Commentary by Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
If you were born in a Republic the language of royalty is alien to you: kings, queens, princes, thrones, etc. So we have a great deal of adjustment to do. When the feast of Christ the King was introduced in 1925 there was polemical intent: it was a defiance of secular governments which were increasingly anti-clerical at the time. It set up a principle of opposition between Christ and the world. Good, if by ‘world’ you mean what the Scriptures mean (not the physical world but the structures of evil: the word ‘worldly’ retains some of this meaning). But it is fatally easy to slip from a Christ/world opposition to a Church/world opposition, to imagine that because we are members of the Church we are automatically on the side of Christ. In reality, many members of the Church often represent ‘the world’ far better than non-members do. When the Jews of his day had a similar thought about themselves (thinking they were saved just because they were Jews, ‘children of Abraham’) Jesus said to them, “Do not think: ‘We have Abraham for our father.’ I tell you that God can raise children for Abraham from these stones!” (Matt 3:14). Likewise, with us, being a Catholic puts us in no privileged position in relation to the world. Like Jesus we have been sent into the world not to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17).
“Yes, I am a king,” said Jesus (John 18:37). So… can you see him sitting there displaying himself beside King Herod the Great, for example (one of the most vicious men who ever lived)? No, no. He was parodying the very idea of kingship. When he said “Yes, I am a king!” he was a prisoner standing before Pilate’s judgment seat! “What is truth?” Pilate asked him, but got no answer. (Matthew and Mark say that Jesus was silent before Pilate, and Luke says he was silent before Herod.) How could anyone hear an answer to such a question while sitting on a throne of judgment? When you are sitting on your throne of judgment don’t expect to come across any truths!
I ask myself if the atmosphere in my own mind isn’t sometimes like the atmosphere in Pilate’s judgment chamber? Cold, shallow, judgmental, merely tactical. The real King, the Lord, is the accused, not the accuser.
Objection! In today’s Gospel reading he appears as a judge sitting on a throne! And furthermore he puts the whole human race in just two categories!
(Can you put the whole human race in two categories: the good and the bad? Surely there are shades of goodness and badness, and to ignore them is a great injustice.)
But that is not the point of the parable. A parable makes only one point, but we often read parables as if they were allegories, that is, stories whose every single element points some moral. No, the single point of today’s parable is that there can be no love of God without love of other people.
The English novelist and playwright John Galsworthy (known to many as the author of The Forsyte Saga) once complained that religion was now being replaced by service, “social service – the ants’ creed, the bees’ creed.” But this is to make little of what today’s Gospel writes large. Other passages in the New Testament make it equally clear: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).