November 24, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of Christ the King
Reading I (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28)
Gospel (St. Matthew 25:31-46)
In the readings today, we hear something that might sound a little bit startling to us, that is, as we celebrate this feast of Christ the King we hear readings about a shepherd. And so we ask ourselves, “What does being a shepherd, which is considered the most lowly task in the ancient world – the task for the person who is the least able to do anything else, totally unskilled and considered among the lowliest of all tasks – [have to do with] the feast of Christ the King?” Normally, as we think of the king, we think of the most exalted position in society: the one who is leading the nation, the one who sits upon the throne, the one who has the responsibility for all the nation and all that will be going on within.
Yet when we think about it, these two things really are the same; it is just a question of what title you want to give the individual. The purpose of the king is to lead the people who are entrusted to his care, to be able to provide the direction, to be able to be the center of unity, to be the one who is going to show the people the way, to make the determinations and the decisions, to let the people know (as a shepherd does his sheep) when it is time to move forward, to bring them to the green pastures, to bring them to the still waters. That is the task of a king.
And the Church wants us to understand very clearly, as we celebrate the kingship of Jesus Christ, that it is not celebrating the glory of Christ seated upon the throne next to His Father in Heaven. Rather, kingship in the Church is an office of service, and the service of Jesus Christ was to come into this world to live and to suffer and to die for us. He continues in His kingly office as He continues to mediate for us before the throne of His heavenly Father. And so it is the task of the shepherd, it is the task of leading each one of us to Heaven. He is the firstfruits, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians in the reading today, the firstfruits of the Resurrection; and each one of us who is going to rise from the dead is also part of that Resurrection. The question for us is, simply, are we going to rise to be with Christ, our Shepherd and King, or are we going to refuse our Shepherd and King and wander away from Him to decide that we have a different shepherd or that we, in fact, want to shepherd our own selves?
That is what the Lord talks about in the first reading today. He tells us through the prophet Ezekiel that He Himself is going to shepherd His sheep. And that is exactly what He does in His Son; it is God Himself who is our Shepherd, as we also hear, of course, in the twenty-third psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. But then we have to ask ourselves, “If the Lord is the shepherd, why in Ezekiel would He say that He will heal the wounded and bind up the weak, but He is going to destroy the sleek and the strong?” What shepherd is there who would take the best sheep that he had and destroy them while instead looking out for those who are weak, who are wounded? Naturally, in our humanness, we would think that the weak and the wounded are the ones we would destroy because they are the ones that are holding up the flock; we are not able to move along as quickly because we have these sheep that are limping along. We cannot go nearly as far because the weak ones are not able to handle it. But these strong ones, after all, at State Fair time those are the ones that would be entered in the fair as being the best sheep, the ones that might gain a blue ribbon because they are the best looking of all. Yet those are the ones that God says are going to be destroyed.
Why would a shepherd do such a thing as that? It is precisely because in a flock of sheep very often the ones that are sleek and strong are the ones that do not follow the shepherd. They are the ones who wander off. They are the ones who do it their own way. They are the ones who do not want to be among the flock. And worst of all, they are the ones who in doing these things lead other sheep astray because one of the things that is natural to sheep is that they follow. And so if you have a rebellious sheep, even though the sheep may be the best looking and the strongest in the entire flock, the fact is that if it is disobedient and rebellious it is going to lead many others astray. That is why it is going to be destroyed, because otherwise the sheep that are supposed to be heading for Heaven are going to turn and follow the wrong direction.
When we look at this we begin to understand something within our own selves: that it is precisely our weakness and our woundedness that is drawing us to Christ. It is precisely those areas where most of us get frustrated in our own lives that really wind up to be the greatest gift that God has given us. Think back in your life to how many times you have complained – or kicked or screamed or done even worse! – because God has allowed bad things to happen in your life. All the negative things that have occurred, how much we have despised those things and how angry we get at God because, after all, if He is supposed to be taking care of us, He would not allow these things to happen! If He loved us, after all, He would keep us from having to endure all of these painful and horrible things. And then when we look at the reading today, we see it is the weak and the broken that He is going to bind up, that He is going to heal. Those are the ones who draw very near to the Shepherd; they stay right next to Him. He picks them up and puts them on His shoulder or He sets the pace for the walking of the entire flock according to what the broken and the weak ones are able to handle.
The sleek and the strong, He lets them go their own way and He is going to destroy them because they have no part of the flock. They do not want to walk at the pace of the rest of the flock. They do not want to do what the Shepherd is asking them to do. When we are strong and sleek we do not think we need the Shepherd; we think that we can do things our own way. The King lays out for us what we are to do but we do not want to do it because we think we have a better way. We can see a better pasture. We think we have a different way that is going to lead us where we want to go, and that is the direction we take.
