much an image that was intended to give a seal of sacred legitimacy to the Church's worldly authority, by relating it back to the figure of Christ himself, his sovereignty and kingship.
When we look at the readings for today’s feast, though, I think we get a different picture of what Christ's kingship consisted of, and a different picture of the history behind the image: the notions of kingly office that developed during the history of Old Testament times.
The kings in the Old Testament - the kings of Israel and Judah – actually had a very uneven record of success. The idea of instituting a monarchy had been put forward during the time of the judges, the tribal chiefs who were the leaders of the twelve tribes that made up the Jewish community as a whole.
And there were two different reactions to the prospect of a monarchy. One reaction was from the people who were against it on principle, not only because they thought it enlarged the scope for corruption, but because they believed that to allow a human being to take the title of “king” was to deny God's sovereignty over Israel. God alone should be regarded as Israel's King.
But the other reaction, which turned out to be the majority opinion, really, was that it was all right to have a monarchy as long as it always recognised that it was subordinate to God, that any king of Israel was there by the grace of God, and was answerable to God, and had to conduct himself by God's Law, like everyone else.
With all that in the background, the image the Jews came to prefer for their King was the image of a shepherd: an image of protection and service rather than superiority and privilege.
That's what the first reading was about. Israel’s king had the duty of caring for and protecting the people. The king had to exercise a leadership based on God's type of leadership, and a king who failed at that was highly blameworthy.
A lot of the criticism that the prophets levelled at the kings was based on this idea of the King as a shepherd of the whole society, reflecting God's care and protection. The kings who only enriched themselves, or dreamt up huge schemes for their own glorification, and taxed the people to carry the schemes out - were denounced by the prophets as failures, abandoning their real duties.
But at the same time the people of Israel also had duties towards the monarch. In return for the protection they were entitled to, they were obliged to be loyal and faithful, they were supposed to see the king as being divinely appointed, and they were duty-bound to recognise his job of protecting the identity of the people as the chosen people of God.
So the monarchy was a two-way street; there were obligations on both sides.
Having said all that, we're still left with the question of what is this imagery - which is so dated and quaint in many ways - supposed to mean to us? What sort of reflection are we meant to have because of this feast, where Christ is portrayed as a king? For that, I think, we have to look at the gospel reading.
Jesus told the people that he preached to that he had come to serve, not to be served. His authority, his kingship - following the Old Testament ideas - was a kingship of service, the kingship of a shepherd.
In this passage from Matthew's gospel, Jesus makes clear that what he expects from anyone who claims to be loyal and faithful to him isn't a lot of noisy or ostentatious worship. What he expects is for us to follow that example.
The demands of the Kingdom are feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing the naked - serving those who are most in need of help. In fact, there's no other way of inheriting the Kingdom, Jesus says, and those who don't carry out these demands are excluded from the Kingdom, in spite of all their protestations of devotion and worship of God.
But the second important point about the gospel passage in the today’s Mass is that these demands of Christ are made against a backdrop of the last judgement and our future life with God.
Jesus never meant the Way of the Kingdom to be reduced to humanitarian schemes or activities that only improve people's material conditions. For us, everything that we do now, in the present, has a bearing on our future life. That colours our whole outlook, and it’s one of the main areas in our outlook on life that separates us from those who don't believe in God.
To go back to the second reading for a minute, one of the problems that St. Paul had with the community he was writing to in Corinth was that some of the members of the community were tending to hang onto certain ideas and values and standards of judgement that Paul saw as belonging to “the world” - the world that was fallen and sinful, the world that they should have left behind when they joined the Church.
And Paul saw it as his job to point out to them that allegiance to Christ meant giving up their allegiance to other things.
We only have to look at so much of the content of today's popular culture - which is more and more the product of huge commercial interests rather than anything ordinary people dream up for themselves - to see that we're living at a time when, in many areas, there's the same tension between, on the one hand, our allegiance to Christ and the standards of judgement that belong to Christ's Kingdom, and on the other hand the values and beliefs of the world around us.
Our allegiance to Christ now, just as in St Paul's time, means that other loyalties and aren't open to us. Or it would mean that if we were more logical about what the Christian faith commits us to.
So those are the two main lessons I'd say we're supposed to take from these readings today. One is that the way Christ wants his followers to acknowledge his kingship is by imitating his example of care and protection of those who are weakest and most in need.
And the other side of that coin is to refuse to give any allegiance to the various idols and distractions that lead us away from God, rather than help us to get closer to him.
These are the criteria we can test ourselves by today, as the feast of Christ the King comes round again and yet another year in the liturgical calendar comes to an end.