November 24, 2008
( Ezekiel 34 11-16, 20-24; Matt 25, 31-end)
We spend our life making choices.
In early life, we often don’t have to suffer the consequences of our choices; when we are children our parents protect us, or rescue us where they can, like the faithful shepherd king of our Old Testament reading.
But as we get older, we have to take responsibility for our own choices.
Sometimes, we are fully aware of the consequences of what we choose. People often say “I had no choice”. But in reality we very often choose to do do things in the full knowledge it will bring hurt to us or others, or that it is likely to damage our health or our wealth.
But in other circumstances, the consequences are less certain. Sometimes situations are too complicated for us to know exactly what will result from the choices we make. But we can try to make more informed choices. And when we do, we would do well to look for some guidance – from those who have been there before, or from those we trust. We still have the choice of whether to follow that advice or not – but at least we are not completely in the dark.
There is much in the Bible that guides us in making the right choice; today’s Gospel reading indicates to us what choices we should be making if we want to find ourselves alongside Jesus in this life and in the life to come.
God gave us humans free will – and for free will to be a reality, we must have the option to do wrong, and to choose to ignore the guidance God gives us. Jesus was fully human – so he too had to make choices. Once he had accepted God’s call to be his Messiah, he had to choose what sort of Messiah to be. The nature of that choice is set out in the story of the temptation in the wilderness.
There was the temptation to be the sort of messiah who simply met people’s physical and material needs – to turn stones into bread. That would have made a big impact in an occupied country where many people were starving – but it would have neglected the deep spiritual needs of the whole people, needs that are often neglected where there is material prosperity and full stomachs.
There was the temptation to persuade people of his credentials by acts of power, defying the laws of nature – what people nowadays would call miracles. But Jesus used miraculous happenings as signs of the nature of God’s Kingdom, not for their own sake, or to boost his own credentials.
Lastly there was the temptation to persuade people by force – to do God’s work using the Devil’s tools. Jesus rejected this way and chose instead the way of the Cross: he chose to be the good shepherd hinted at in today’s reading from Ezekiel – the one who lays down his life for the sake of his sheep.
Ezekiel condemns the past kings and leaders of Israel for neglecting and exploiting their people – for feeding off them instead of feeding them, for leaving them defenceless to be attacked and driven away from their own pasture. He attacks them both as bad shepherds and bullying sheep. He looked forward to the time when a good shepherd king would arise from the House of David – that King whose coming we shall be celebrating in a month’s time.
Today is kept in many churches as the feast of Christ the King. The reading from Matthew shows the sort of King that Jesus chose to be. It is more a vision of the last days than a parable. Jesus sits in splendour as Judge of all – but reveals that while on earth, he was a king in disguise, found not among the mighty and powerful, the pious, the famous or the clever, but among those who were hungry, lonely, thirsty, sick, badly clothed and imprisoned.
Doing acts of charity for the hungry, lonely, thirsty, sick and unclothed were standard acts of Jewish piety. In this vision, visiting those in prison has been added to the list, because that was of particular concern to the Early Christians. In times of persecution, it was a dangerous thing to visit your fellow Christians in jail, for that revealed you as a follower of Christ yourself, and you then risked capture and death.
Those who know little of the Christian faith might think that a feast celebrating Christ the King would be triumphalist. But given the nature of Christ the King, that can never be. Jesus was never concerned with his own status or with glorifying himself. He spent his life among the vulnerable and the outcast, and these categories of people, and those who meet their needs, are those who share his Kingly state. Philippians tells us that because Jesus humbled himself he was raised to the highest glory. That passage, like this passage from Matthew, provides us with clear guidelines for many of the choices we have to make in life.
They provide great support for what is often known as ‘practical Christianity’ – that it’s not what you say, or what you believe, but what you choose to do that counts in God’s eyes. As often as we can, we need to make life choices that favour the interests of the marginalised, the poor, the disadvantaged in our society and in the world.
We can do this through our power as consumers – by buying Fairly Traded and ethically produced goods whenever we can. We can do so whenever we vote or have an opportunity to influence public opinion – by considering the best interests of the homeless, refugees and vulnerable groups such as those with mental handicaps, rather than siding with the NIMBYs of this world.
We can remember Matthew’s picture of the last judgement – and his account of the temptations in the wilderness – whenever we make choices about who to associate with and who to choose as role models in our daily life. Do we want to promote those who are famous because they act badly, those who are so often held up as ‘celebrities’ by some sections of the media? Or do we want to be found among the friends of those who quietly get on with serving others?
And we can also bear the picture of the compassionate King in mind when we make choices about how our church life is to be organised. How do we judge a church to be successful? Do we think a successful church is one where true faith is demonstrated by signs and wonders? Do we believe Jesus would want us to follow leaders who seek to get their own way by bullying or threats? Or do we believe that the true followers of Jesus are to be found out in the secular world, serving their neighbours.
The Beatitudes tell us that those who suffer, those who know their own poverty, those who are humble are closest to God. It is only when we make the choice to follow our King among those people that we will be found worthy to enter his Kingdom.