Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass, Christ the King 2014

Ezekiel 34.11-16,20-24
Ephesians 1.15-23
Matthew 25.31-46

Imagine that everyone in this church was either a sheep or a goat. How would you tell the difference between them?

Today’s gospel story conjures up a scene that would have been familiar to Jesus’ hearers. Sheep and goats were kept in mixed flocks, but would be separated at the end of the day as the goats needed to sleep together in the warm but the sheep preferred to be out on the hillside . But sheep and goats aren’t very good at separating themselves, so the shepherd needs to do it.

Jesus takes that image and uses it as a scene of judgement. This is the last of his public teachings before his death and it sets the seal on everything he has been saying. 

The parables of the bridesmaids, and the talents, which we heard over the last two weeks, were about being ready for what God was doing in Jesus, there and then. Be alert, because God is redeeming the world in this man who is about to be rejected and crucified. Be ready to take risks for this king, for his kingdom is one of free and generous abundance. This is the king who holds on to nothing, not even his life, because he casts himself entirely on the abundant generosity and love of his Father who alone can create new life out of death. 

In this last story Jesus, the king, appears as judge. And all the nations appear before him. That is, all the gentiles. Jesus is the true king of all people, Jew and gentile. 

And Jesus is also the key to entering the Kingdom of God, for everyone, Jew and gentile. Like the other two parables which form part of this last teaching of Jesus, the story of the sheep and goats is about what God is doing in Jesus, right there and then. The cross is God’s judgement on the world, and God’s salvation. 

On the cross God in Jesus takes the place of the rejected, the outcast, the marginalised. Jesus will be hungry and thirsty, in prison and naked, strung up on a tree, a stranger to those he came to save. And the key to entering the Kingdom is how we respond to this man, or to any of the least of his brothers and sisters. The cross is the place of mercy for us, if we ourselves will be merciful.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy”. In the parable of the sheep and the goats he shows what that means. 

The Kingdom of mercy, says Jesus, is “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”. That kingdom is more true, more solid, more abiding, than all the kingdoms and powers of this world.

It will stand forever, when the fallible regimes of earthly rulers have passed away. It is established in shining light in the darkness of this world and will never be overcome by all its tyrannies and kingdoms of violence. It alone is the solid and sure hope and home of humanity. For the kingdom of mercy is the kingdom of the risen victim, the glorious conquerer of death and hell.

This is the kingdom of mercy, and mercy is the key by which we enter. God’s mercy to us, and our mercy to others, which are two sides of the same coin. If you can see the victim, if you can see that the victim matters, then you see Jesus. And in responding to the victim with mercy you respond to him.

It’s about seeing. How easy it is not to see the outcast and the marginalised: those at the King’s left hand say to him, “when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?” If you have already in your mind cast out the outsiders then you’re not going to see them. 

As with all parables, there’s a twist in the tale: how we read it tells us about ourselves. We might read this and think, well, I’ve fed the hungry quite a bit and visited the sick and so on, so I probably tick enough of the boxes to pass. But then the judgement of those on the king’s left side will apply to us as well, for there are bound to be occasions when we haven’t done those things, when we have missed seeing the victim, missed our opportunity to be merciful. 

Or we might think of ourselves in comparison with other people. We might think, I’m ok, compared with people who are very unmerciful, whoever is the most notorious at the moment, ISIS perhaps, so I’ll pass the test.

But if we think that way we haven’t really entered the new mindset of mercy. We are still thinking in terms of making distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Those people over there are outcasts, so I must be alright.

So, imagine, again, that everyone in this church was either a sheep or a goat. Or, better, because today’s story is about all the nations, imagine everyone in your street, everyone in this city, was a sheep or a goat. How would you tell the difference between them?

Well, you probably wouldn’t, because you would be a sheep or a goat yourself, and it isn’t the job of sheep or goats to tell the difference between sheep and goats. That’s the shepherd’s job. 

If we recognise that Jesus is present in the victim and the outcast, then our duty is to serve him by serving them. We are not the judge, Jesus is. Judgement is about making everything right, and we can trust Jesus to do that, for he is the risen victim, and therefore he is the most just and most merciful judge that there could be.

It is not our task to make distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Our task is to be merciful, and so to enlarge the kingdom of mercy. 

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