Matthew 25:31-46, Reign of Christ, Sermons

What Kind of King?

Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.
Walter Pidgeon as the King, 1965.

(A sermon for Reign of Christ A – Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Matthew 25:31-46)

I have a particular fondness for the hymn “Crown Him With Many Crowns.” When I sang it as a little girl, probably the first king who came to mind was not God, but the father of Prince Charming in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” He was played by Walter Pidgeon, and his character was serious but kindly, concerned for all around him, and mostly just wanting his son to be happy.

The King I knew best from the Bible, on the other hand, was King Herod, clearly the bad guy in the Christmas story. In the Christmas Pageant at my childhood church, he was played by one of the biggest boys, enthroned in the choir loft, the mighty organ pipes his throne. In Matthew’s gospel, Herod ordered the slaughter of all children under 2 because the Wise Men told him about a baby born to be King of the Jews.

What’s your first thought when you hear the word king? In our time, kings are characters in Disney movies and fairy tales, or worse, foolish people whose social lives and missteps play out in the pages of glossy magazines. Jesus used kings as illustrations in his stories because just like vineyard workers, or mustard seeds, or the lilies of the field, kings meant something to his listeners.

The kings who reigned over Israel in Jesus’ lifetime were not part of some historic dynasty, nor did they have the typical power of kings. They had been imported by the occupying Romans, their loyalty purchased with the understanding they would live in relative luxury and not cause trouble.

Historical kings of Israel, as described in the Old Testament, weren’t much better. Some were successful in battle, like Saul and David, or famous at but failures in their personal lives. Others were terrible leaders, and on the whole they did a poor job of maintaining their small nation, often at risk of being overrun.

Still, a king mattered, and good or bad in real life, a king was an image everyone understood: a person who sat high above all the rest, with supporters at his disposal; a person with the authority and power to decide who was in and who was out.

In some ways, then, it seems appropriate to think of Jesus as the king in the story we just heard, but in other ways it really doesn’t. The last Sunday of the church year lifts up that tension. We call it Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King Sunday. King is an odd image to apply to Jesus. He had no earthly kingdom glory. Instead, he turned the expectations of the world upside down, winning not a throne but a victory over death.

What kind of king was Jesus?

Newer hymnals in your more progressive denominations, ours included, have taken a lot of the King language out of our hymns, but I’ll be honest with you: I like it. I like the king language because it reminds me not only that I worship Jesus Christ, but also that he got so little of that kind of attention in his time on Earth. He walked everywhere except for that entry into Jerusalem, which means he wasn’t on horseback, or carried in a litter, or driving a chariot, none of the things a regal person would have done. He didn’t live in a castle or a palace.

What kind of weird king was he, the carpenter from Nazareth who stirred up all the trouble?

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

Jesus spent those last days in Jerusalem with his closest followers, which would have included the 12 disciples, and other hangers-on, and a group of women who provided the funds to feed and house the whole crowd. These were the days leading up to the Passover celebration. The city would have been crowded with faithful Jews from all over the known world, coming to observe one of the most important holidays of the year, and given the foreign military occupation and the influx of believers in the Jewish God, the situation was tense.

From what we know now about that era, Jerusalem would have been crawling with revolutionaries, some with more inclination to fight than the rabbi from Galilee. There were palace coups and Temple intrigues. Everyone who mattered played some kind of game of getting along with the occupying Romans, and most everyone else just tried to stay out of the way, but a few people stirred up trouble, hoping, wildly, that they could change the apparent course of history by killing someone in power.

Naturally, those who were in power, those who had found a way to collaborate, however uneasily, with the Romans, did not want the status quo upset.

Here came Jesus, who did not fight with weapons, who was not stealthy, who came into the middle of the Temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers. He told the people in power – and the people who worked for them – that they had it all wrong, that God would not approve of the way they managed things. ­­

The stories he told in what we now call Holy Week are hard to read. All the passages in Matthew at the end of Year A ask the same sorts of ultimate questions. What are the essentials of our faith? What does it mean to be the church? Who does Jesus expect his disciples to be?

We turn our heads sideways trying to puzzle out his meaning. But maybe it’s quite simple.

"The Good Shepherd," Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
“The Good Shepherd,” Julien Dupre (1851-1910)
Ezekiel portrayed God as a shepherd, committed to gathering the lost and the lonely, the weak and the injured. That great shepherd is kind and tender, but also means business, calling us out for not taking care of one another.

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (Ezekiel 24:15-16, 20-22, NRSV)

Jesus makes the same point in the lesson of the sheep and the goats, which is not a parable but rather an eschatological vision, a story of the end of the world as we know it. His listeners would have recognized the idea of a mixed flock, one with sheep and goats, and the separating of the two animals would have been a familiar idea. Here the cosmic shepherd, in all his glory and attended by his angels, will come to divide the herd, to separate us like sheep – the more valuable animal – from goats.

The standard for that separation will not be what we acquired in life, or how pretty we are, or how many verses of scripture we have memorized, or even how regularly we have attended Sunday School.

The standard has two parts. First the king says, you will come into my Father’s kingdom because you took care of me when I needed help, when I was hungry or thirsty. You welcomed me when I was a stranger. You visited me when I was sick or in prison. This seems straightforward, if limited. All those who took some kind of care of Jesus are in good shape.

But even in his story, the people he offers the reward are honest; they don’t take credit for doing something they don’t remember. “When did we do it, Lord?”

Now the standard becomes more subtle: we will be judged on our treatment of “the least of these members of my family,” the people who needed our help.

Does this mean we are being rated based on our treatment of the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and those in prison? The second part of the story certainly suggests that. The people not in favor are just as clueless as the ones who will enter the kingdom; “When did we see you and not give you water or food?”

What kind of king is this?

"Jesus Reconsiders Goats" by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor
“Jesus and Goats” by the great David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor

The nations are gathered before him, and it is not wealth or political policies or doctrinal positions being assessed. “How did you care for the least of these,” he asks, “the little ones, the members of my family?” This king is the one who healed lepers and protected prostitutes and visited the homes of tax collectors and Pharisees and other assorted sinners. This king is the one who would sit down to dinner with his friends knowing one of them would betray him. This king is the one who would carry his own cross to the hill where they would execute him alongside common criminals – the very least of these, for certain.

  • He was the kind of king who noticed the people around him and listened to their stories.
  • He was the kind of king who experienced human suffering instead of being shielded from it.
  • He was the kind of king who wore a crown made not of gold, but of thorns.

With his very life, and in the manner of his death, our king says, “The way you treat the least of these is the way you have treated me.”

He is still turning over the tables. Will we?


I preached this a week early as we will be off the lectionary this coming Sunday at Faith United Church of Christ, celebrating the church’s 60th anniversary by following the order of service from that day in 1954.