In this part of the Church Year the lectionary carries some dark tones as we enter the darkest time of the year. The Gospel themes are focused on the Christ who is the King, culminating in the King’s birth at Bethlehem. This coming Sunday is the Last Sunday after Pentecost (25 weeks ago!), also known as the Feast of Christ the King. The Gospel reading begins, “Jesus said, ‘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.’”
In America’s democratic society it is difficult for us to reinterpret the Biblical language of kingship. Perhaps reflecting on the trouble the Jews had with their kings can help. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel consider the base and corrupt late kings of Judah and contrast them with a good shepherd who indeed “controls” the sheep but does so in a way that ensures their well-being. The kings use their power for personal gain and glory but bring only trouble and destruction to their people,; the shepherd uses his power and knowledge for the good of the flock. The kingship of Christ is monarchy subverted.
In the Gospel reading the king is enthroned, but turns the kingly power on its head: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew gives us this remarkable picture of the Final Judgment in which one group is left out of paradise because they did not know that their king was in fact the poor and needy among them. “But we didn’t know!” they cry! “You do now!” responds their king. And now we know it as well.