Sunday November 20, 2005 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)
Throughout the Scriptures, God is called a king. He even tells us in many places that He Himself is a great king. He is the King of Israel, yet recall that the people of Israel did not want God to be their king because they wanted to be like everyone else. They wanted a human king that they could set before themselves, they wanted somebody who could lead them into battle, and they wanted somebody who would be able to lay down various laws for them and to govern in their country; forgetting, of course, the fact that God had already given them the laws by which they were to live and that the Lord Himself told them He would lead them into battle. But they did not want God to be their king. They rejected Him, and therefore they asked God to raise up for them a human king. God told them that if they wanted a human king they would not like him, but they wanted him anyway. So the Lord allowed that Saul would be raised up for the people as their first king, and following him some fifty-two others. Other than David and two other kings, one after the next just became more and more corrupt. Consequently, the people recognized that what they had done was wrong.
In our day, God has given us a human king–His own Son–and He has laid down laws for us to follow, laws that are most just and most perfect so that we would be able to live our lives in accordance with God’s way. And just as it was some three thousand years ago, so once again people keep saying, “We don’t want God to be our king. We don’t want to do it His way.” So we have to ask ourselves: Just exactly what is this kingship that we celebrate today? The kingship of Jesus Christ is the celebration of the fact that He died for us. Jesus is not the king because He is God. He is the king because He is the Messiah, because He was willing to come into this world and to suffer and to die so that we could live.
When the people of Israel wanted Saul to be their king, God told them what would happen is that he would tax them. He would take the best of everything that they had. He would press their young men into military service and their young women into service for himself. But what we see with Jesus is exactly the opposite. He came into this world, as He Himself tells us, not to be served but to serve. He does not take from us what is the best; He gives to us what is the best. He does not simply take any of us selfishly to put us into service in His kingdom, but rather what He asks is that we would make a free choice to serve as we have been served. And He gives us a commandment, that is, that we would love–the very thing for which we were created. So it is not something that is oppressive, but instead it is something that brings perfect freedom.
The kingdom of Christ is a kingdom of peace. It is a kingdom of justice. It is a kingdom of love. Not of gushy feelings of some sort of romance, but rather it is a kingdom where true charity prevails, where those who would call Christ their King will seek to serve one another. This is the beauty of the kingdom of Christ. When we think of a king in the human sense, we think of the one who is the most exalted, the one to whom everyone is to bow down, the one who has all the power. Well, we can say of Jesus that He does have all power and that we are to bow down before Him, but there is a difference in the manner in which this is done. The human king demands that people bow down before him. The human king demands that people serve, and so it is done out of constraint, not so much because they want to. Even for those who want to serve, most often it is because they want something for themselves. They want a title or a higher position or some kind of prestige. But as we see from the first reading with the prophet Ezekiel when Our Lord tells us that He Himself is going to shepherd His sheep, He talks about how He is going to take care of the sick and the lame and the weak. The sleek and the strong, He says, He is going to destroy.
Now that seems like a contradiction. Most often, the shepherd is going to be the most proud of his strong, sleek sheep. That is the way it would certainly be in an earthly kingdom. The ones who seem to be the most impressive are the ones who are going to be shown off. But Jesus does not have time for anyone who thinks they are strong enough that they do not need Him. When we recognize that we are weak, when we recognize that we are broken, that spiritually we are ill, then we realize that we need someone beyond ourselves; not someone who is self-serving, but someone who will serve our needs. And love by its very nature requires that we in turn will serve. That is what love is all about. It is a reciprocal relationship of benevolence, that is, each party seeking the good of the other, each party seeking to serve the other. Jesus does not demand that we serve Him. He does not demand that we bow down before Him, but rather, out of love, we recognize Who He is and we freely choose to serve Him. When we recognize Who He is, we are the ones who make the choice. Like the twenty-four elders around the throne who cast their crowns down and bow down before the Lord and sing the new song, that is the free choice that we will make, or the free choice that we will refuse to make. But when we make that choice it is to do what we should out of love, not forced on us, not a matter of constraint, but rather it is a free choice to love. That is where there is a difference.
