This posting was inspired by a discussion during lectio divina this past week ahead of The Reign of Christ (traditionally, Christ the King) Sunday.
After an hour of reading, re-reading and meditating on this week’s Gospel text in our lectio divina group, we were getting ready to go. We had been focusing on Jesus’ well-known parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. There the Son of Man sits on the heavenly throne, reigning as the King of the universe, judging humanity based on their response to the needy. He uses the same criterion for both those who are welcomed into eternal life and those who are sent to eternal punishment: “Whatever you have done (or not done) to one of the least of these, you have done (or not done) to me.”
Each of us was squirming a bit in our seats at times, and a tad troubled with the strong language of judgment. As we shared our thoughts and questions with one another, one woman wondered aloud why this text was chosen for Christ the King Sunday. Apparently, the choir was planning to sing about crowning Jesus with many crowns as part of the congregation’s worship. Yet, she questioned, what does crowning Christ as king have to do with ministering to widows, orphans, and other suffering people throughout the world? In one case, we rejoice in the risen, exalted Savior and Lord who reigns in triumph in heaven. In the other, we grapple with the grief of those ruled by poverty, oppressive regimes, and cruel exploitation in the here and now.
That’s when it hit me.
Jesus told stories to make a point and often to evoke an emotional reaction. (So far, this one was working.) He did not speak as a systematic theologian, and he never wrote down a single word of theology—or anything else as far as we know. Rather, he was a preacher and teacher, who used parables to powerfully touch the hearts and minds of whoever had “ears to hear”.
So, what are we supposed to hear, see, and feel from this parable? That living compassionately is a way of life for true followers of Christ—caring for those in need is not an option, but an expectation of all disciples. “Righteousness” is not simply about believing the right things about God, completing prescribed rituals, or following rules. Righteousness is a condition of our hearts that shows itself in concrete action toward those who most need our support, help, or encouragement.
Acknowledging Christ as King, then, is not just done by bending our knees and swearing allegiance to Jesus, or by lifting our hands and singing songs of praise in a worship service. Yes, discipleship involves a submission of our wills and trust in Christ for salvation. Yes, following Jesus calls for confession of faith and worship. Yet, what the parable of the sheep and goats shouts loudly is that those who truly crown Christ from their hearts also do so by how they treat their fellow human beings.
This parable is not teaching works-righteousness, it’s insisting that the righteous will do good works.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:31-36, 40, NRSV)
We crown Christ king every time we respect and care for others as we would him. We crown Christ king every time we let his love flow through us to others as if we were loving him. We crown Christ king every time we see someone in distress, and instead of judging them, dismissing their pleas, or ignoring their needs, we say, “There’s Jesus! How can I best show my love to him now?”
Now that I’m thinking this way, I suspect I have a lot of coronations coming up.
I’m actually excited about the prospects.