True religion is caring for others

  • November 13, 2008
Christ the King (Year A) Nov. 23 (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46)

God’s disappointment and anger are evident when we read chapter 34 in its entirety. Those appointed as shepherds of the people have shown a shocking lack of concern for their welfare. Instead of tending to the needs of the people they used their positions to enrich themselves and increase their power.
It’s an old story and we see it repeated in every age. Leaders show a tendency to forget who they are and why they are in positions of authority. Power is an intoxicating and addictive drug to which many succumb.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy God has decided He will have to do the job Himself if it is to be done properly. He will seek out the lost and heal and strengthen the weak and injured. This is what the leaders should have been doing and it is a powerful portrayal of the nature of God. This image became an important New Testament symbol — Luke uses the image of the shepherd who seeks out the one lost sheep in Luke 15. In John 10, Jesus refers to Himself as the good shepherd who is not in it for Himself but for the flock — and is willing to lay down His life on their behalf. It becomes the model of service for all who claim leadership and authority as well as for basic spiritual living.

Both testaments are very hard on goats — no particular reason, except that in this story they are intruders and do not belong in the flock. They are pretending to be what they clearly are not — just and compassionate. As much as human beings and human institutions may betray us and let us down, God will not. God is the ultimate guide and shepherd and it is upon God we must depend, not humans.

When is the end going to come? If Jesus is coming soon to put an end to things, why should we be concerned with everyday affairs? These are some of the questions Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians. Salvation is a process and in human terms it might seem drawn out and prolonged. Christ gives eternal life to His own but it will be according to God’s timetable rather than ours. There is still much work to be done: the Earth must be won back for God and everything opposed to God must be subdued and brought into harmony with Him. It is God’s world, not humanity’s despite the arrogant claims we sometimes make. And that is where we come in: instead of just sitting around waiting for the end, Paul is telling his audience, we must join in this magnificent undertaking and not worry about the arrival of the end. Restoration of the world to God is something to which all spiritual people are called.

Once again the sheep and the goats, but this time the image is used to portray what leading a godly and just life really means. The cursing, fire and punishment are stock images in apocalyptic discourse but the point is crystal clear. True religion — or for that matter authentic human living — is expressed in compassionate concern and care for the needs of others, especially those who are hurting or weak. In the story, everyone is surprised. Those rejected by the Son of Man cannot remember any time in which they were inattentive to the Lord, and those admitted to the Kingdom cannot remember doing anything special on His behalf. Those who were sensitive and attentive to others were not aware that they were doing anything special or even religious. They acted as they did not to gain divine favour but simply because it was the right thing to do — it was like second nature to them.

Religion does not consist only in what takes place in a formal worship setting but how we respond to others. It is a way of life rather than activity limited to a church setting. In God’s kingdom there are no lowly or mighty, rich or poor, important or unimportant — these are human designations. If we have been indifferent to the needs of others, then we have been indifferent to God. The world and its people are the altar upon which we worship God.