When there is a human king, that person might try to make everyone else his subject. They are forced to do what the king has decided. With our King, it is very different. No one is forced to do anything. We have been loved and we have to make the choice to love in return. That choice is entirely ours. Our Lord makes very clear what that is going to entail for us. It means that we have to serve the needs of those around us, and by serving those people around us, we are serving Christ. Recall when Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked how it is that she can work with these people whose flesh is literally rotting on their bodies and who are dying in the streets and have insects growing in their wounds. She said simply, “I see Jesus in each of them, and I serve Him in them.” Now if she was able to see Christ in the poorest of the poor, in the ones who in their human deformity would seem to be the least like Christ, then we have to ask ourselves: Why do we not see Christ in one another? Is it because we think that we are sleek and strong? How often do we look down our noses at someone else? Do we stand in arrogant judgment of another? How often do we ridicule others, trying to make ourselves look better than they? When we see someone who is truly a humble servant of the Lord, we tend to reject them and make fun of them, instead of recognizing that perhaps there is a saint in our midst–but it is not the way we think a saint ought to look.
We have to be able to see things through God’s eyes. He says, Whatever you do for the least of My brothers, you do to Me. Not, “what you do for the sleek and the strong,” not, “what you do so there might be a reward,” not, “what you do so you might be promoted or get something for yourself,” because then you are not really serving the other, you are serving yourself. But Our Lord is looking for us to practice true charity, which means to give without expecting anything in return, which is exactly what He did. He expects us to seek out those who are truly in need and to reach out to them.
Well, the need that we have in America more than any is a spiritual need. There are very few who are truly in need on a physical order, very, very few. But there are so many who are in need on a spiritual order. Again, looking at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose order was founded solely to work with the poorest of the poor, she was asked, “Why are you going to America?” And she could honestly respond that these were the people who had the greatest poverty. Materially, they had the greatest wealth in the world; spiritually, they were the most impoverished people on the face of the earth. That is why she founded houses in America: to bring Christ to those who think that they are sleek and strong, to bring Christ to those who do not recognize their weakness, their brokenness, their illness (spiritually speaking, that is). That is the point we need to recognize: We need a shepherd.
The wonderful thing is that our King and our Shepherd is one and the same; the Good Shepherd Who is not seeking Himself, but is seeking us; the Good Shepherd Who will take the wandering sheep and place it on His shoulders, not kicking it, driving it, or beating it, but rather very gently lifting the little sheep onto His shoulders and carrying the sheep home and rejoicing that He has found His lost sheep. That is what our Shepherd is all about. We have nothing to fear in Christ unless we think that we do not need Him. And we need to be very careful not to try to play games with our own selves. We certainly will admit in our heads that we need Him, but we live as though we do not. So we need to humble ourselves and we need to seek in the depths of our hearts to be united with Christ in all things. That means, of course, that we are going to have to make a few changes in our lives. Whether we are willing to do it is the question.
We have the example set before us. Jesus is right there on the Cross, our King and our Shepherd. Remember the letters right above His head mean Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He is our King on the Cross. He came into this world to serve, He came into this world to die, He came into this world poor and lowly, and in the very end He was beaten and disfigured beyond recognition. When we fail to recognize Christ in others, would we have recognized Him two thousand years ago? Have we romanticized what the Passion of Christ was really all about? How many of us, two thousand years ago, would have stayed with Him all the way to Calvary? How many, like Veronica, would have wiped His face? How many, like Mary and John and Mary Magdalene, would have been right there united with Him in His suffering? That is where He shepherded us perfectly. That is where He is enthroned as King. Now He is asking that if we will recognize Him there that we will recognize Him also in the least of His brothers and that we will humble ourselves to serve and to love as we ourselves have been served and loved by Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.