And so in order to bring us to the Resurrection, our Shepherd, our King leads us according to the same path that He Himself has taken, according to a path of suffering, according to a path of brokenness and of weakness, so that Saint Paul can say, “When I am weak then I am strong,” and, “God chooses the weak to shame the strong.” That is exactly the same pattern we see God telling us in Ezekiel. If we are strong and sleek, we have no part of Christ. Not because He does not want us to be apart of Him, but because we do not think we need Him, and, therefore, we do not want to be a part of Him. But when we are broken, when we are wounded, when we are weak, it is then that we recognize our dependence on the Shepherd, it is then that we hold very close to the throne of the King so we will be protected, it is then that we realize how much our Shepherd really does love us.
For all of us, when we are in the midst of our woundedness and our brokenness, of course, we do not see the love of God. But when we can look back over the course of our life and we see those times where we were hurting the worst, where we were wounded and broken, it is those times above all that we can see that the greatest graces were given, that we drew the closest to Christ, that we saw our dependence on Him more than ever before. And we can see in a totally paradoxical manner – according to our human ways of thinking – that that brokenness, that woundedness, that weakness is the greatest of all the gifts God has ever given us. That is what our Shepherd is doing.
It is when we are broken and wounded and weak that we learn compassion. Compassion, remember, means “to suffer with” and only people who have suffered are able to be compassionate. Just look around our world: When you suffer, the only ones who are going to stay with you are the ones who have suffered. You have lots of fair-weather friends, who as long as it is win or tie they are going to be with you, but if it does not look like you are winning, if it looks like you are being crushed in your suffering, they walk away. They can handle your suffering for a day or two: “As long as it’s one of those ‘down days’, well, that’s okay. Just don’t call me that day.” But if you are going into a slump – you are down in the valley and it is painful and it is extended – they all walk away. They do not want to be with you in your suffering because they do not know how to suffer. Americans shun the suffering and we do not want to have anything to do with it. But our Shepherd is going to lead us through the suffering, through the Cross to the Resurrection where He is the firstfruits and all of us are to follow.
It is when we understand and learn the compassion that can come only through suffering that we are going to receive the blessing the Lord tells us because He says His sheep are the ones who fed the hungry, who gave drink to the thirsty, who clothed the naked, who visited the sick and the imprisoned, and in doing so they did the same for the King, for their Shepherd, because the Shepherd, in His compassion, binds up the wounded, heals those that are broken, and draws the weak next to Himself. When we are willing to do that with Him because we have suffered with Him and therefore we are willing to reach out to those who, like us, are weak and wounded and broken, then we are being one with our Shepherd. We are not only drawing near to Him but we are drawing others near to Him. We are being humble, docile, and obedient sheep who recognize that we need a shepherd and that our task is also to bring others to the Good Shepherd. We realize that we ourselves are not the shepherd to the sheep, but only Jesus is; and that when we know our Shepherd, we will bring others to Him.
If we are sleek and strong, if we do it ourselves and we lead others astray, we will not be there for those who are suffering, we are not going to reach out to the broken and the weak, we are not going to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and visit the imprisoned because they are a nuisance and they require something of us. We are not going to be able to do what we want if we have to take care of those people. So we go our own way. We do not draw near to our Shepherd and we do not do what He did. And we refuse to be compassionate because we cannot – because we refuse to suffer with the Lord.
If we refuse His Passion then we refuse His Cross and we refuse His Resurrection. But if we accept the path that our Shepherd leads us upon and we endure the Passion and the Cross then with Him we will be united in His Resurrection, we will be seated next to Him upon a glorious throne, and we will enter the kingdom of our heavenly Father. That is what our Shepherd is offering us. He is offering us the greenest pasture. He is offering us the most still and pure water. But we will only find it if we are united with Him in His suffering. Our Shepherd will destroy the sleek and the strong because they do not think they need a shepherd. But if instead of destroying us He wounds us or allows us to be wounded, it is because He loves us – not because He hates us; it is because He is trying to draw us close to Himself and through us to draw others close to Himself. In our suffering, we are united to Him and to His suffering. In our suffering, we learn compassion, we learn true charity, and we learn our need for our Shepherd and our dependence upon Him. In our suffering, we are united to Christ so that we can be united with Him in His Resurrection and that with Him we will suffer in this life and be glorified with Him and be seated next to Him on His glorious throne.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.