At the conclusion of the film version of the rock opera/musical Jesus Christ Superstar, a solitary cross is depicted on a hilltop against the backdrop of the setting sun. Barely perceptible in the foreground is a shepherd leading a flock of sheep. This caravan adds a serene quality to a powerfully intense finale for the film, almost as though the viewer hears a whisper in the background: “The Lord is my shepherd….”
Even though Psalm 23 is not a lectionary passage for this week, it is not hard to hear it when reading the appointed texts. This is due, no doubt, to its popularity. Not only is Psalm 23 memorized and recited by many people, but it has inspired an entire industry of wall décor and craft ideas (for more, simply search on Pinterest). The imagery—sheep that are securely guided and abundantly fed—is serene and comforting, providing something of an escape from the drudgery of the daily routine and the burdensome cares of the world. Even the Psalm for this Sunday speaks of being “the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Psalm 95:7a). Yet, even with these echoes, when reflecting on the appointed lectionary passages as well as the liturgical occasion, we find a different kind of shepherding.
In Ezekiel, we are presented with a vision of restoration involving the Lord as a shepherd gathering the scattered sheep back together after failed leadership from the previous shepherds (34:2-4). In this oracle, the flock will be reassembled from their far-flung places (34:13). The vision even provides us with bucolic phrases that echo Psalm 23: “I will feed them with good pasture…. [T]here they shall lie down in good grazing land…” (34:14). Once again, we are comforted.
However, the sustenance provided by this shepherd is more than green grass: in this recovery effort, we hear from God: “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). Admittedly, this justice is a bit ambiguous. Does it refer to the restoration of the lost, strayed, injured, and weak? Or does it refer to the judgment of the fat and strong? Perhaps both.
Nonetheless, we do find judgment, often described as “between sheep and sheep” (34:22), though earlier as “between rams and goats” (34:17). Their condemnation is warranted by their treatment of the weak (34:21). In this manner, their judgment is deliverance for the lowly so that “they shall no longer be ravaged” (34:22). The conclusion of the vision speaks of a ruling God and a Davidic prince as the flock is united under one shepherd who “shall feed them and be their shepherd” (34:24).
The rest of the lectionary selections radiate from the Ezekiel passage, carrying its imagery and themes to new places. Robert Jenson notes that the Ezekiel passage anticipates that “the Lord and this prince are the one eschatological shepherd.” Not surprisingly, then, we find in Matthew a similar gathering of the flock; indeed “all the nations” have arrived, and they are judged in the same manner as a shepherd judging between sheep and goats (25:32). Feeding the sheep with justice is particularized in the caring for the least of these (25:35-36, 40).
Two observations are worth notice: First, the previous passages in Matthew’s gospel (two of which were the previous lectionary lessons) have centered on being prepared and keeping watch (24:42; 25:13) because we do not know when the eschaton will occur. Naturally, this will prompt readers to ask: How am I to be prepared? What should I do to be ready? The answer seems to arrive in Matthew 25:31-46. Being prepared centers on caring for the least of these, lest the fate of the third servant or the “goats” awaits us (25:30, 46).
Second, we often imagine that we bring Christ to those in need. However, the most poignant aspect of this tale is that the presence of Christ is among those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned. To go to their aid is to encounter Christ in them, a feature highlighted by longtime Catholic Worker illustrator Fritz Eichenberg in his iconic “Christ of the Breadlines,” pictured above. While the other people in this line are shown in some detail, revealing their hard lives, Jesus is indicated by only a halo. The rest of his form is silhouetted.
Reign of Christ (or Christ the King) Sunday celebrates the kingship of Jesus. He is “a great King” (Psalm 95:3) who is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21). To make this declaration is to relativize the kingship and rule of other authorities. As James K.A. Smith writes, “Christ is the true patria.” That is, our allegiance belongs to him and him alone. No place but Christ, whose “head is over all things for the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:22-23) is our true home. Every other place is like living in a foreign land.
Let us offer praise and thanksgiving to this king, this shepherd, who feeds his sheep with justice (Ezekiel 34:16). Thus, proclaiming the reign of Christ focuses our attention on the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden – those who are often nameless and faceless.