Commentary for the Sunday Readings (11-23-2008)

The world must change if souls pass from this life to a new life.


St. Basil the Great


This Sunday the universal Church commemorates the liturgical feast of Christ the King, introduced by Pope Pius XI on the 11th of December, 1925, in his encyclical Quas Primas [Latin, in the first]. Within this encyclical the biblical teaching on the kingship of Christ is discussed. Quoting Cyril of Alexandria, the Holy Father notes that the Kingship of Christ is not obtained by violent means: “’Christ,’ he says, ‘has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.’” That violent means in obtaining the ideals of human unity, justice, and peace is incompatible with the social Kingship of Christ is illustrated in the readings for this Sunday, in which the imagery of Christ as Good Shepherd abounds throughout.


The readings begin with a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, the first prophet to receive his call outside the Holy Land (given that he began prophesying in a time of national exile and turmoil). Ezekiel speaks of God as the Shepherd of His people: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep… I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered. I myself will pasture my sheep… [and] give them rest, says the Lord GOD.” This reminds us of the imagery of the Good Shepherd that Jesus uses for Himself in John 10:


I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep [John 10:11-15].


The Psalms themselves give us this imagery of God as the Shepherd of His people when we read that “the LORD is God,/ our maker to whom we belong,/ whose people we are, God’s well-tended flock” [Ps. 100:3; cf. Ps. 95:7].


God continues to speak through Ezekiel, saying: “The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly.” This reminds us of the parables Jesus gives us in Luke 15 regarding the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. From the beginning, God is always in search of those who have strayed and who are lost, and this we see as early as Genesis 3 where the Father goes in search of Adam and Eve after they sinned and went into hiding due to their shame and guilt. Although they encounter the due sentence for their sin, the Father in His mercy and love for man leaves them the hope and promise of a Redeemer who will one day liberate them from their sin and captivity. Jesus Himself declared: “The Son of Man has come to seek and save what is lost” [Matthew 18:11] and “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do… I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” [Matthew 9:12f].


Jesus tells us in the Gospel of John:


I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father [John 10:15-18].


This was the mission of Jesus from the beginning, to come into the world, assuming human nature, and to die for our sins.


Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honour whoever serves me. I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour [John 12:24-27].


God leaves us almost a prophetic image of the ministry of Christ when He says: “the injured I will bind up, [and] the sick I will heal.” Jesus Himself ministered to the poor and the sick, to the social outcasts of His time. The Gospel of Matthew gives us two passages (among many others) that illustrate this:


He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people. His fame spread to all of Syria, and they brought to him all who were sick with various diseases and racked with pain, those who were possessed, lunatics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed him [Matthew 4:23ff].


When it was evening, they brought him many who were possessed by demons, and he drove out the spirits by a word and cured all the sick, to fulfil what had been said by Isaiah the prophet: “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases” [Matthew 8:16f; cf. Isaiah 53:4].


The compassion of Jesus for the people is manifested throughout the Gospels [cf. Mtt.14:13-21, 34ff; 15:21-39; 12:1-21; 11:25-30; 9:18-38; etc.]. His encounters of rebuke with the Pharisees due to their rigid interpretation of the law in regards to exterior practice while failing to neglect the interior attitudes which serve as the true fulfilment of the law is one illustration of such a case [cf. Mtt. 7:12, 9:9-17, 22:36-40; John 2:13-18; etc.].


Jesus always calls His disciples to minister to all mankind, but in a particular way to those most in need. The finalization of the Kingdom of God on earth will not be attained by means of violence and revolution, by the sword or by the finest means of warfare, but by interior conversion. The word “conversion” in Greek is metanoia, which means a “change of mind,” which necessitates a change in heart. This latter meaning is the one assumed by the biblical writers when the word is employed. That violence and warfare hold no place in the ideals of the Kingdom of God is illustrated by four key passages from the Gospels. The first is the beatitudes given to us in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6. The ten commandments entrusted by God to His people through the prophet Moses and the eight beatitudes given to us by Christ enjoy the common bond of dealing with moral living and biblical ethics; what distinguishes one from the other, however, is that while the ten commandments speak of exterior practice, the eight beatitudes speak of interior conversion and attitudes. The former necessitates and implies the latter. The other passage is taken from the beatitudes themselves, where Jesus states: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” [Mtt. 5:9]. This, being read in light of and in conjunction with the other key passages where Jesus tells Peter “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” [Matthew 26:52] and, in speaking to Pilate, states “My kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36] tells us that Jesus does not coerce us into reforming ourselves; He does not “force” truth upon us, He only proposes to us the ideals of conversion and grace, and leaves us with the option of freely choosing to convert or to remain in sin. One of the greatest manifestations of God’s love for man is the respect God has for each one of us that He leaves us with the option to either accept or reject Him. There are consequences for each decision, the consequences being either good or bad depending on the decisions we make in our spiritual lives. Nevertheless, God always seeks out those who are lost and calls each one of us to come back to Him. The scriptures throughout tell us that God does not desire the death of a sinner but his salvation. For this has Jesus come into the world, to suffer, die on the cross and rise on the third day for the redemption of man and for the forgiveness of his sin. (John 3:14-18; Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9).


