12 November 2011

Matthew 25: 31-46, Christ the King comes in glory

A scene of Christ in Majesty at the Last Judgment in a fresco in the Orthodox Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

Matthew 25: 31-46

[Ο Ιησούς είπε στους μαθητές του:]
31 Οταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ
καὶ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι μετ' αὐτοῦ,
τότε καθίσει ἐπὶ θρόνου δόξης αὐτοῦ:
32 καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη,
καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺς ἀπ' ἀλλήλων,
ὥσπερ ὁ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων,
33 καὶ στήσει τὰ μὲν πρόβατα ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ
τὰ δὲ ἐρίφια ἐξ εὐωνύμων.
34 τότε ἐρεῖ ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῖς ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ,
Δεῦτε, οἱ εὐλογημένοι τοῦ πατρός μου,
κληρονομήσατε τὴν ἡτοιμασμένην ὑμῖν βασιλείαν
ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου:
35 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν,
ἐδίψησα καὶ ἐποτίσατέ με,
ξένος ἤμην καὶ συνηγάγετέ με,
36 γυμνὸς καὶ περιεβάλετέ με,
ἠσθένησα καὶ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με,
ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην καὶ ἤλθατε πρός με.
37 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται αὐτῷ οἱ δίκαιοι λέγοντες,
Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα καὶ ἐθρέψαμεν,
ἢ διψῶντα καὶ ἐποτίσαμεν;
38 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ξένον καὶ συνηγάγομεν,
ἢ γυμνὸν καὶ περιεβάλομεν;
39 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ἀσθενοῦντα ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ
καὶ ἤλθομεν πρός σε;
40 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς,
Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
ἐφ' ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.
41 Τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων,
Πορεύεσθε ἀπ' ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοι
εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον
τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ:
42 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ οὐκ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν,
ἐδίψησα καὶ οὐκ ἐποτίσατέ με,
43 ξένος ἤμην καὶ οὐ συνηγάγετέ με,
γυμνὸς καὶ οὐ περιεβάλετέ με,
ἀσθενὴς καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με.
44 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται καὶ αὐτοὶ λέγοντες,
Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα ἢ διψῶντα
ἢ ξένον ἢ γυμνὸν ἢ ἀσθενῆ ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ
καὶ οὐ διηκονήσαμέν σοι;
45 τότε ἀποκριθήσεται αὐτοῖς λέγων,
Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
ἐφ' ὅσον οὐκ ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων,
οὐδὲ ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.
46 καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον,
οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

[Jesus said to his disciples:]
31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand
and the goats at the left.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world;
35 for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
36 I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.”
37 Then the righteous will answer him,
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food,
or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you,
or naked and gave you clothing?
39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison
and visited you?”
40 And the king will answer them,
“Truly I tell you,
just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand,
“You that are accursed,
depart from me into the eternal fire
prepared for the devil and his angels;
42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me,
naked and you did not give me clothing,
sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
44 Then they also will answer,
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison,
and did not take care of you?”
45 Then he will answer them,
“Truly I tell you,
just as you did not do it to one of the least of these,
you did not do it to me.”
46 And these will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life.’


Sunday week [Sunday 20 November 2011] is the Sunday before Advent, now marked in the Church Calendar as the Kingship of Christ. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings are: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 Psalm 100 Ephesians 1: 15-23 Matthew 25: 31-46.

Before preparing a sermon for that Sunday, we should note that both the Church of Ireland Directory 2011 and the Church of Ireland Sunday and Weekday Readings 2011 (p. 59) share an obvious typographical error, giving the wrong Gospel reading: they give Matthew 26: 31-46, instead of Matthew 25: 31-46. However, the correct readings are given in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 62, the Revised Common Lectionary (London: Mowbray, 1998), pp 388-392, and in the ‘Liturgical Notes’ by Canon Brian Mayne in this week’s edition of the Church of Ireland Gazette (11 November 2011, p. 2).

Perhaps it is a sign of getting older that I pay more attention to detail and that I noticed this shared ‘typo’ some weeks ago.

Perhaps it is also a sign of getting older that each year I think Christmas is coming earlier and earlier.

Already the Christmas decorations, including trees and lights, are up at Rathfarnham Shopping Centre. Reports over the past week say Irish shoppers are planning to spend more in the weeks before Christmas than our counterparts across the European Union. The shops would have us believe that Christmas has already arrived as shop owners and traders try to breathe a festive air into our lives, despite the economic gloom and doom and the floods of recent weeks.

Unlike some friends in England who have already got their first Christmas card – from the Church Urban Fund – I have yet to receive my first Christmas card. But already the Dean of Belfast has launched this year’s Christmas stamps, An Post and the Royal Mail have posted a warning on its website about the latest dates for posting for Christmas – and some of those dates for surface mail have already passed!

Our plans for the Church of Ireland Theological Institute’s Advent carol service are well advanced. We all look forward to Christmas … it is holiday time, it is family time, it is a time for gifts and presents, for meeting and greeting, for family meals.

In every Church, we shall see more people coming through the doors than at any other time of the year. People love the carols, the tradition, the goodwill and the good feelings we get from even just thinking about Santa Claus and the elves, the tree and the lights, the crib and the Baby Jesus.

Even the most secular of revellers will admit, without much compulsion, that Christ is at the heart of Christmas, and that waiting for Christ, anticipating Christ, should be at the heart of the Advent season, which begins next Sunday.

Looking out from the Church of Christ the King onto Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Preparing for Christ’s coming

This Gospel reading may seem to be a little out of sequence for some. We are preparing for Christmas, you may think, not for Easter. But we forget that so easily. I hear on all the radio chat shows people already talking about this being the Christmas Season … before Advent has even started.

But Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas, and in the weeks beforehand we even prepare for Advent itself, with Lectionary readings telling us about the Coming of Christ.

We have made Christmas a far-too comfortable story. It was never meant to be, but we have made it comfortable with our Christmas card images of the sweet little baby Jesus, being visited by kings and surrounded by adoring, cute little animals. The reality, of course, is that Christmas was never meant to be a comfortable story like that.

Christmas is a story about poverty and about people who are homeless and rejected and who can find no place to stay.

It is a messy story about a child born surrounded by the filth of animals and the dirt of squalor.

It is a story of shepherds who are involved in dangerous work, staying up all night, out in the winter cold, watching out for wolves and sheep stealers.

It is a story of trickery, deceit and the corruption of political power that eventually leads to a cruel dictator stooping to murder, even the murder of innocent children, to secure his own grip on power.

But those sorts of images do not sell Christmas Cards or help to get the boss drunk under the mistletoe at the office party.

That is why in the weeks before Advent we have readings reminding us about what the coming of Christ into the world means, what the Kingdom of God is like, and how we should prepare for the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The Feast of Christ the King

The Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On Sunday week, we are marking the Kingship of Christ. I know of few Anglican churches dedicated to Christ the King, apart from the Church of Christ the King in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, London, now used by Forward in Faith. The Feast of Christ the King is a recent innovation in the Church calendar. It was first suggested at the end of 1925 when Pope Pius XI published an encyclical, Quas Primas, in which he castigated secularism in Europe and declared that the secular powers ought to recognise Christ as King and that the Church needed to recapture this teaching.

At the time, the entire idea of kingship was quickly losing credibility in western societies, not so much to democracy but to burgeoning fascism – Mussolini was in power in Italy since 1922, and a wave of fascism was about to sweep across central Europe.

The mere mention of kingship and monarchy today may evoke images of either the extravagance of Louis XVI in Versailles, or the anachronism of pretenders in Ruritanian headdress, sashes and medals claiming thrones and privilege in Eastern Europe.

But since 1925, the celebration of Christ the King or the Kingship of Christ has become part of the calendar of the wider Western Church. It took on an ecumenical dimension from 1983 on with its introduction to Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others through the Revised Common Lectionary.

The end of the Church Year

Christ in Majesty ... John Piper’s window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

Putting the Christmas trees up too early or hanging up the lights and frosting the windows ahead of Advent do not help to encourage a true Christmas spirit because they help us forget what Advent is all about.

Christ comes not just as a cute cuddly babe wrapped up in the manger and under the floodlights of a front window in a large department store in Grafton Street or the window of a leading brand shop in Dundrum.

Marking the Sunday before Advent by crowning Christ as King helps us to focus on Advent from the following Sunday, and Advent is supposed to be a time and a season of preparing for the coming of Christ.

Kingship may not be a good role model in this part of the island or for people living in modern democratic societies where the heads of state are elected. Nor are the models of kingship in history or in contemporary society so good. Let me share three examples:

● We are familiar with a model of monarchy that paradoxically appears to be benign on the one hand and appears aloof and remote on the other hand, at the very apex of a class system defined by birth, title and inherited privilege.
● In other northern European countries, the model of monarchy is portrayed in the media by figureheads who are slightly daft do-gooders, riding around on bicycles in parks and by canals in ways that threaten to rob kingship of majesty, dignity and grace.
● Or, take recently deposed emperors: Halie Selassie, who died in 1975, sat back in luxury as his people starved to death; Emperor Bokassa, who died in 1996, was a tyrant accused of eating his people and having them butchered at whim.

Is it any wonder that some modern translations of the Psalms avoid the word king and talk about God as our governor?

The setting:

In the lectionary readings for Year A, we have arrived at the last Sunday of readings in Saint Matthew’s Gospel about Christ’s days in Jerusalem immediately after Palm Sunday. The actual account of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21: 1-22 was passed over in recent Sundays, but came between the readings on 18 September and 25 September.

The Sunday before Advent now gives us time to pause and reflect on the why, over the past few months, we have been following Christ on his journey to Jerusalem. For it is there that he will be revealed in glory as the Son of Man and the King.

Dividing the sheep and the goats

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican

The Gospel reading for the Feast of Christ the King tells the story of Christ coming in glory as the Son of Man (verse 31), as the king (verses 34 and 40), and as Lord (verses 37 and 44).

This parable is unique to Saint Matthew and has no parallel in the other Gospels. It brings to a close the whole of the discourse that began in Chapter 23.

This is a stark and challenging parable that forces us to ask what the coming of Christ, the second coming, will be like, and what Christ has to say to us about the way we live and the way we should be living in the world today.

The division of people into sheep and goats is well known. We all constantly love to divide people into two groups, the insiders and the outsiders, us and them, friends and foes, Manchester United supporters and ABU fans. We do it all the time, and sheep and goats are a good short-hand term for what we do.

Sheep and goats behave differently, but in Palestine they were fed together. In the Palestine of Christ’s time, and even to this very day, throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, sheep and goats are often difficult to tell apart until they have been separated. And when it came to insiders and outsiders, the goats were definitely the insiders and the sheep the outsiders.

Goats are lively animals and very curious. They are happy living either in herds with other goats or by themselves, while sheep are more docile, easily led, and always stay in groups.

Sheep are greedier than goats – they are more likely to overeat than goats if they have access to more food than they need. Sheep are destructive grazers, while goats are browsers. This means sheep eat grass and other plants all the way down to the ground, while goats, on the other hand, despite popular misconceptions, simply nibble here and there, sampling a variety of bushes and leaves, chewing on a lot of things without actually eating them.

Goats are among the best climbers in the world: they almost never fall or slip, while sheep, on the other hand, are much less sure-footed and can easily fall and get stuck upside down.

We all know the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost goat just would not have had the same resonance, would it?

Sheep, on the one hand, can and will stay out all night, and are more resilient in bad weather, which is why the shepherds on that first Christmas were out on the hillsides looking after their flocks.

Goats, on the other hand, need warmth at night, so might even have been in the stable alongside the ox and the ass.

So: sheep are outsiders, goats are insiders. And what happens to the insiders and the outsiders in this parable would be a shocking end to the story for those who heard it for the first time in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The earliest portrayal of the Last Judgment is in a sixth century mosaic in Ravenna

This is a parable or story that is so stark and so challenging that it has inspired many of the great works of art.

Doom walls were often painted in English mediaeval churches, on the inside, Western or back wall, and it is a traditional image that is still popular in some Greek churches.

The earliest portrayal of the Last Judgment in art is a sixth century mosaic in Ravenna that shows a seated Christ flanked by two large Byzantine-style angels, all three seated in a way that prefigures Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham, or the Old Testament Trinity. To his right are three perky-looking sheep and balanced on his left are three more sober-looking goats.

The Last Judgment (ca 1425) by Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment (ca 1425) is now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1534-1541), caused controversy because of its muscular, beardless Christ.

And it is, perhaps, because of Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and other great artists, we often see this story of the Last Judgment as a story about individual judgment and individual condemnation, rather than the judgment of the nations that we read about in this Gospel reading.

Searching questions

Christ the King ... Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

The story opens with Christ coming again in glory, sitting on his throne of glory (verse 31), and the nations gathered before him (verse 32). They are not atomised, isolated individuals who are gathered before the throne of Christ: they are the nations – all the nations – that are assembled and asked these very searching questions.

These are questions that are directly related to the conditions that surrounded that first Christmas; questions that directly challenge us as to whether we have taken on board the values of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3-11; Luke 6: 20-31); questions that ask whether we really accept the values Christ proclaimed at the very start of his ministry when he spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-19).

We should be aware of the poetry that is part of this passage too. In verses 35-36, when the king calls in those on his right hand, he emphasises four times that when they ministered to the needy they ministered to him, and he does this by emphasising “I” and “me” rather than the verbs: the words “I” and “me” are emphasised, rather than the verb, in the words μοι and με. This poetic emphasis is missed if our translations are laid out in narrative rather than poetic form.

