Christ the King A: Surprises for Evangelicals and for All of Us

Gospel Reading: Matthew 25:31–46

The climax of the church’s year is Christ the King Sunday. Believers remind themselves of ultimate things.

To understand our Gospel Lesson we must realize the more things change, the more they stay the same. A record number of voters turned out a couple of weeks ago; and no matter who you voted for, chances are you thought the world would pretty much fall apart if the other side won.

In Jesus’ day too a lot of people thought catastrophe was just around the corner. The nation was occupied. Tensions were building. Romans were poised. Religious zealots were predicting that God would bring things to a climax.

Chapter 24 of Matthew starts with the disciples pointing out the grandeur of the Temple. Herod had indeed made Israel great again. Jesus counters that soon things would all fall apart. On top of the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, the disciples press the Lord and ask how things would look when he would return as the Son of Man and bring about the end of the age. They want to know the future.

Jesus’ answer to disciples then and now is, “The end of the age is taking shape right now.” He answers his disciples curiosity with a number of images and parables, culminating in this vision of future judgment in our Gospel Reading: The Son of Man, on a throne of glory, passes judgment with a single criterion for a single humanity.

Note the elements of surprise in this narrative. The first surprise is that Israel and all the other nations are all judged together. There is no question that faithful Jews, the chosen people of the covenant, would be judged any differently than the pagans or idol worshippers. Christians today should take note—we are not special cases.

The next surprise is how there is also no separation between the exalted Son of Man and the vulnerable and the needy. This divine judge separates people to his right to enter into the kingdom prepared for them from eternity, and the people on his left for the eternal fire set aside for the devil and his angels. To those on his right he says, “You cared for me.” They are caught off guard. “When did we do that?” The Son of Man answers, “When you cared for the least—the insignificant and habitually forgotten—you cared for me. You dared to touch my pain.”

Again, the surprise for the people headed for eternal curse: They did not know they had the future Son of Man right there I front of them. When they discounted people, they discounted their Lord, and inadvertently sealed their own fate.

The surprise in both cases is that judgment isn’t about good works. One people didn’t know they were doing good. The others didn’t know they were doing such evil. It was all beyond their consciousness or intent—the basic ingredients of good works. Their right hands didn’t know what their left hands were doing.

For the people of the nations who were on the right it was much like Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge, on Christmas morning. When Scrooge danced for joy, spied “a boy in Sunday clothes” and bought a turkey as big as the boy to take to Bob Cratchit’s, he was beside himself—quite un-self-conscious. When the turkey turned out to be too big to carry to Cratchit’s, he said to himself that he would have to pay for a cab.  Then…

The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.

Scrooge would never have begun to think he was doing good deeds, much less his duty to God, when he went on to pledge mightily to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. He thanked the gentleman who was collecting such “charity.” No, the three ghosts had shown him how he needed God’s grace, and now the Holy Ghost unleashed that grace within him. Scrooge was simply overjoyed at having such a forgiving and generous God that he couldn’t help emptying himself—and chuckling all the while.

This brings us to a Big Surprise for certain of our evangelical brothers and sisters of America. Their focus is on heaven, and on souls, and on being found righteous. They are less concerned about social justice now, and the bodily needs of flesh and bone people.

I do hope and pray that these brothers and sisters will wake up and take heed of both our Gospel reading and the prophetic lesson from Ezekiel today, about the sheep and goats who eat from good pasture and drink from the still waters, but, in the meantime trample the grass and befoul the water for others. Please, enjoy your religious and civic liberty—but don’t ruin this good land for others who have been butted away from justice and health by the swollen appetites of others.

And, returning to the judgment scene in our Gospel, I hope you certain evangelicals consider the “least” in today’s America. Please don’t be slaves to the rich and powerful forces who have tried to usurp Jesus’ rule over this world. Please don’t let them rob you of the joy of mercy, compassion, and social justice.

Please recognize that Blacks who hunger and thirst for justice are not your enemies. Do not stop your ears when they cry out. They are not trying to destroy your pretty suburbs, but they are among the least of your brothers and sisters. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

Please recognize that the refugees and immigrants who walk for months to get to or borders aren’t your enemies. They are among the least, threatened in their homes and despised when they wander. They are prisoners of their own homelessness. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

Please recognize that gays, lesbians, and transgender people are not your enemies. They are people with an extra heavy burden of being strangers, desperate for a friendly welcome. They are the Son of Man in your midst.

And please, don’t be so enslaved to a false, politicized version of your religion that you don’t even recognize that the Son of Man is walking right beside you and wants to be protected from the virus that you may be carrying. Wear a mask!!

I pray that these certain evangelicals will realize that heaven is not an escape. It is not an alternative to this world, created by God. This world is the Kingdom in the making. Heaven and this world we live in today are part of the one reality under Christ the King. Therefore, we are working out our own futures right now. If we have truly opened ourselves to the compassion and forgiveness of God we will have spontaneous, unbounded compassion for the “least” among us,


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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