Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers...

  • November 8, 2011

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

Why is the image of the shepherd used so often in the Bible as a metaphor for God? A shepherd never leaves the sheep — he or she is with them 24/7 — and their safety and well-being is the shepherd’s prime concern. That sounds a lot like God!

But the metaphor is often extended to speak of those human beings appointed to care for the sheep and it is here that the image grows a little more ambiguous. Not all shepherds are good, the Bible tells us, sometimes they are in it just for their own personal gain and they don’t care at all for the sheep. Sometimes they may even prey on the sheep or allow them to wander off into dangerous and lonely places. Unfortunately, this will always be a possibility whenever human beings are placed in positions of responsibility. This applies to politics, education, business and any other human endeavour.

But what concerns us here is the spiritual realm. Those appointed as shepherds are held to high standards and there have been many failures. Both in the past and the present, there have been some shepherds who have not done their job and who allowed great harm to come to the flock. In our own time the sexual abuse scandals immediately come to mind.

But there are other ways in which the flock can be harmed: when the shepherds do not provide the hope, encouragement and spiritual support that is needed. Even the forbearance of God wears thin, and Ezekiel tells us that God is going to do the job Himself. God will act as the shepherd should — seeking out the lost, healing the afflicted and making sure that the greedy and powerful do not muscle the poor out of the way. This shepherd rules with love rather than violence or coercion. In the New Testament, this image is used to describe Jesus by both Luke and John — Jesus is the human presence of God’s compassion and care. We all have the right to be taught and cared for directly by God and as the Good Shepherd Jesus will be our faithful and unfailing teacher and guide.

Still echoing the promise of Ezekiel, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians portrays Jesus as the arm of God conquering a rebellious and unjust world. Everything that is opposed to God will be subjected until finally the greatest “enemy” of all — death — is itself overcome. God will then embrace every portion of God’s creation and there will no longer be separation, fear and injustice. This is a hopeful vision, but the reading also makes it clear that patience is in order — this will take time and we are dealing with God’s time, not ours. In the meantime, we are invited and expected to join God’s efforts at overcoming evil and injustice with compassionate action, patience and courage.

The nature of God’s rule is demonstrated in the last judgment scene in Matthew. As the nations are gathered before the Lord, He begins to separate those who belong from those who do not. The standard that is used is surprising. Those who do not make the cut are excluded not for what they did but for what they did not do. And those who are admitted to the kingdom are welcomed not for explicitly religious acts but for what they have done by way of comfort and service to others. They are not even aware of having done anything exceptional or worthy of praise and glory. The deeds that won them their admittance to the kingdom were everyday in nature: they tended to the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned and lonely. They saw a human need and they responded almost as if it were second nature. The others either ignored those in need or more likely did not even notice them.

In the biblical view love is always revealed in practical action. It is said that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. Correct theology alone is meaningless unless it is expressed in compassionate behaviour.

What we do to and for the least — those without power, prestige, hope or the ability to fight back — determines whether or not we belong to God’s kingdom.