Feast of Christ the King
A couple of years ago, I was standing in my booth at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, watching the crowds walk by. Beside me was a beautiful presider’s chair I had made for a wonderful old church in San Diego. I was showing it as an example of my work, and I was very proud of it. It was solid mahogany with turned legs and carvings and emerald green marble inlays. A chair fit for a king.
Suddenly, a priest went by, practically running down the aisle, probably late for a seminar. As he passed my booth, he checked his stride, took a look at my chair, and began shouting, “Jesus doesn’t want a throne! Jesus doesn’t want a throne!” Then he hurried on his way.
Well, I was incensed. I didn’t know this guy and he didn’t know me. He had no idea why I had designed the chair the way I did nor which church it was designed for. Who was he to just shout out judgment on my work? It was embarrassing. He was saying that my understanding of Jesus was all wrong and his was right. He was denigrating my work to all around. I think he was a Jesuit.
His image of Jesus was different from mine. He saw that chair as a seat of judgment and control, and he preferred an image of Jesus as someone kinder and gentler. After I got control of my emotions, I thought, “Why wouldn’t Jesus like a chair like this? He’s my king, after all.” Jesus has been glorified and sits at the right hand of the Father. Why wouldn’t he sit on a throne?
We see both of those images of Jesus in today’s readings. We begin with the image of the good shepherd, kind and forgiving. We end with image of the King judging between the sheep and the goats. And you know, both are right. We do have a king that is kind and compassionate and forgiving. But we also have the Lord of justice who judges us according to our actions.
This is the Feast of Christ the King. Yet, what a strange king we have. Kings have thrones. Jesus had a cross. Kings have crowns of gold. Jesus had a crown of thorns. Kings have a court of attendants to wait upon them. Jesus’ friends all ran away. Kings have rings of gold on their fingers. Jesus had nails driven into his hands. Kings receive accolades. Jesus was mocked by everyone, even by the guy hanging on the cross next to him.
We don’t do kings well in America. In fact, we fought a long war of independence to get rid of the yoke of kings. We chafe against anyone and anything that curtails our freedoms. Maybe that’s the type of king that priest was thinking about.
Jesus is a different kind of king. He doesn’t take away our freedom, he gives it back to us. By humbling himself on that cross, Jesus showed us what real freedom is. Freedom in the kingdom of God is freedom from sin, freedom from the shackles of our own selfish humanity, freedom from death.
People in Jesus’ day understood what it meant to have a king. Everything they owned could be forfeit at his command. Their very lives were in his hands. At his whim they could be put to death. Signs of the emperor’s influence were everywhere, from the heavy taxes he levied against them to his ever-present legions of troops. To them, the emperor was the center of their lives, whether they liked it or not.
The disciples were confused when Jesus told them this parable, because that was the image of the king they held. Plus, they had the Jewish law, and they thought they would be judged according to it. Over 600 rules and regulations that covered all aspects of their lives, from who they associated with to what they ate and how they cleansed themselves. Now, here was Jesus telling them that it’s more basic than that. We will be judged not on how closely we follow the law, but on how well we treat one another.
There’s the famous story told of St. Martin of Tours, who lived in the 4th century. When Martin, a young Roman soldier and seeker of the Christian faith, met an unclothed man begging for alms in the freezing cold, he stopped and cut his coat in two and gave half to the stranger. That night he dreamt he saw the heavenly court with Jesus robed in a torn cloak. One of the angels present asked, "Master, why do you wear that battered cloak?" Jesus replied, "My servant Martin gave it to me." Martin had a wake-up call. Half measures won’t cut it.
All our king asks of us is what he asked of himself. The king of judgment judges us on how selfless we are. The scary part of this final exam is that not only will we be judged by what we do, we will also be judged on what we fail to do. Whether we know it’s wrong or not. The evildoers in today’s parable are judged on what they didn’t do, even though they had no idea they were supposed to do it. The real sin of the condemned was not that they failed to do anything for those in need, but they didn’t even notice them at all.
Lack of knowledge of the law is no excuse. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a Christian or not. God seems to think that we all know what we’re supposed to do, deep down, even if no one spells it out for us. There’s something deep inside us that tells us how we should act.
Maybe it’s because we have all been on the receiving end of compassion or the lack of it. We always look at this parable from the point of view of the person who is called to be compassionate. What about those who receive compassion? How have you been shown compassion this past year?
When have you been naked? Nakedness is not just a lack of clothing. When have you felt exposed to the world, when you had nowhere to hide, nowhere to run to? Was it a divorce, when you felt that all your family’s trials and faults were on display to all your friends? Was it the death of someone close to you, when you felt you couldn’t turn to anyone for solace, because no one could really understand what you were going through?
When were you hungry? We are surrounded by great plenty here, but hunger is not just for food. In our wedding rite we have a special prayer of the faithful. In it we pray for the hungry poor and the hungry rich. When have you hungered for spiritual sustenance and found none? When have you hungered for a loving touch, or a kind word, or anything that would help you get through the day, and found none?
Are you suffering? Many of you have suffered greatly this past year from serious diseases. The prayer list for the sick in the bulletin grows longer every week. Do you feel there’s no hope, no end in sight to your suffering? Are you frustrated by the doctors’ inability to find a cure? Do you feel abandoned by your friends, damaged goods, because they no longer come to see you?
What is your prison? Is it alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or pornography, or depression, or an abusive relationship? What is keeping you from being free?
And how have you reacted when you did receive compassion? How did you feel when you found that many people you didn’t even know had been praying for you? Were you able to recognize the little ways that people touched your life for the good? Have you been able to look back upon your suffering this year and found some redeeming value to it? Sometimes the way we react to others’ giving to us determines the way that we heal. Have we allowed others to do for us?
So, it goes round and round. We are called to be compassionate, and we are called to receive compassion. We are called to see to the needs of those around us, and to have our own needs fulfilled by others. That’s the way God set it up. We can’t do it by ourselves. We’re all in this together. It’s pure genius. God knew that we’d screw things up when he gave us free will; he knew we’d hurt each other. He knew we’d be selfish, so he showed us the way to selflessness. St. Paul tells us that just as through a selfish man all died, through a selfless man all have been given eternal life. It was through the selfless death of Jesus Christ that death has been conquered forever.
That’s the message we’re left with on this last Sunday of the year. That whatsoever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters, we do unto Jesus. Because Jesus did the same for us. I think that’s something that priest in Anaheim and I can agree on.