| Ez 34:11-12, 15-17
|| Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6
|| 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28
|| Mt 25:31-46
Shepherds and kings, sheep and goats: taking sides
On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, the readings celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. (Next week we start a new liturgical year centered on readings from Mark’s gospel.) The readings ask us to think about shepherds and kings.
In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel addresses the failed Jerusalem leaders (v 17). God holds the leaders responsible for the people’s exile in Babylon. God promises to take back the role of shepherding, rescuing, and judging the people. Christian hearers understand that Jesus, the good shepherd (Jn 10:11), fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy: God has come to care for the people. The Lectionary editors chose this reading (especially Ez 34:16) because it parallels today’s gospel.
In the second reading from his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, Paul lays out the end-time timeline so the Corinthians can see their place in God’s redemptive plan. Christ, who is already resurrected and therefore the “firstfruit,” has begun his reign as the kingdom’s king and the believing community’s head. During this present time, Christ’s enemies are still active, although “under his feet.” At Christ’s second coming, “those who belong to Christ” will be resurrected. The end follows. Having destroyed every oppressive sovereignty, authority, and power, and overcome all his enemies including death, Christ hands back God’s kingdom to God. Through Christ’s redemptive act, God’s relationship with the redeemed world is once again restored and direct: God is all in all.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes how God, shepherd and king, will judge the whole world at the end of time.
- The sorting. First century Palestinian shepherds grazed the sheep and goats together. In the evening, they separated the goats, who were sensitive to cold, from the sheep, who remained out all night. In the gospel, God the Shepherd sorts everyone from all nations, based on their service or love of others.
- The right-side sheep. In the ancient world, the right hand or side is often used symbolically. The king’s right hand is a place of prestige, power, or honor. In Jewish tradition sheep symbolized honor, virility, and strength.
- The left-side goats. In the ancient world, the left hand or side was believed unlucky or evil. The Latin word sinistra means both “left” and “evil;” it is the root of English word sinister. Because soldiers wore shields on their left arms, people thought the left side was weaker and less honorable. The ancients considered goats lascivious; goats symbolized shame and shameful behavior.
- The surprise. Jesus’ hearers would expect that God would reward or punish disciples based on their love of others. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised to learn that God judges not just disciples, but all nations according to the law of love. Even the least one is the same as God, worthy of love and service.
The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to consider God’s role as shepherd and king. As Ezekiel tell us, God alone shepherds, redeems, and judges the people. Paul describes God’s redemptive plan. Matthew identifies how the king measures each of us. Does the Shepherd see honorable sheep or shameless goats? To which side will the King sort us? Will we be surprised?
| Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
|| Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5
|| 1 Thes 5:1-6
|| Mt 25:14-30
On this final Sunday of Ordinary time, the readings’ themes focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings outline again what God requires of disciples who wish to enter the kingdom.
The first reading, from the book of Wisdom, presents an ideal woman serving her family and community. This woman is also Wisdom personified; a person’s reward for seeking Wisdom is a worthy spouse and children, a great household, and renown in the community. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because it mentions “receiving a reward for labors,” which echoes the gospel’s theme.
The second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian ekklesia, contains Paul’s response to concerns about the “time and season” of Jesus’ return. Seeking to calm the community he founded, Paul points out that no one knows when the end is coming. As children of the light and of the day, they shouldn’t worry about the coming judgement. Rather, they should rejoice, because the parousia marks their day of salvation. They need only to stay alert and awake.
Matthew’s gospel continues Jesus’ eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the talents. Matthew has adapted Jesus’ parable to emphasize its end-time themes.
- The master’s charge. A man who is going on a long journey entrusts three slaves with varying amounts of money. He expects them to manage what they’ve been given.
- The slaves’ actions. In the master’s absence, the first and second slaves work and trade the master’s money and double its value. The third slave, out of fear, buries the money he had been given, doing nothing.
- The surprise. When the master returns, he demands an accounting. The master is pleased with the first two slaves’ work and results and invites them “to share in his joy.” Unsurprisingly, the master calls the third slave “useless” because he did nothing with his master’s money. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised that the master not only punishes the third slave, but disowns him (like the bridegroom disowned his teenage cousins in last week’s gospel). The master has the useless slave thrown into the outer darkness, where he is no longer a slave, but a non-person. The “outer darkness” is Matthew’s codeword for “denied entrance to God’s kingdom.” Matthew’s hearers understand that Jesus holds his disciples to a high standard: they must live the gospel to enter God’s kingdom.
The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to examine God’s entry requirements for the kingdom. The first reading highlights actions. The second reading focuses on watchfulness. The gospel describes the consequences of discipleship. At the parousia, disciples will be called to account for what they have done with the good news God entrusted to them. Only those who grow the gospel by their words and actions will enter the kingdom. Are we faithful and productive stewards who promote and live Jesus’ message? Or are our choices and actions ruled by our own fear or laziness?
| Wis 6:12-16
|| Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
|| 1 Thes 4:13-18
|| Mt 25:1-13
The wisdom of watchful waiting
As we near the end of Ordinary time and this liturgical year, the Sunday readings become eschatological: they focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings ask us how prepared we are to meet Jesus.
