‘It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of King’. These are the words of Pope Pius XI who established this feast between two world wars, in the hope of counteracting the growing secularism ‘in public affairs and politics’ and finding a way towards global peace. Peace would never be achieved, wrote Pius XI, until and unless individuals and nations accepted the ‘rule of our Saviour ’.
For many peace-loving people, the US-led military invasion of Iraq marked a new low point in more than a century of violent and ongoing conflict which claimed the lives of some 160 to 180 million people. With the recent collapse of Wall Street and its consequences, hope for the global reign of the Prince of Peace seemed more remote than ever.
Ironically, the financial crisis of the past couple of months has been the catalyst for a total rethinking of the values that have brought unprecedented wealth to the few and suffering to the many. From a Christian perspective, the world needs new and different leadership, the sort of spiritual leadership that Jesus of Nazareth advocated in first century Palestine. Barak Obama’s election to the US Presidency, the message he delivered in his victory speech and the programme he has outlined for a significantly different future for the US, have restored some measure of hope to a world in deep conflict and economic disarray.
Sceptics are reserving judgment until Obama delivers the goods and those with unreal expectations will undoubtedly be disappointed. Others will appreciate the monumental challenges involved and the processes that might be required to effect lasting and ethical change. Obama has the potential to be a force for good in our world. He will suffer for the cause of justice as he identifies with the suffering of his people. He will only succeed if good people support his agenda for peace.
Today’s gospel is about spiritual leadership. It presents Jesus as shepherd and sheep, as judge and king on the one hand and as suffering humanity (‘the ‘least’) on the other. Works of mercy are the measure of justice or righteousness.
Those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and set the prisoners free are ‘the righteous/the sheep’ who will inherit God’s empire or kingdom and enter eternal life. Those who fail in these respects are the unrighteous/the goats who fail to recognise the presence of the shepherd/king in suffering humanity.
Why sheep and goats? While goats grazed with the sheep, they were never imaged as God’s people. ‘Sheep’, on the other hand, is a frequent biblical designation for the people of God’s fold. This story is replete with mixed metaphors. The Feast of Christ the King brings the church year to a close. It invites us to consider the sort of world we inhabit and the way to achieve the things that make for peace.
-Veronica Lawson RSM