"Let all be at peace!” This phrase from the Rule of St. Benedict envisions a situation in which all members of the community are free of anxiety, receiving what they need. This understanding of peace corresponds with the biblical concept referred to on the Thirty-second Sunday (“a life that includes everything people need to be happy and to thrive”). To live in such a community, in such a world, is the dream of every woman and man. The readings for today show that it is God’s dream for us as well.
On this last Sunday of the liturgical year, the readings offer us a montage of images and themes. The first reading paints a picture of pastoral tranquility, the hues of which are deepened by a similar scene in the responsorial psalm. The reading from Corinthians heralds the victory of Jesus, which was bought at a great price. The Gospel depicts Matthew’s impression of the final judgment. Finally, all of these themes and images come together within the context of the feast of Christ the King.
But what are we to make of all these themes, some of which appear to be in conflict with others?
The feast determines the overarching theme, which is prominent in the first reading. There we find the picture of peace that is at the heart of “endtime” expectation. The source of that peace is the care and solicitude of the shepherd. Ezekiel states that this shepherd is none other than God: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” This characterization of the divine is reiterated in the psalm response: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Chosen for the feast of Christ the King, these readings take on Christological significance. It is Jesus who rules over us, just as a shepherd lovingly tends the sheep. Our king is a personal protector and provider, not an impersonal authority. He is particularly attentive to those who are needy, those who are injured or sick, those who have strayed. Though he does “judge between one sheep and another,” it is as a caring shepherd that he does this.
The reading from Corinthians alerts us to the price our shepherd was willing to pay for the peace that has been prepared for us. He preserved us from the “cloudy and dark” dangers by taking them on himself. It was through his death and resurrection that he triumphed. But his sovereign rule is not oppressive. Quite the opposite: “In Christ shall all be brought to life.”
Many people find the tone of today’s Gospel rather somber. While it picks up the idea of separating sheep, found in the first reading, it clearly identifies this separating as judgment, and it is the theme of judgment that sets the somber tone. But within the context of the feast and the theological sense of the other readings, we might read this passage in a slightly different light.
In the Gospel it is the Son of Man who is characterized as the shepherd who “separates the sheep from the goats.” There is an added note. We are told the reason for the judgment: “Whatever you did for the least brothers [and sisters] of mine, you did for me.” This very important condition readjusts the focus of the reading from the harsh judgment by the shepherd to the responsibility of all members of the flock.
In the first reading we see the shepherd particularly attentive to the injured or sick and to those who have strayed. In the Gospel we discover that such loving attention is the responsibility of everyone (“all the nations”). Furthermore: “Whatever you did...you did for me.” Jesus identifies himself with the needy, with those who are hungry or ill or naked or strangers, even those who are in prison.
Our king reigns over all who have been beaten down by life, who may even have given up the struggle. He tells us that when we find such people, we must pick them up and give them food and drink and shelter and clothing and, most of all, hope. And if we fail to do this, we will suffer the consequences. The punishment of which the Gospel speaks is not suddenly sprung on people. They chose a way of living that led to it. Should they have been warned in advance? Women and men of good will everywhere believe they should care for the needy. Driven by selfishness, these people chose not to.
The Sunday that closes the liturgical year leaves us with a challenge. We should see that all members of the community are free of anxiety, receiving what they need. But it also leaves us with the assurance that the king we celebrate today rules with gentleness and care, and has one wish for us all: Let all be at peace!