King and Shepherd
Solemnity of Christ the King. Fr Richard Ounsworth preaches on the parable of the sheep and the goats.
We may find today’s Gospel reassuring or terrifying, depending I suppose on our honest assessment of how we are getting on with our corporal works of mercy, but at least it seems fairly straightforward: perform those works of mercy, and we shall be counted among the sheep, those at the right hand of the king at the end of time; fail to perform them, and we must reckon on eternal punishment.
This, however, is not at all the point of this Gospel, and it is certainly not the point of today’s feast of Christ the King. In the first place, if we do read it in that straightforward and – dare I say? – simplistic way, we are in danger of the heresy of Pelagianism, the notion that we can work our way into heaven by our own efforts. This is one of the gravest and most persistent heresies in the history of the Church, and is always to be resisted.
God does not wait to see how meritorious our deed will be before coming to a decision about our eternal fate. Christ is not a moral auditor. Notice how the judge in the parable speaks of the fate of those on his right: ‘take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world’.
While of course Christians should perform works of mercy, and indeed should be worried about imperilling their predestined glory if they refuse to do so, that is not the point of today’s Gospel. Rather, it is about the identity of Christ and of his followers. Jesus overtly equates himself with God the King of the Universe, the one enthroned upon the cherubim who will come to rule the earth, who will come in judgement, as the Old Testament foretells. Jesus’ ministry, in a world overshadowed – as it is today – by wickedness and want, is the triumphal procession of God the King.
For the people of Israel, God is indeed the King of Israel, the shepherd of his people, and the whole story of the Gospels can be read as the story of Christ’s coming as King, claiming for himself that royal role of the Good Shepherd. It was because he claimed that role for himself that he did indeed lay down his life for his sheep, killed by the Roman usurpers with a sign above his head that accurately named him King of the Jews.
The Passion as narrated by St John makes clear what judgement is: accept this pitiful figure as King – ‘Behold your King’, Pilate scoffs – even as he hangs in agony on the cross … or choose instead to cry out with the chief priests ‘We have no king but Caesar’. If we choose Christ as our King, then we become citizens of the new Israel; rejecting the pretensions of earthly rulers, we acknowledge Christ as our King because he is our Lord and our God.
The parable of the sheep and the goats is, notice, about the judgement of ‘all the nations’, the Gentiles who are destined to be welcomed into Israel in the fulness of time. We are neither the sheep nor the goats in this story, but ‘the least of these brothers of mine’. This is not a story about how we shall be judged (though we shall) but about how the world will be judged according to how we have been treated.
This is certainly a bold claim. How can we – how dare we – take on such a huge responsibility? The answer is that we already have taken it on, when we are anointed as prophets, priests and kings at our baptism, and again full willingly at our confirmation.
But we are indeed also prophets and priests, called to proclaim God’s love and sanctify the world. We share the awesome but joyful burden of bringing the world to judgement, but we do so by sharing in the equally awesome and joyful task of showing the world God’s love. We show the world what true kingship is like by accepting that we are called, as Christ himself came into the world, not to be served but to serve.
Image: 5th-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP