I know too much history and Scripture not to have problems with today’s celebration of Christ the King. For instance, I realize that, on many levels, it was inserted into our liturgical year as a backhanded slap to the democratic principles most of us Americans hold dear, and the way it’s frequently commemorated and homilized on flies in the face of both the historical and biblical Jesus’ image of himself. Being faithful to the latter, it would make more sense to close the “church year” with a feast of Jesus the Servant.
Biblical writers consistently have problems with their leaders, both civil and religious. Active during the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel often blames his Jewish leaders for the predicament in which his people find themselves. There’s been such a recent string of class AAA schlemiels on the throne that the prophet can only turn to Yahweh’s leadership when he thinks of the future.
“I myself,” Yahweh promises, “will look after and tend my sheep. . . . I will rescue them . . . . The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal. . . .“ Only Yahweh can be counted on to supply what Yahweh’s people need.
No wonder Jesus’ followers turned to him for leadership. He not only took care of their needs, he removed or met needs which many hadn’t even noticed before he came into their lives.
Paul reminds his Corinthian community that Jesus’ death and resurrection has created a whole new world. Everything is changed. No longer are we automatically under the control of evil. We’re now following behind someone who overcame the greatest evil of all: death. His “platform” is simple: “that God may be all in all!” No king could ever pull that off.
How does Jesus do it? Matthew tells us. Though the evangelist depicts Jesus as a judging king, he’s a king like no other. Instead of drawing attention to himself, this king shines the royal light on the most insignificant people anyone could imagine. He doesn’t examine his subjects on how they’ve treated him, instead, he demands to know how they’ve treated their community’s most helpless individuals.
Matthew’s Jesus actually carries out Paul’s vision of God being all in all. Jesus the king identifies with the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me!” Those who would zero in on Jesus’ importance quickly realize he conceived of his role as helping his followers zero in on the importance of others.
No wonder so many “outcasts” flocked to early Christianity. When such people joined a community which carried out Jesus’ teachings and example, they discovered something and someone in themselves which those outside the faith never noticed. They didn’t join the church just because they wanted to get into heaven. They became Jesus’ followers because they were constantly reminded of their dignity as other Christs. The slaves, the sick, the imprisoned all shared in the same importance.
Historians remind us that this life-giving dimension of our faith quickly faded into the background once the present hierarchical structure began to take shape. Eventually even the people’s participation in the selection of the hierarchs, which Pope St. Leo the Great so emphasized, was eliminated.
Notice how “royal” we feel at the end of today’s liturgy when only members of the clergy are permitted to “purify” the sacred vessels. Our only recourse is to listen again to the last words of today’s gospel: “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me!”