Today we're celebrating the solemnity of Christ the King, which marks the last Sunday in the liturgical year. As Americans, many of us don't have a clear idea of what it means for Jesus to be our king. When we think of kings, we might imagine King Arthur, a valiant, albeit flawed, warrior-king. We might think of the portrayal of King George III during the Revolutionary War as an insane and tyrannical ruler. But this is not how Jesus is presented to us. Our readings today show Jesus as a different sort of king: that of a shepherd-king.
Viewing Our Lord as both shepherd and king seem to be almost irreconcilable images. Shepherds were the poorest of the poor and the lowest class of people in Jesus' time, as they are in many parts of the world today. In contrast, kings have always been viewed as rich and powerful, higher than any other person in their kingdom. Yet, the Gospel reading today shows Our Lord reigning as king. He is not, however, reigning as some petty tyrant, lording his power and prestige over his people. He has not come to his power through brute strength, conquering those who stand against him. Instead, the imagery in the Gospel uses language of shepherding, separating the sheep and the goats.
This imagery comes to us from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, which we heard in the first reading. Ezekiel shows us that Our Lord cares for us as a loving shepherd cares for his flock. For those who are in any need, Our Lord will reach out and nurture them, filling their needs. He will go after those who are lost, gently leading them back into the flock. He cares for all of us, and wants us to follow Him into the Heavenly Kingdom.
For those who are proud, however, Our Lord promises that He will humble them. Frequently, shepherds would allow sheep and goats to graze together during the day, but when the time came to round up the flocks for the evening, the two animals would be put into separate pens. Thus, the sheep and the goats would be separated, the sheep to one pen, the goats to another.
Our Lord uses this image to show us the final judgment that will occur when Our Lord returns. We will be lined up before Him to judge how well we followed His example by the actions of our lives. Those who dedicated their lives to following Our Lord will be lined up on his right, and given their promised inheritance of the Kingdom of God. Those who did not follow His example will be lined up on His left, and will not receive the promised inheritance.
How do we follow Our Lord's example? Is it merely enough to attend Mass once a week? Even as it's important to maintain regular Mass attendance, Our Lord tells us we have to do more. We have to reach out to those around us who are in need of our support, our prayers, our generosity. When we reach out to those in need, Our Lord tells us that we reach out to Christ himself. We need to be open to those in need, give food to the hungry, clothe those who have insufficient clothing, especially in this time of year in which protective clothing is so vital.
We need to be careful not to view this Gospel as a checklist of things to accomplish. Feed the hungry, check. Clothe the naked, check. Visit the sick, check. We have to be open to our family, our friends, our coworkers, even those we dislike, and help them meet their needs. If someone needs a sympathetic ear, we need to be willing to provide it. If someone who is unable to drive needs a ride to the store or to an appointment, we should joyfully offer to take them. We have to be willing to do more than give our faith lip service. Instead of merely saying that we're Christians, we need to live as Christ wants us to live, allowing our actions to speak for us.
Our Lord reigns in Heaven as our king. Let us honor and praise him by living as He commands, so that we may stand on his right side at the Final Judgment and receive the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven.