Ancient Kings and Jewish Eschatology: The Shepherd/King in Our Midst

A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

November 26, 2017 Christ the King Year A

Lections:  Ezekiel 34: 11-24; Matthew 25: 31-46

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Thanksgiving morning, out on a walk with my in-laws, I was asked about my sermon for today; what was it about?   Ancient kings, I answered.  One person commented, “Surely, we are better off without monarchs governing us,” and I would not disagree. We need look no further than to recent events in Saudi Arabia to cringe from advocacy of any form of kingship and applaud George Washington’s insistence that he not be crowned another King George.   Why then, we might ask, is the last Sunday of the Church year celebrated as Christ the King Sunday?  

In Matthew’s account of “The Sheep and the Goats,” Jesus is speaking of a “day of the Lord,” that is, “the end of history.” In his parable, a Shepherd/King judges the nations, separating their peoples one from another, designating some to eternal punishment and others to eternal life.  The Shepherd/King’s actions conform to the royal office: ancient kings might make laws, arbitrate judgments, and ensure penalties were carried out. On the other hand, shepherds exercised no political authority; shepherds were as powerless as their kings were powerful. The mixed metaphors of Shepherd and King underscore the relationship between sitting in judgment and fulfilling the responsibilities of a ruler.  Just nations are governed by rulers who maintain standards for feeding the hungry, sharing water, showing hospitality to strangers, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners. The judgment portrayed in our parable shows the surprising reversal of expectations consistent with the end of history:  the least powerful of nations and their peoples will be rewarded with compassion and mercy, while the strongest will be condemned for their abuse of power.

Jesus’ parable of “The Sheep and the Goats” is based upon Ezekiel’s eschatological vision in Chapter 34, where Ezekiel directs his prophesy against “the shepherds of Israel,” that is, its rulers.  In verses 1-2 of Chapter 34, we hear:

“This is what the Lord YHWH said: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?”

In verses 3-5, YHWH details his indictment:  the shepherds eat curds, slaughter the choice animals, and dress in wool, while the flock goes without. The weak are not strengthened, the sick are not healed, and the fractured are not bandaged; “the stray you did not recover, the lost you did not seek, and with force you ruled over them harshly and brutally.”

Consequently, the flock scatters and “becomes prey for every wild beast.” And YHWH vows to “come at the shepherds” and “hold them to account.”

Ezekiel’s vision, a vivid picture of justice in the wings, also serves as a poignant reminder that the icon we recognize as “Jesus the Good Shepherd” is predicated on this justice.  Jesus the Christ is both shepherd and king.  As shepherd, Jesus seeks the lost, recovers the stray, bandages the fractured, and strengthens the sick; as king, Jesus destroys the stout and the strong.  As king, Jesus judges – even among his flock – against the well-fed who “must trample with their feet the rest” of the pasture, “so that my flock feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied.”

Ezekiel’s powerful vision lies in the background of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s account of “The Sheep and the Goats.”  This point needs to be stressed: the teachings of Jesus were based upon and consistent with Jewish scriptures. When we observe the complementarity of Jewish and Christian scriptures, we avoid many of the pitfalls of reflecting on the Christian scriptures apart from their Jewish roots.   A radical imperative informs Ezekiel’s vision and the teaching of Jesus; in each, the Last Judgment is passed upon a collective of people, the nations, based upon the behavior of their rulers.  Conveniently, contemporary Christians who encourage individualist fantasies of “end times” and “prophesy” for personal gain overlook the substantive details of this Scriptural principle: we float and sink as one.

Ezekiel, who prophesied to the Israelites exiled in Babylon, introduced new themes into Jewish eschatology: first, the return to Zion from exile; second, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and third, the revival of temple worship. Ezekiel makes the connection between “national rebirth” and bodily resurrection, “as in his vision of the dry bones that come to life again” (Ezek 37), but we should not read into his connection a belief in individual resurrection.  Jews continued to believe in the finality of death for another 300 years or so after the Babylonian captivity.  A rebuilt Jerusalem and the reinstitution of Temple worship were to be “the center of a new Israelite polity,” through which Israel gained “a new heart and a new spirit” and “the old intimacy” between God and his people was ‘re-established.’” Ezekiel’s vision of God waging war against the kings of Gog and Magog engaged “earlier visions of a “day of the Lord,” which were elaborated in “later Jewish and Christian eschatologies,” for example, the Book of Daniel and the Revelation of John.  At the end of the history that Ezekiel prophesied, when YHWH has righted all wrongs, a new ruler is installed on earth, and God proclaims, “I, YHWH will be their God, and my servant David, a chief in their midst.”[i]

The catholic, i.e. universal church identifies Jesus, with bona fides established in the line of King David, is the Shepherd/King in our midst. This is the hope and promise celebrated on Christ the King Sunday.  Our Church year begins with the announcement of the Christ’s arrival, and his inauguration of God’s Kingdom, and concludes with a vision of the to be realized Kingdom in the almost but not yet now. Christ the King is a vision of absolute authority exercised with compassion and mercy for the powerless.  In this glorious turn of present, past, and future, we exclaim:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor; to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Rev 5:12).

Yet there is more.  The church makes a further claim:  the church is the body of Christ, which means we are the Shepherd/King in our very midst.  Each one of us is therefore accountable to the entire body for fulfilling the responsibilities of a ruler. To us has been given the charge to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.  It is we who inquire of the Christ, “When did we see You sick or in prison and visit You?,” and we who hear the King reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).  On the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate the true and royal nature of the Christ conferred on us, who are powerless.  Each year, as we move through its cycle of seasons, we recapitulate the history of our royal priesthood from death to life, from ignorance to wisdom, and from self-centeredness to service.

And all the people said, Amen.

[i] This paragraph borrows from the commentary in David L Leiber, ed, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, 2001, 1434-1439.

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