1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28
|November 21-22, 2020, Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe , Cycle A|
For those of us who have been praying for 2020 to end, the Church gives us an early gift: next week, the first Sunday of Advent, we start the 2021 liturgical year! As we get near the end of each liturgical year, the readings that we hear are focused on the end times. And in this year of hearing Matthew's Gospel, instead of readings that use apocalyptic language describing wars or upheavals of nature, these end time readings focus on accountability. For that reason, these are readings that are hard to hear for many of us including me, because they call us to reflect on our own accountability. I would much rather hear stories about God's mercy and forgiveness, or Jesus curing the sick or casting out demons, than ones that talk about being responsible for my actions and living out my baptismal responsibilities.
Today's Gospel is perhaps the most well known Gospel story about accountability; it is sometimes referred to as the Final Judgement. But Scripture scholars are divided as to just which accountability Jesus is talking about. Which accountability hinges on whom Jesus is talking about when he says, "one of the least brothers of mine." But both meanings call us to accountability.
The more popular meaning, even though it is not the one favored by the scripture scholars, is that Jesus is talking about all people when talks about these least ones. Taking that meaning, today's Gospel story is about our accountability as kings. All of us who have been baptized in the Catholic Church have been anointed Priest, Prophet, and King. The role of king in Jesus' culture was to take care of those who were in need, especially those who had no one else to take care of them. As baptized Christians, we are given this role of King, to provide for any one we encounter who is in need. That is certainly the meaning in the first reading from Ezekiel, where God is portrayed as the shepherd-king who takes care of his flock because the human shepherds have failed to carry out their responsibility. Looking at the story this way, it makes it clear that this role of king is not an optional one for us who are baptized. We will be judged on how well we carried out this responsibility to care for others.
The other interpretation of whom Jesus is talking about is that he is talking about his disciples. The reason that scripture scholars think this because the word we hear translated as "brothers" always means disciples when used in Matthew. Looking at the passage this way, it resonates very strongly with one of the most prominent themes in Matthew's Gospel: that acceptance or rejection of Jesus is equivalent to acceptance or rejection of the Father. If you remember back at the end of June, we heard almost the exact same words from chapter 10 of Matthew's Gospel, "Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, because the little one is a disciple, amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward." The verses right before that verse in chapter 10 outline how Jesus understands the role of the messenger or disciple (or anointed one). He says to his disciples, "whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." To accept or reject Jesus is to accept or reject God the Father. And to accept or reject the ones whom Jesus sends out as his disciples is to accept or reject Jesus.
If Jesus is talking about our being accountable for our acceptance or rejection of his chosen disciples, what does that mean for us? On one level it calls us to accountability for our response to things like the Cardinal's Appeal, and our own parish funding whether it is the St. Isidore Grand Annual or the St. Elizabeth of Hungary Increased Giving, or the week to week collection, because if we recognize that as Church we are sent by Jesus to bring his love to the world, we must support that mission.
But at another level, and perhaps the more important level, we are called to recognize and accept that we are sent as Jesus' disciples. By our baptism, we are anointed priest, one who helps others worship and give thanks to God. We accept that role by our active participation in the Mass, and other communal liturgies. We accept that role in our families by leading our families in prayer, around the table, or at bedtime, for example. By our baptism, we are anointed prophet, one who speaks God's truth. We accept that role when we courageously speak God's truth of respect for life at all stages in our culture of death, or when we volunteer to help with religious formation, or we encourage our children to examine critically the messages they are bombarded with on social media, TV, and in the movies. By our baptism, we are anointed king, one who cares for those who are in need. We accept that role when we support efforts like our St. Vincent DePaul conference, or when we spend time with someone in crisis or who is lonely.
I was looking through one of the dozens of catalogs we get in the mail this time of year, and I saw one advertising a pillow that had the following saying embroidered on it: Be in your life the change you want to see in the world. We are called to change this world into the kingdom of God, a kingdom ruled by love and justice and forgiveness. The only way we will help this happen is for us to put on Christ, and be love and justice and forgiveness. And the reward for the smallest act of caring is that we inherit this kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world.