A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King | Carl E. Olson
• Ez 34:11-12, 15-17
• Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6
• 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28
• Mt 25:31-46
The young man walks down a long but gentle slope into the setting sun. Trailing behind him is a large flock of animals, white and black. When he reaches the valley floor, he turns and faces them. As each animal approaches him, he taps it on the side of the head with his staff. The white sheep steadily make their way off to the right, while the black goats, far more frisky, go off to the left. But the goats, despite being more energetic, will need to be kept warm during the night; the sheep will be kept in the open air, which they prefer.
This routine has been followed in many parts of the Middle East for thousands of years, just one aspect of a way of life mentioned numerous times in Scripture. There are hundreds of references in throughout the Old and New Testaments to sheep, goats, and shepherds. Today’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel is an example of how the work of shepherding was employed to reveal truths about the relationship between God and the chosen people. It also appeals to an ancient connection between the Shepherd and the King, a relationship rooted in David and brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Ezekiel writes of God as the Shepherd who tends his sheep, seeks those that are scattered and lost, and provides food and rest for his flock. All of these images were taken up by Jesus in various discourse and parables (cf., Matt. 18:12-13; Lk 15:3-10: Jn 10). But in addition to care and protection, there is the reality of possible separation and judgment: “I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” And a few verses later this judgment is connected to the promise of a new David:
“I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:22-23).
It is Jesus Christ, of course, who is this new shepherd. And, like David, he is also a king. But, unlike David, his kingship is perfect and extends over all men and nations. Matthew’s Gospel highlights this fact by having pagans announce, even unwittingly, the kingship of Jesus, as when the magi ask for the baby “born king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2), when Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?" (Matt. 27:11), and when a sign is placed above the Crucified Lord stating, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37). But at the end of time the stunning reality of this kingship will be revealed for all to see: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne…”—the throne of David (Lk. 1:32).
Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical (Quas primas, December 1925) establishing the Feast of Christ the King, stated the feast should remind nations, rulers, and princes that they “are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ.” He told Catholics that Christ is to reign in our minds, wills, hearts, and bodies, so that those who are outside the fold will seek entrance due to our witness, while we who are within “the household of the faith, may bear that yoke, not as a burden but with joy, with love, with devotion; that having lived our lives in accordance with the laws of God's kingdom…” (par. 33).
The parable of the sheep and the goats is not simply about being good or avoiding sin. We are not called to be just philanthropists, but true children of God. We are called to die to ourselves, to live in Christ, and to be subject, in love and by grace, to the King, so that “God may be all in all.”
The Shepherd and King stands before us, staff in hand…
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 23, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)