In the first reading, the Wisdom author writes to encourage the Jews in Egypt during a time of suffering and oppression (70-50 BC). This Wisdom passage has an eschatological theme: wisdom is unfading (v 12) and those who find wisdom reign as kings forever (v 21). The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of its similarity to themes in today’s gospel of wisdom, waiting, and the messiah’s coming.
In the second reading, Paul clarifies his teaching about the parousia (Christ’s return at the end of time). In this early period (30s-70s AD), the believing community expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes. Some Thessalonica community members have died; their friends and relatives worry that these “fallen-asleep ones” will miss the Lord’s return. Paul reassures them that Jesus’ own resurrection is his promise to all believers of their personal resurrections.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presents his fifth and final discourse, his eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the ten virgins. Jesus sets a scene that all his hearers would recognize–a wedding celebration at a bridegroom’s home.
- First-century wedding culture. The groom and his friends have gone across the village or to a nearby village to bring the bride and her friends back to his home. The returning wedding party wanders through every village street and alley so everyone can see and cheer them as they pass. The ten virgins, the groom’s unmarried teenage relatives, wait for the meandering parade to return, so they can escort them into the groom’s home. Bored by waiting, the teenagers fall asleep.
- The crisis. When the wedding party finally nears the groom’s home, the waiting guests call out. Awakened, the teenage lamp keepers immediately trim their lamps. The delay has depleted their lamps’ oil. Some teenagers brought extra oil; others did not. The ones without oil beg the ones with extra oil to share. The ones with oil refuse, worried there won’t be enough oil for all the lamps to last until the wedding party actually arrives. The ones without oil rush off to find oil. Meanwhile, the bridegroom returns with the wedding party, and all present go into the feast, locking the door after them.
- The parable’s surprise. The five unprepared teenagers return with their now-full lamps and bang on the bridegroom’s door to be let in. They hear the bridegroom’s voice through the door saying, “I don’t know you.” In the middle east, family is everything. Jesus’ hearers would ask: Why would the bridegroom disown his relatives and bar them from his wedding feast?
The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to think about who will enter God’s kingdom. The first reading highlights our need for wisdom. Paul emphasizes our need for faith. The gospel parable tells us we must be thoughtful and prepared. We are the lamp-holding teenagers waiting for the bridegroom’s return. Do we think that baptism guarantees entry to the kingdom? Do our words and actions mark us as part of Jesus’ family? How are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming?
| Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10
|| Ps 131:1, 2, 3
|| 1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13
|| Mt 23:1-12
Discipleship: service, not self-serving
During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings remind us who we are.
In the first reading, the prophet Malachi criticizes the temple priests for neglecting their sacrifice and excoriates the Jewish people for their lax attitude toward the Mosaic covenant. Malachi calls all to change their ways or suffer future punishment. In the gospel Jesus issues similar warnings to his disciples about the right way and wrong way to act.
In the second reading, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has given them the good news freely, without charge and without “burdening” them. On missionary trips, Paul repaired tents to support himself. During the day he would set up a stall in the marketplace and mend leather items; at night he would meet in the Thessalonians’ homes and preach the good news. Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ faith in receiving the good news as God’s word, and for continuing to live in faith.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, who has been sparring with various religious leader factions (see Mt 21-22), now vehemently denounces the scribes and the Pharisees.
Scripture scholars point out that Matthew constructed this speech. Although some criticisms undoubtedly originated with Jesus (for example, see Mk 12:38-40), other criticisms date to a time after Jesus’ earthly ministry. These other criticisms reflect the conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and Matthew’s community when Matthew composed his gospel (80-85 AD). This speech is not purely anti-Pharisaic; Matthew recognizes the same faults are present in his believing community. He is warning his ekklesia to examine their own conduct and attitudes, such as:
- Saying vs doing. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with failing to practice what they tell others to do. Jesus tells his disciples that what they say and what they do must be the same.
- Being honored vs being honorable. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with using religious practice to receive honor from people rather than to give honor to God. Jesus tells his disciples that despite their apparent differences (Jewish vs gentile, learned vs untutored, urban vs rural), all are equal–they are siblings of the same Father.
- Knowing the difference between serving and being self-serving. Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest among them will be the one who serves all. Disciples teach Jesus’ message and meaning of service only when they are serving others.
This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to apply Malachi’s complaints and Jesus’ critiques to our own lives. Edwyn Hoskyns, a twentieth century Christian theologian, has written “we are all Pharisees.” Who doesn’t like telling others how to live? Who doesn’t enjoy flattery and honorific titles? Humility is essential to discipleship and ministry. Without humility, we are in constant danger of failing as disciples, becoming the very people Malachi and Jesus condemn. Do we always practice what we preach? Do we recognize our dependence on God and each other? Do we serve others without expecting to be served?