The passage from Ezekiel concludes with the statement: “As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD, I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats.” This leads us into the passage of this day’s Gospel, where at the end of time Jesus gathers before Himself all mankind for the final judgment, and here too we find the image of the Shepherd. Here, we see Jesus judge us on the law of love He entrusted to us. When asked which of the commandments is the greatest, Christ responds by telling us that we are to love God above all, to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to love and forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute and harm us (Matthew 22:36-40, 5:38-48). We are called to see God in all mankind irrespective of his social status or condition. We have all been created in the image and likeness of God Himself (Genesis 1:26f, 2:7), and we are to treat each other with due dignity. We all belong to the same body of Christ, as Paul illustrates throughout his writings; we are members of the one Church, and children of the same heavenly Father (Isaiah 64:7; Malachi 1:6, 2:10; Romans 8:14-17; etc.). Christ calls us to follow His example in Christian living; He always gives His teachings alongside concrete examples of how to practice them. As He ministered to the poor, the needy, and those shunned by mainstream society, thus He expects us to do the same. In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us that we have a collective, communitarian responsibility to minister to all in need, irrespective of their social status, physical appearance, or other like factors. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), we are told how we have an individual, private responsibility to minister to the poor. In both parables, we see how we often fail to see Christ in others; we judge according to human standards and not by Christian ideals (John 7:24; James 2). We as Christians often fail to set a firm example to the world by negating our assistance to those in need. The times that we do assist them it is normally at a minimal level — and often grudgingly so! It is no doubt easy, painless, undemanding, even comfortable and preferable in failing to see God in others and to love them as we should. This is unfortunate, and we must recognize those times of spiritual blindness, thereby taking the time to reform ourselves and act differently from then on. God calls us to be good stewards of our time, treasure, and talent. God calls us to be generous in word and deed, this stemming from an interior change in attitude, so that we may discover the divine in each person. It is further unfortunate because we fail to minister to others in need, thereby negating to use our talents as God intends us to. We fail to see God in our brothers and to love our neighbour as ourselves. We often fail to forgive those who wrong us and seek revenge instead of reconciliation and the restoration of unity and peace. Yet the two aforementioned parables serve to show us the reward of the just and the punishment of the unrepentant. The entrance antiphon and the communion antiphon illustrate this.


The idea of the return of Christ at the end of time, the very fact that all will come to an end, and that there will be a final judgment after death are all ideas which frighten even the most devout Christians, resulting in almost a complete negligence of meditation and study of these fundamental teachings of our faith. Daily in the Our Father we pray: Lord, may Your Kingdom come! (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20; etc). This was the aspiration of the early Christians, so much so that they believed that they would live long enough to witness it. We as Christians ought not fear the judgment of God nor the end of time. For those of us who have been good stewards while here on earth, for those of us who realize that we are in the world but not of the world, and who have sought first the Kingdom before all else, we should have no reason to fear death, the judgment, nor the end of times. We daily pray for the coming of the Kingdom, which in turn is a prayer for the finalization of the social Kingship of Christ.


The second reading, taken from St. Paul’s discussion on the resurrection of the dead, relates to this theme of the end times and the final judgment. Discussing the manner of the resurrection, St. Paul notes that “just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.” St. Augustine refers to the original sin of Adam and Eve as the felix culpa, the happy fault which brought about such a Redeemer and salvation for man. While the sin of Adam and Eve resulted in death and sin, the saving acts of Christ brought about our salvation and liberation from sin, opening wide the gates of heaven to man. Thus, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” This reminds us of the poem of John Donne, Holy Sonnet X, in which he writes Death be not proud, though some have called thee/ mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so… Death, thou shalt die!


The Responsorial Psalm is taken from the beautiful and well-known Psalm 23, which speaks eloquently of God as our Good Shepherd Who provides generously for all our needs (and Who in turn asks us to provide for those in need, each according to our abilities). The Lord is my shepherd;/ there is nothing I shall want. (Ps. 23:1)


In the Opening Prayer we read that God breaks the power of evil [making] all things new in … Jesus Christ. We pray that all in heaven and earth acclaim your glory and never cease to praise you. In the alternative prayer, we speak of God as our “Father” and the “God of love” who “raised our Lord Jesus Christ from death to life.” In turn, we too will be raised to life, as St. Paul discussed. We pray to God to “open our hearts, [and] free all the world.”


The Prayer over the Gifts reminds us that the Mass is “the sacrifice by which your Son reconciles mankind,” and we pray that this liturgical celebration bring into fruition the gifts of “unity and peace [for] the world.” The Concluding Prayer speaks of the Eucharist as the “food for everlasting life,” reminiscent of John 6. We ask for God’s assistance and grace to “live by his gospel” and to “bring us… the joy of his kingdom.”


NOTE: These reflections I am writing for the personal use of the reader; they are in no way the only possible interpretation for the Sunday Readings, they do not carry the authority of a bishop or the pope (i.e., they are not “infallible”), and while I do not claim myself to be infallible, I do not intend to go against the teachings of the Church. Any errors I make in interpretation I will promptly correct upon the notification of the existence of such. There is much more that can be said about these passages of Scripture, and I may post more comments later, but this is what I have written for now.

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