Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 20 November 2011
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46
Jesus probably had Ezekiel 34 in mind when he described himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10. The earlier part of the chapter makes clear the reason why God’s flock is scattered and injured – their shepherds have neglected them and abused them for their own advantage. Therefore God will get rid of them and be a good shepherd in their stead. The prophet uses similar imagery to that found in the beautiful images of Psalm 23: God gathers the flock, heals them, and leads them to restful places and green pastures.
The reason why God judges between sheep or between rams and goats is made clear in the later part of the chapter beyond the verses in the first reading, where another reason is given for the pitiable state of some of the sheep. There is a group within the flock who are sleek and strong because they shove and bully the others to get the best for themselves. Not only that, but they trample the grass that they don’t eat, and muddy the clear water with their feet in complete and utter disregard for the rest of the flock who must eat and drink after them.
The image of the shepherd separating out the sheep and the goats had become a popular one in Jesus’ day for describing the Day of the Lord when God would judge between God’s own people and the nations. The sheep were ‘us’ and the goats were ‘them’ and God could be counted upon to vindicate God’s people. So Jesus’ story isn’t foreign to them. What are striking, though, are the additions and subtle changes he makes to it. It is not God but the Human One (the ‘son of Man’) who comes with the angels and is seated on the throne. And the separation of the sheep from the goats is done on the basis of whether or not people have recognised and responded with compassion to the humanity of those on the margins, those who are hungry, naked, imprisoned or strangers. To respect the precious humanity of ‘the least of these my brothers’ is to minister to Christ. To overlook the human dignity of others is to miss him.
How do we imagine Christ the King? Where do we expect to find him? In bishop’s palaces or in squatter camps? In some glorious future or in the messy here and now?