CHRIST THE KING
The dominant theme of the liturgy on this Last Sunday in Ordinary Time is Jesus Christ, Lord of History. The prophet Ezekiel announces that God Himself will be the shepherd of His people. An announcement that involves the judgment of those who have had the mission as guides of the people, but above all an announcement of the merciful love of God towards humanity. The Gospel places us before the King who discerns, who offers the ultimate criteria of meaning to human history and realizes the definitive judgment of men.
Jesus Christ, “God with us” (Mt 1,23), is the true King-Shepherd who guides humanity to the fullness of life (Jn 10). The famous page of Matthew 25 reveals the ultimate meaning of the earthly ways of men and proclaims the value that gives authentic quality to all human existence: the merciful love. Jesus Christ, “the King” (Mt 25,34.40), states the condition in order to enter “into the Kingdom prepared from the creation of the world” (Mt 25,34): gratuitous, efficacious and merciful love of the poor and suffering of this world, with whom He identifies Himself.
The first reading (Ez 34,11-12.15-17) belongs to the great oracle of Ezekiel about the restoration of the dispersed people during the exile and which has to be placed in the second period of his prophetic activity. Using a well-known biblical image, he presents Yahweh as the true Shepherd of the people. The allegory of the shepherd, in fact, is found in many texts of the Old Testament (Zec 11,4-17; Ps 23; 79,22; etc.). God Himself takes the merciful initiative of “seeking out his sheep”, “pasturing them”, “gathering them from all places where they have been scattered”, “binding up the injured” and “strengthening the weak”.
In the first part of Chapter 34 Ezekiel denounces the political and religious leaders of Israel who have behaved like day labourers and who have taken advantage of the flock, “pasturing themselves” (Ez 34,2). In the text that is proclaimed today in the liturgy, which corresponds to the second part of the chapter, God occupies the place of these “false shepherds” and decides to personally seek out and tend his own. God is the true Shepherd of His people, and in this sense He is also their “King”, since in the ancient Middle East the monarchy was considered as the first shepherd of the nation, bound to watch over the well-being and security of his fellow citizens. God is, therefore, Shepherd and King of Israel. The image of the shepherd will be used in the New Testament to speak of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who gives His life for His sheep (Jn 10), Shepherd and Guardian of the lost sheep (1Pt 2,25), “the great Shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13,20).
The second reading (1Cor 15,20-26a.28) is a magnificent Pauline reflection on the intimate relationship between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the Christians. With a language made of rich biblical reminiscence, of apocalyptic tone and even penetrated with Hellenistic nuance and categories, Paul expresses his Christological vision of history. All humanity, the men and women of all times, walk towards that Omega point which is the Risen Christ, “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15,20), the new Adam, the beginning of new humanity.
The life of the Risen Christ is the eternal vocation of all men. For Paul, in effect, history has two moments: first, the resurrection of Christ as “first fruits” and then that of all those who are Christ’s. “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again, but each one in proper order: Christ the first fruits and then, at his coming, all those who belong to him” (1Cor 15,23). In the end, Paul says, when death “the last enemy” will be destroyed (v. 26) “God will be all in all” (v. 28) and, in this way, all will be subjected to God and in God all will find their consistence and indestructible value.
The Gospel (Mt 25,31-46) describes with evocative images the presence of Christ, King and Shepherd, who judges the way of humanity and of each person. In this text, the definitive word of God on history, the meaning that He wants to give to this history and the invitation that is made to each man to live daily the merciful love, are heard. In the end, each one will be judged to salvation or definitive condemnation in the light of the concrete gestures of active solidarity in favour of the most needy and poor.
The text is constructed with biblical elements of apocalyptic tone that intend to describe the glory of the coming of the Son of Man, divine judge and Son of God, at the end of history (cf. Dan 7,10; Zec 14,5). In this sense it is important to highlight first of all the Christological and universal dimension of the judgment described in the text. Before the Son of Man, all the nations of the earth, without any ethnical or religious differences, will be presented. The eschatological judge, the Son of Man as Messianic Shepherd, will make the definitive separation among men with the sovereign authority of God. The decisive criteria will be the relationship of each man with the Son of Man who has made Himself in solidarity with “his least brothers”.
Secondly, a paradoxical fact is made manifest in the text: the glorious judge of the end of times (whom both groups –those who are saved and those who are condemned– recognize as “Lord”) has assumed in history the face of the poor, the defenceless and the needy. That is why men and women decide on their destiny before the Son of Man, not from the heroic or extraordinary works that they have realized in life, but paradoxically on the basis of the acts in daily life in relation with the most needy: to give them something to eat or to drink, to welcome or to visit them, etc.
The more surprising thing in the text is that nobody in both groups –those who are saved and those who are condemned– had suspected this mysterious presence of the Son of Man “in these least ones”. With this Matthew clearly states what is surprising in such a revelation. In the love and service to the poor, a true encounter with the Lord, who is revealed and hidden at the same time in the face of the poor, takes place. Whatever is done in favour of the poor is done to Christ Himself. That is why love of and service to the poor is not simply an expression of the “social dimension” of faith. It is much more than these: there is a contemplative aspect of an encounter with God in the very heart of the work of love.
The phrase “my least brothers” has been the object of countless exegetical discussions. The expression designates –in the context of universal judgment– all the needy and poor without distinction. It is certain that some scholars on Matthew have thought that “the least ones” are the Christian disciples, missionaries in difficult situations, from the use of the term “least” (Greek: elajistói) in the first Gospel (cf. Mt 10,42; 18,22.214.171.124). This conclusion is founded on the philological criteria but it is not adequate in the context of Matthew 25. No indication of the text makes one think of the condition of the missionary disciples when it speaks of “least”. It is preferable to think of the poor in the universal sense. It deals with all those men and women who are in need and suffer hardship in history. With them, precisely because they are poor and needy, the Messiah and eschatological Judge identifies Himself. This is the perspective of the Gospel of Matthew, where the Kingdom of heaven is promised to the poor, the revelation of the Father is destined to the “least”, the peace and liberation to the oppressed and weary. In the same way, the Son of Man, glorious King and Judge, assumes and shares the destiny of His least brothers: the poor and needy of this world.
This text is a prophetic parable on the last and universal judgment. But it does not only speak of the last one. It is before all an exhortation to live the faith responsibly while we wait for the glorious coming of Christ. Authentic faith in the Lord is not realized only by profession through the lips but above all through the practice of merciful love. At the same time Matthew places us before an authentic revelation of the Lordship of Christ, King of the universe: Christ, the Lord, is present in a hidden and humble way in the poor and the sick, in the hungry and imprisoned, in such a way that the acceptance or rejection of the poor is the ultimate criteria that will determine the salvation or ruin of men and women. In the gratuitous, efficacious and concrete love towards the least, the vital relationship with Christ, universal King and Lord, is lived and expressed. It is a relationship that in the end will be transformed into full communion of life and salvation.
Today’s Gospel helps us to understand that our encounter with the poor through concrete works is an obligatory step towards the encounter with Christ Himself. But it must not be forgotten that the true and total encounter with the brethren passes through the experience of gratuitousness of God’s love. If the neighbour is the way to reach God, the relationship with God is the condition of encounter, of true communion with the other. The lordship of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is lived in the demand of commitment as a demand of the gratuitousness of His love and contemplation as demand and vivifying element of historical act.