The teachings of Jesus towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew focus on events connected with the end of the age. They contain unsettling scenes of judgment and distress, a temple in ruins, and a period of “great tribulation” before the coming of the Son of Man at an unknown day and hour (Matthew 24:1-44).
The distressing series of events in this “eschatological discourse” culminates in a dramatic judgment scene in the gospel reading today when the Son of Man takes his seat on the throne and assembles “the nations” before him. Like “a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” the king will divide humanity into two camps.
Those who have shown compassion for the hungry, the thirsty, the refugee, the prisoner, the sick, and the powerless will be placed on his right. To sit on a king’s right was a great honor in ancient near eastern culture. On the other hand, those who have not shown mercy to such “least ones” will be seated on the king’s left, a place of dishonor and shame.
Since most of us on occasion have overlooked the needs of the poor or ignored someone suffering directly in front of us, Jesus’ words, once again, are uncomfortable. This Sunday marks the final installment of our eight-week message series, called More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion. Over these weeks, Jesus’ teachings have packed a punch. We’ve been told that we must produce good fruit, show up to his party, repay all to God, love authentically, live with integrity, perform good works, invest everything into the mission of God’s kingdom, and lift up the poor. The penalty for failure will be various forms of exclusion, including being replaced, evicted, humbled, locked out, divested and dispossessed, and segregated in a place of “eternal punishment.”
Jesus challenges us in these passages to help us grow spiritually. In the weeks leading up to his enthronement today on the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe, when God will “be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), Jesus has been moving us into mission and reminding us that, in the days, weeks, or years leading up to his return at the end of time, we must not act like consumers but work for the kingdom as his disciples.
The Church has a very specific mission to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). It’s precisely why producing fruit, loving and serving others with integrity, using all the resources the Lord has given us to perform good works and reveal to the world the mysteries of the kingdom is so imperative.
But the good news is that our shepherd will not leave us alone. In fact, there is a good argument that the “least brothers” of Christ in the parable of the sheep and the goats actually are his disciples, who in every age evangelize the world. To the extent we are starved, depleted, displaced, condemned, disabled or denuded by the world when we honestly try to live as his disciples, the Lord comforts us with his promise in the first reading that he will “pasture his sheep” and “give them rest.” This Advent, how will you move into mission for the Lord?
Father Roger Gustafson