26th November 2017
David the youngest in the family was out tending the sheep when the prophet Samuel called for him and announced that he was God’s choice to be king. The people lived closer to nature than we do and were familiar with the work of the shepherd, living with and caring for the sheep and leading them to safe and profitable grazing. A king was often likened to a shepherd with responsibility for the care of the people. The prophet Ezekiel draws on this sympathetic imagery when trying to encourage and console the people who were in the difficult situation of exile – some had fled to Egypt but most were in Babylon. So he depicts God as a shepherd caring for them and gathering them together. Yet this great comforting message also has a warning of judgement, for God acts righteously. Throughout their history as a settled nation in Israel some had been rich and materially successful and even now in exile some would become well-off and powerful – sometimes the words for these folk are poorly translated as “the sleek and the strong” or even as “the fat and the healthy.” But there will be judgement as the next verse makes clear; God will be a shepherd but will sort out the good from the bad – the sheep from the goats. The responsorial psalm to this reading is appropriately number 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
The first recipients of this letter were worried about death and about what would happen to those who died before the final coming of Christ as judge, so Paul in this letter addresses this worry. They would know the story of the fall when Adam sinned and so became mortal and due for death. Adam stands for all humanity and we know even now that the only thing certain about our life as humans is that it will end in death. But Christ, Paul is anxious to point out to the Corinthians, brings about a significant change to all of this by his conquest of the finality of death and by having a life that goes beyond death – by His resurrection. And just as Adam’s situation affects all of us, so all are changed by this transcendent life of Christ. All this will be realised at the time of the fulfillment of the kingdom, the end of the world, when all who are in Christ, will become one people in Christ and under God. Let us live as people of Christ, ready for our part in all of this!
This Gospel reading is the last of a series of parables, and is the conclusion of a section about the end of the present age; it is followed by the account of the last Supper and the beginning of the narrative of the Passion, Death and Resurrection. It is a description of the nature of the Last Judgement. This whole section is unique to Matthew’s gospel and somewhat typical of his style and content. It is easily understood as a call to treat others well, especially those in need and this is a very important lesson for us. However what makes this care for others the deciding factor in the final judgement, is the important theological teaching that it holds. Firstly, it is quite explicit that Jesus is the divine king with glory around him, angels below and God as his Father; the Son of Man, the expected Messiah is also called Lord, the name of God. Secondly, all other human beings, particularly the needy, are so intimately involved with the Son of God that any attitude and action towards them is directed also to Christ Himself; in some way He lives in us, who are all needy one way or another. These doctrinal elements in the story are complemented with the Christian code for life; positively this is doing good for others, but the Jewish leaders and authorities would also have noticed the absence of any seeming benefit from all the religious practices and devotions that they supported, taught and enacted. What a lot this has to say to us here and now!