The readings today on this Feast of Christ the King evoke three images of Christ as King. All of them are to some extent paradoxical, for they emphasize things about a king that we don’t usually think of in relation to a king. They also tell us that we have already met King Jesus, even if we didn’t know it. Let’s look at these three images of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of all Creation.
I. Caring King – The first reading, from Ezekiel 34, speaks of the Lord in terms of a shepherd who cares for his flock. Some of the lines that summarize His care are, I myself will look after and tend my sheep … I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark … I myself will give them rest … The lost I will seek out … The strayed I will bring back … The injured I will bind up. The sick I will heal.
It is not usual for us in the modern world to think of kings and heads of state in such a caring role. Most world leaders today are wholly inaccessible to us, existing behind many layers of security and staff. Even many bishops of larger dioceses are hard to reach personally.
But Jesus is a King who is more present to us than even we are to ourselves. An old revival hymn says, “Jesus is on the Main Line … call him up and tell him what you want.” Another song says, “God is just one prayer away.”
It was more common and less paradoxical in the ancient world to speak of a caring king. Most kings had more immediate contact with their subjects. Many kings had certain days on which their subjects could line up to talk to them. It is said that St. Athanasius ran up to the emperor on his horse one day, grabbed the reins, and proceeded to debate a theological point with him. Even until relatively recently, US presidents had office hours. It is said that on Tuesdays, Abraham Lincoln received visitors from among the citizenry, who sought to speak to him of their concerns. They would line up at the door without formal appointments and he’d listen to them, one by one. As our culture has become more violent and public figures more widely recognized and vulnerable, leaders now tend to live in sealed, bulletproof, and figuratively soundproof worlds, hearing little from “ordinary people” and mainly from their staff.
So the idea of a king who personally cares for his people is paradoxical to us. But Jesus does care for His people.
I want to testify that I do indeed have a caring King, Jesus. He’s been good to me. He has led me, rescued me, purified me, fed me, instructed me, and graced me; He died for me.
And I also want to testify that He was being good to me even when I didn’t think He was being good to me. Scripture says, All things work together for good to them who love and trust the Lord (Rom 8:28). Notice that not just the “good things” work for my benefit, but even the bad things. God sometimes permits some “stuff” to happen because it will bless us in the end. Even if you’re suffering, don’t give up on God. Some of His gifts come in strange packages. St Paul says, For this affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17).
And did you notice the last line in the passage from Ezekiel? But the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly. Yes, even at those times when I needed to be humbled (to have my pride destroyed) the Lord was shepherding me rightly. There was a time in my life when I was more sleek and strong. And the Lord let me experience some humiliation, destroying me, as it were, and giving me humility. I even see this humiliation physically, for I was once sleek and now I am fat. And it is humbling to be fat, especially when people scold me. They think it is easy to lose weight. But God will humble them too, perhaps in other ways. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. This is because He knows how deadly it is to us.
Yes, God is a caring King. Some of His ways are paradoxical. Do not reduce the noun “care” merely to meaning “that which comforts and consoles.” It can be that, but not always! Sometimes the “caring” thing to do is to rebuke, warn, or even punish. But God never ceases to care for us. I’m a witness. He’s been good to me. Even when I didn’t think He was being good, He was being good.
II. Conquering King – The second reading speaks of the victory of Jesus over all things, saying that He has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep; that He has reversed what Adam did; that He is the first fruits, then each one in proper order will also rise. It says that He will hand the kingdom over to God his Father when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power and that he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, the last enemy to be destroyed being death.
Here, too, there is a great paradox. For as Hebrews says, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death (Heb 2:8-10).
So while at times it seems that evil triumphs, God is working. One by one, He is putting all His enemies under His feet. One day even death itself will be destroyed. The paradox of the Cross shouts to us that God conquers, not by brutality and cruel strength, but by love and by things such as forgiveness and mercy—things the world dismisses as weak.
Here, too, I want to say that God is a conquering King in my life. He has destroyed the power of many sins and diminished the strength of others on the way to their ultimate destruction. I have seen sins put down and under His feet, as He cleanses the temple of my soul. He has conquered so much of my pride. I am seeing lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy, and fear on the ropes. One by one, He is diminishing their power and replacing them with greater love, compassion, kindness, purity, love for the truth, prayerfulness, courage, trust, and eagerness to do good and to win souls.
Thank you, Lord, for being a conquering King in my life.
And this conquering King, unlike worldly kings, does not force us to be His subjects and live in His kingdom. Earthly kings conquer regions and force peoples under their rule by might. But Jesus is a King who respects our freedom to decide whether to have Him as our King and to accept the virtues of His kingdom, or not. Hence Hell is not so much a place of punishment as it is a place to which those who refuse, those who say “no” to Christ and His kingdom, depart. This King, though He is all powerful, does not force His kingship and laws. He offers them to all, and each of us must decide.
III. Concealed King – The Gospel teaches us that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. And in this coming we will discover that we have known Him all along, but in a paradoxical way. As Christ comes and takes His seat and all are summoned to Him, we are going to have a strange sense that we’ve met Him before. And He will confirm that.
For indeed, we have met His Majesty and He is the strangest King of all. He is a King who is hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, a foreigner, in prison, and a stranger. And the list He gives should not be seen as exhaustive, for He is in the needy, whether rich or poor. He is in the discouraged loved one who cannot find a job; He is in our children who need to be taught and encouraged; he is in the co-worker who just lost his wife; he is in the customer who was diagnosed with cancer. He is in the lost youth or family member who needs instruction and needs to be drawn back to the Sacraments. He’s even in you, in your struggles and needs.
Yes, we have met this King every day. And He is not merely saying that these people have some moral union with Him. He is saying, mystically, that He IS each one of them. And when we cared for them, we were not simply doing something ethical; we were serving and caring for Him: “You did it for me.”
What a strange King! We think of kings in palaces, far removed from trouble. But this King is naked, poor, hungry, and thirsty. We walk past Him every day.
And to those who have cared for Him in His poor He says, “I will never forget what you have done.” The poor may not be able to repay us, but King Jesus will repay us a millionfold. And on the day of our judgment we will look at Jesus and say, “I know you! I recognize you!” And He will say, “I know you, too … come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
We should not view this judgment scene as containing the only standards by which we are to be judged, for numerous other passages lay out other standards such as having faith, being willing to carry our cross, living in purity, forgiving others, loving our enemy, and so forth. But this passage DOES remind us that we are not to neglect the corporal works of mercy.
Yes, Jesus our King, the strangest King you will ever meet: a caring and close King, a conquering King who never forces, a King who is hungry and thirsty, a King who reigns from the Cross, a King who dies so we don’t have to, a King who washes our feet, a King who comes to serve rather than to be served. He is a King, all right, one who rules with love, not by force. He’s the strangest King you’ve ever met, and you meet Him every day: in the Eucharist, in the poor, in His Word, in your heart, in the events of your day … in your very self.