Mt 25.31-46                Ez 34.11-12,15-17              1Cor 15.20-28

Here we are at the end of the Church’s liturgical Year A, the year of Matthew, whose Gospel we have moved through from January. We conclude with what the Jerome Biblical Commentary describes as a ‘masterpiece’, the ‘grand finale’ of Jesus’ teaching and preaching, focussed on fundamentals of care for those most in need, a very practical approach to Christianity, not just based on theology, dogma and rules and regulations. At the heart of it all, as we know, is the ‘law of love’, but here it is spelt out clearly in simple terms.

It comes at the end of the 5th discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, where he is about to face up to his Passion and Death, the culmination of his meandering ministry towards Jerusalem, challenging the religious authorities all along the way, for their self-importance, hypocrisy, judgemental attitudes, and particularly for making life more difficult for ordinary people, even moreso for those in trouble, as if it was their own fault, and so not deserving of attention, compassion or help.

In Catholic tradition, we talk of the 7 corporal works of mercy, based on today’s Gospel, with the addition of an obligation to bury the dead, even if Jesus was alleged to have said, at one point, to leave the dead to bury the dead (Matthew 8.22), when a person asked about becoming a follower of Jesus!!  Once again, not to be taken too literally, as Jesus was expressing the urgency and priority of conversion to his cause, and he was deeply grieved at the death of his friend Lazarus, now in our lexicon, for one who makes an unexpected comeback from serious illness or a defeat of some sort.

It is clear that there’s no point in speaking in spiritual language unless fundamental human needs are first addressed on the physical level.  Thirst and hunger must be alleviated first; warmth, and so clothing and welcome are essential;  physical and psychological illness need to be attended to, those imprisoned should not be ignored.   There are those among us who are classified as carers for loved ones, and supported as they should be, by social security, with society recognizing the importance of personal care.

So we start with the basics, and then move to the bigger picture of Matthew’s Last Judgement scenario.  Today’s Gospel is sometimes used at funerals, often skipping the bit about the goats!  My family chose it for our Mum’s farewell, as she was a down to earth, practical person of service and welcome, and lived and thinking faith.  There was always an open door to welcome an extra person at the table, and she was one to get out there and visit the sick and the elderly, apart from looking after her own elderly parents along with Dad and 5 young children in the early 1960’s.  I would say I learned much about pastoral care from her practical and loving approach to service of others and responding to their needs, be they family or friends.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece depiction (show and tell on screen) is somewhat scary, especially when it was hanging over my bed when I first moved to Essendon! The weight and size of the picture was the biggest concern, so I replaced it with some lighter scenery and frame.  It’s significant that it overshadows papal elections in the Sistine Chapel, as a reminder to be guided by the Spirit!

Jesus, as Good Shepherd, has morphed into the powerful judge of all, discerning between the sheep and the goats, as to who has responded to the demands of love and service, and who has not, with consequences following for eternity.  It could be said there was too much emphasis on fear of judgement and unnecessary guilt as a result of this image of judgement. At the same time, it is very clear that Jesus presents God in the image of a loving, compassionate and forgiving Father, who welcomes all who respond to his call of discipleship, acknowledging that there’s no perfection here in this defectible and flawed world! We can only be expected to try to do our best, with all of our personal limitations.

This is a 20th century feast, established by Pope Pius XI in 1925, when things were starting to look brighter and more hopeful; the flappers were out and the Charlston was in, with the relief of the end of a terrible, destructive and wasteful war in the so-called Christian countries of Europe.  The intention was to emphasize the call to peace of Christ, Prince of Peace, now described as King of all Creation, even the Universe, a rather expanded title, but at the heart of the mystery of faith in a loving Creator God!   Unfortunately, the Great Depression was to follow from 1929, and the darkening 1930’s, with the emergence of the evils of Fascism, Nazism and anti-Semitism, culminating in yet another war.  And now today we see a dark world where the evils of war and hatred continue, but still hoping and praying for peaceful solutions.

Brendan Byrne SJ once again sums today’s theme up well: “What the scene wishes to communicate with great seriousness is that the final outcome of one’s existence is irreversibly determined by the attitude one takes towards fellow human being here and now. Nothing is said about the correctness of faith, or the need to be free from sin, or having obtained forgiveness for all kinds of sin.  The sole determinant is whether one has acted with active care and compassion for other people in various situations of need – what Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel (Mt 23.23) described as ‘the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith.’”

And so we celebrate the feast of Christ the King with faith and hope and love, determined to continue to live that love out and share it, responding to the needs we see.

john hannon                                                                                    26th  November  2023

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