Gospel Reflections

Feast of Christ the King

Matthieu 25:31-46

John 1:35-42

Sunday Gospel Reflection by Sister Camilla Burns

Published: November 26, 2017

Read John 1:35-42

As John stood with two of his disciples, Jesus passed, and John stared hard at him and said, “Look, there is the lamb of God.”... Read More…

Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King in 1925 in his encyclical Quas Primas (In the first).  The pope presented it as a correction to the rise of secularism, especially among Heads of States and to strengthen the primacy of Christ among the faithful.  It is primarily a political metaphor to resolve issues between the governments of Italy and the Vatican State as well as addressing foreign governments.

The use of king as a political metaphor has its roots in the ancient Near Eastern metaphor of shepherd-king dating back to before biblical times.  Throughout Mesopotamian history, the king as a shepherd and as a representative of the gods was expected to rule with justice and to show kindness in counseling, protecting, and guiding the people through every difficulty. There is always a great emphasis on the importance of justice.

Unfortunately, the Catholic tradition has separated this metaphor into two feasts: Christ the King and the Good Shepherd.  The former stresses power and hierarchy while the latter often presents Jesus cuddling a pure white placid sheep which is far from the reality of the life of a shepherd.

The choice of Ezekiel 34 as the Old Testament reading of God as a shepherd reclaims the original metaphor of shepherd-king and places it squarely within the political tradition of shepherd-king. God is presented in the role of shepherd-king whose care is associated with justice. The reading presents the proper use of authority.

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice” (34:16). This verse reverses the abuses of the false shepherds (34: 1-10).  Ezekiel’s condemnation of Israel’s “shepherds” is a political critique of the rulers who have exploited the people and destroyed the nation.  The prophet takes a very strong stand against the use of power for its own sake and insists that it be used to support the flourishing of the flock.

As Ezekiel puts it, “should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (34: 2b-3) which leads to the scattering of the sheep (34: 5-6).

As its shepherd, God “takes stock” of the scattered nation and pursues a rescue operation (34:11-12 by gathering them together and resettling them on the mountains of Israel (34:13-14). What is of primary importance is the establishment of a viable community followed by the care of the individual.  At the same time, God corrects the conditions that contributed to the disaster, “but the fat and the strong I will destroy.”  All of this is characterized as shepherding justly. “I will feed them with justice” (34:16). The balance between care of the individual and structural concerns is striking. In summary, authority acts justly when the community is gathered, wounds are healed and the systemic cause of the injustice is shattered.

As an act of deliverance from oppression and injustice, God’s care for the flock is a model of wise ruling.  It gives us pause to think of Christ’s rule as portrayed in today’s readings as well as our own as the people of Christ’s flock.  Ezekiel 34 identified injustice and oppression as a primary cause of the fragmentation of any community.  We each have some form of authority, either explicit or implicit.  Do we use our gifts to build up our community or fragment it? Exercising authority is not always a pleasant experience.  It may involve more than we like as when Pope Francis encourages shepherds “to live with the smell of the sheep.”


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