The Rightful King
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
Jesus said to his disciples: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
A peculiar feature of the early Israelite people, from the time of Moses to the time of the Judges, was that they had no earthly king. They had various kinds of leaders - priest, prophets, judges - who served as mediators through whom God led. But they had no king, because the Lord himself was the king of his people. It was for God and God alone to rule.
This all changed when the people approached Samuel with a request for him to appoint a king "to govern us like all the nations" (1 Samuel 8:5). There's a certain sense of safety and security that comes with having a king. They wanted that. Even though God had shown himself both mighty and trustworthy in leading them into the Promised Land through countless military victories, they no longer trusted him to lead them in battle. They wanted to be like all the other nations. Samuel was rightfully upset by this, and the Lord reassured him, "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them." God told Samuel that he would grant their request, but warned of the terrible things that would happen as a result.
The monarchy was thus established in Israel. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king. He was succeeded by David, then Solomon, and so on. With only a few exceptions, Solomon's successors were terrible rulers. They may have been politically savvy, but in their worldly concern they only led the people further and further into idolatry. As a result, the unthinkable happened, Jerusalem was conquered, the Temple destroyed and the people sent into exile. They wanted an earthly king, and God let them have it. They rejected God as their king, and this is where it brought them: They lost their land and their sovereignty, and their identity as a people was crushed.
And yet a promise remained. God had said to King David, "I will raise up your offspring after you . . . and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (2Sanuel 7:12-13). God would not abandon his people, nor would he abandon the royal line of David. This kingdom would last forever, and one from the line of David will rule. Though times seemed hopeless, the Jews held out hope for a Messiah King who would reestablish the kingdom.
God had a marvelous plan to fulfill this hope. And who could have seen it coming? God, who was once rejected by his people in favor of an earthly king "like the nations," would himself become man in the line of David and reclaim his rightful throne.
This is Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate as the King of the Universe. Today's Gospel shows Christ the King in his great power, and also shows how his power does not correspond to the world's idea of power. On the one hand, it shows him as the king who comes in glory and is seated on his throne, judging all the nations definitively. One the other, it shows him identifying himself with the weakest in the world: "Whatever you did (or did not do) for these least brethren of mine, you did (or did not do) to me." These two points are not opposed. This is the nature of his transcendent power. God doesn't need to compete with the wicked on their own terms or to use worldly strength to accomplish his ends. As St. Paul says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:24-25).
Mankind may rebel against him, but his designs are never thwarted. The story of our salvation history is evidence of this. God permits things to take a circuitous path sometimes, but, despite the way things appear in the world, nothing is ever outside the course of his providence. God can even use those who work against him for his own purposes. There's no better example of this than the crucifixion. In dying, death had no victory over him but was only conquered. He used the cross, a cruel instrument of death, as the instrument of our salvation.
In his immense power and absolute sovereignty, he has chosen the weak to shame the strong. No matter the course of history, God's victory is absolutely certain. We only need to be found among his sheep, not the goats.