WITH the last Sunday before Advent, Christ the King, we come at last to the parable for which previous weeks have been preparing us: the separation of the sheep and the goats.
I have often used Matthew 25.31-40 as a funeral reading for those who have lived lives of selfless service outside the Church. But it is only comfortable to do so when we omit verses 41-46, which link the salvation of the righteous to the damnation of the unrighteous. For some Christians, this very act of division is a key part of the parable’s attraction.
From the Gospel, I turned to the reading from Ezekiel, looking to find help there. I did not find a way to make Matthew’s message more palatable. What I did find was a different kind of help, as I absorbed the prophetic voice. Instead of analysing the content, I responded to the form. Formal textual analysis can be an arid exercise, but not in this case; for I do not think that I have ever seen a reading so crammed with verbs.
Going by the NRSV (rather than the Hebrew original), the passage contains 24 verbs, by which God describes his own actions. The most prominent are “seek” (four times), “bring” (three times), and “feed” (six times). They give the impression that Ezekiel’s God is an intervening God, powerful and active. Of all the verbs used in this passage, though, the last one seemed to me to be richest in meaning, and most replete with hope. It is a verb which, in many languages, turns out to be old, complex, and very meaning-full: the verb “to be”.
The torrent of action-verbs (“I will search/seek/rescue/bring/shepherd. . .” etc.) comes to a sudden stop in verse 24: “I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.” God stops being a direct participant. He shifts from doing to being, from action to existence. By raising up a prince among humankind, in the person of King David, God discloses his design for his creation. He calls this human being to take on the part of shepherd, binder-up, feeder, strengthener of his people.
Through the succession of human rulers, God reveals to us the impossibility of human rule embodying the divine will completely — even David and Solomon fall short. But David and his successors, set over God’s people Israel to rule them, are not a failed “plan A”, obliging God to dream up a plan B. They are a stage in the progressive unfolding of a single divine purpose.
Thus the “fullness” which had always been the objective is inaugurated through the incarnation. God’s Son will rule his Kingdom, and his body will be the Church. This is revealed in that fullness for which Paul longed, and we still pray: the birth of Christ, which ushers in the “Kingdom of the heavens” (Matthew’s distinctive expression). God shifts from doing to being, as Ezekiel prophesied so long ago, to make possible the binding together of divinity and humanity, which otherwise would be entirely disparate, incapable of integrous communication. So came the revealing of God’s own Son as the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace.
The commemoration of Christ the King celebrates an ultimate end, which is somehow the beginning of a new dawn, too. God makes Jesus Christ his way of drawing humankind to himself for ever. What was initiated in Ezekiel is completed in the Gospel, because Jesus and all who follow him as their Lord begin doing and fulfilling the will of God, whose being is now known to them. The sheep from the Gospel are both the doers of God’s will, and its embodiment.
So, we should not underestimate the verb “to be”. Its noun-form, “being”, is not a wishy-washy, weedy word, lurking in the background but devoid of substance. It is the term we turn to, Sunday by Sunday, to express the foundation of Christ’s kingship, when we proclaim that he is “of one being” with the Father. The Nicene Creed turned to that word “being” to express the ultimate reality of God, both Father and Son (and finally Spirit, too).
Christ’s kingship is simply this: God’s ultimate reality, his purpose fulfilled, a disclosure of the whole meaning not just of salvation history but all history, from “in the beginning” to the “ages of ages, Amen” (Ephesians 3.21).