Similarly, in verses 37-39, in the questions put to king, the emphasis in on ministering to the king, on the “you,” rather than the action: note the –μεν ending in the key words in the questions, another poetic structure in this passage.

The poetry is part of the drama, but how do we get this across to congregations when it is being read as the Sunday Gospel reading?

Meanwhile, the questions posed here are questions put to us not just as individuals and as Christians. They are also questions that are put to the nations, to all of the nations (πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, pánta to ethne), each and every one of them. The word ἔθνος (ethnos) is used in the Bible to refer to a tribe, nation, people or group, and especially to foreign nations that were not Jewish.

And that is where Christ comes into the world, both at Christmas and at the second coming, with the Kingdom of God. At his birth, the old man in the Temple, Simeon, welcomes him as the light for revelation to the nations, φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν (phos eis apokálypsin ethnon), “a light for revelation to the nations” (Luke 2: 32).

Which nations on earth, at this very moment, would like to be judged by how enlightened they are, to be compared with the Kingdom of God when it comes to how each nation treats and looks after those the enthroned Christ identifies with himself: those who are hungry; those who are thirsty; those who are strangers and find no welcome on our shores; those who are naked, bare of anything to call their own in this world, or whose naked bodies are exploited for profit and pleasure; those who are sick, and left waiting on hospital trolleys or on endless lists for health care because they cannot afford it; those who are imprisoned because they spoke out, or because they are from the wrong political or ethnic group, or because they did not have the right papers when they arrived at Dublin Airport as refugees seeking asylum?

When did we ever see Christ in pain on hospital a trolley in Tallaght or being mistreated at the passport control kiosks in the arrivals area in Dublin Airport?

But – as long it was done in the name of our nation, we did it to Christ himself.

In his second coming, Christ tells us the kind of conduct, of morality, towards others that is expected of us as Christians, but also tells us of the consequences of not caring for others.

A recent illustration

Whatever your view is of the protesters in Paternoster Square in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, they have reminded the Church of the centrality and importance of these questions.

Writing in the Church Times last week (Friday 4 November 2011), Canon Giles Fraser – who resigned as Canon Chancellor of Saint Paul’s because of the cathedral’s response to these protests – says: “For too long the Church has been obsessed with its own internal workings and with silly arguments about sex. Now is the time for a new debate and a new emphasis. For if we are not fully involved with complex discussions about the relationship between financial justice and the way our financial institutions work, then we might as well give up on being a proper Church and admit that we are the spiritual arm of the heritage industry.”

As the Gospel reading we are looking at makes a direct connection with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, it is interesting that Canon Fraser began that comment piece with a reflection on Saint Luke’s account of the Beatitudes. He wrote:

Describing how the lectionary can be a cruel mistress, he recalls that the Evensong readings set for what was his last sermon in Saint Paul’s included: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6: 20, 25).

He argues that the “whole point of having a lectionary is that it obliges the preacher not to avoid the hard bits of the Bible. Were the readings up to me, I would have chosen something much safer. But that is the whole point of having a lectionary: it stops you retreating into safety. There are some things that just must stay on the agenda, however uncomfortable.”


Christ the King ... a modern American tapestry

This Gospel reading challenges us in a way that is uncomfortable, but with things that must stay on our agenda as Christians and on the agenda of the Church.

We are challenged in the epistle reading for this Sunday to ask ourselves: What are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints (Ephesians 1 18)? What is the immeasurable greatness of his great power (verse 19)?

The genius of power is revealed in those who have it and can use it but only do so sparingly. Christ’s choice is not to gratify those who want a worldly king, whether he is benign or barmy. Instead, he displays supreme majesty in his priorities for those who are counted out when it comes to other kingdoms.

Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of majesty and kingship. He is not coming again as a king who is haughty and aloof, daft and barmy, or despotic and tyrannical. Instead he shows a model of kingship that emphasises what majesty and graciousness should mean for us today – giving priority in the kingdom to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner (verses 35-36).

As we prepare for Christmas we should be preparing to enjoy time with our families and friends, time for a good winter’s holiday. But we should also remember the reason we have Christmas, the reason Christ came into the world, and the reason he is coming again.

We can look forward to seeing the Christ child in the crib and to singing about him in the carols. But let us also look forward to seeing him in glory. So let us be prepared to see him in the hungry, the thirsty, the unwelcome stranger, those who are naked and vulnerable, those who have no provisions for health care, those who are prisoners, those who have no visitors and those who are lonely and marginalised.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group of MTh students on Saturday 12 November 2011.

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