Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
As a shepherd tends his flock
when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,
so will I tend my sheep.
I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered
when it was cloudy and dark.
I myself will pasture my sheep;
I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD.
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.
As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.
Brothers and sisters:
Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through man,
the resurrection of the dead came also through man.
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end,
when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father,
when he has destroyed every sovereignty
and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
When everything is subjected to him,
then the Son himself will also be subjected
to the one who subjected everything to him,
so that God may be all in all.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him.
And he will separate them one from another,
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right,
'Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply,
'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me, you accursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome,
naked and you gave me no clothing,
ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'
Then they will answer and say,
'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison,
and not minister to your needs?'
He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you,
what you did not do for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.'
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life."
Our sacred authors have a unique problem: how do they conjure up images of God which accurately represent their experiences of God? They presume no matter what picture they surface, it’s not going to do total justice to the God they know. Some aspects of their images work, others fail horribly. The author of the Song of Songs, for instance, discovered a parallel challenge when he compared his lover’s hair to “a flock of goats streaming down from Gilead,” and her nose to “the tower on Lebanon that looks toward Damascus.” I don’t think she appreciated every aspect of either image.
In spite of the “limping metaphors,” our sacred authors present us with three distinct images of God in today’s liturgical readings: a shepherd, a new Adam, and a king.
Deeply affected by the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel hopes for Yahweh to directly break into Israel’s salvation history and shepherd his/her dispirited people. They’ve been aimlessly wandering around for far too long. They’ve no other leader but Yahweh. “I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered . . . I myself will pasture my sheep; I will give them rest, says Yahweh God.” Unless Yahweh steps in, they’ll be left to a dog eat sheep world. God is their only hope.
Paul, on the other hand, reflects on the impact the risen Jesus has had on his friends in Corinth. It’s as though the Apostle has read about President Roosevelt’s plans for a “new deal.” We’re all starting from scratch. Just as Adam got us into the mess we’re in by bringing death into the world, the risen Jesus – as the new Adam – has turned everything around by bringing life into our everyday experiences. What we once thought inevitable, the risen Jesus has destroyed. He/she’s created a whole new “game” with a whole new deck of cards.
Yet, on this day of all days, the divine image on which we’re most concentrating is that of king. Today’s gospel pericope is one of our most frequently used passages of Scripture, especially employed during funeral liturgies. It’s always comforting to reflect on how the deceased discovered the risen Jesus in his or her life by caring for the helpless in their midst. But today it’s also important to reflect on how the Jewish biblical image of king revolved around caring for the helpless.
Historians remind us that on their 12th century BCE entrance into the Promised Land, those former Jewish Egyptian slaves didn’t immediately set up a monarchy. Instead, as the book of Judges narrates, the 12 tribes formed themselves into a loose-knit confederation. Only when that confederation no longer met their needs did they begin discussing the possibility of a king.
But it would be a unique king, quite unlike the kings reigning in the countries surrounding Israel. Those monarchies were created to protect the rights of the high and mighty. Yahweh’s kings, on the contrary, came into existence to defend those who had no clout. The high and mighty could take care of themselves. In Israel three groups of people always had legal access to the king 24/7: widows, orphans, and resident aliens. Given the customs of the ancient world, none of the three had anyone – except the Israelite king – to plead their cause.
That’s why Matthew’s Jesus, given the image of a Jewish king, identifies with the helpless in our midst: the poor, the refugees, the imprisoned. He not only pleads their cause, he becomes one with them. Whenever we care for any on that well-known list we eventually discover we’ve been caring for the royal, risen Jesus. The most surprising discovery we’ll experience at the pearly gates. We’ve actually became royalty ourselves by helping the helpless.