Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; 1 Thessalonians 5:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Let them wear tiaras! In a bid to end bullying, the Archbishop of Canterbury recently hit the headlines for saying that little boys should be able to wear tiaras too if they want. Hoping to eradicate stereotypes or shame-games that so easily develop into bullying, he suggested that dress-up boxes be placed in primary school classrooms so that children could explore their dreams or express themselves creatively without judgement or ridicule. If little girls want to play heroes in firemen’s helmets or wear hard hats, why not let little boys prance around in tutus or tiaras? Surely anything that can help stop name-calling and cruelty, is good news compared to all the stories surfacing about people using and abusing power in private, interpersonal situations right up to international politics. It shouldn’t matter what hat or head-gear we wear, what background and role people play.
It’s precisely because I believe compassion, mutual respect and loving-kindness are hallmarks of the kingdom, rather than labels and judgement, I find the separation of the sheep from the goats in today’s Gospel really disturbing. Whatever happened to forgiveness, mercy and redemption? The message is clear—we’re supposed to be kind and loving, but I am not perfect. Yes, I try to help people, donating time, clothes and all kinds of things, but don't give to every charity that asks for money, so what hope have I got if that makes me a goat? A 50-50 chance maybe? Not good enough—the Christ I know and love, the kind of king I serve showed limitless, unconditional love to all sorts, even sinners like me. That’s the Christ whose reign we celebrate today—one who stands with the needy and knows our needs before we ask regardless of who or what we are—one who died to save us all, praying that those who didn’t even know what they were doing would be forgiven and promising a criminal hanging on the cross beside him a place in paradise.
Perhaps we cannot quite picture Jesus in a tiara, and even a golden crown seems a far cry from thorns cutting into his flesh on the cross, yet today as we celebrate the Reign of Christ (or Christ the King, which is what some church calendars call this last Sunday of the liturgical year) images of Christ crowned in glory as shown in our big window at the back, or sitting on a throne as described in today’s Gospel must spring to mind. Since Jesus lived and died as one of us, suffering ridicule and rejection, being bullied and abused before he was crucified, I believe Christ uses rather than abuses his power to create a kingdom where love reigns supreme. Can you imagine a world where love ruled every heart? Wouldn’t that be heavenly! Actually, we can enter that world anytime by loving God with all that’s in us and loving others as we love ourselves. Great when we can do it, but for those times that bring us down to earth with a bump when we forget or find that hard, Paul offers some practical advice about love, saying: Return no one evil for evil… but hold fast to what is good.
As the Source of infinite goodness, surely God wouldn’t return evil for evil either, but rescues lost sheep, bringing back those who stray, binding up the injured and strengthening the weak according to Ezekiel, so why does Jesus talk about separating the sheep from goats? In the vision of divine judgement, as Matthew records it, when the Son of Man comes in glory using divine power to discern goodness or the lack of it in people, he identifies with the powerless and needy. Compassion and kindness towards those who need help are presented as the yardsticks for deciding who will inherit a place the kingdom. In the the peace we can enjoy moment by moment when goodness governs our hearts, our minds and actions that is true—true of the kingdom as we can experience it inside us, here and now. But to achieve God’s plan for universal redemption the love of Christ opens the way to eternal life for everyone, transforming us and anyone, anytime. How encouraging and comforting. Having experienced judgement hand-in-hand with forgiveness, I know how the freedom that follows feels like a new lease of life.
Back to today’s Gospel—did you spot the confusion folk seemed to suffer when being congratulated for being compassionate and kind, or not, as if they couldn’t connect the dots between a vision of Christ in glory and those he identified with, loved and helped during his earthly ministry? In Matthew’s version, those in need are named as the poor, the hungry, the naked and people in prison, but writing at a time when the followers of Christ were being persecuted, imprisoned, dispossessed and even stripped of their clothes to humiliate them, this may have been understood as an appeal to the faithful to offer relief for the plight of their fellow Christians. Clearly, this text has also encouraged countless communities like ours to see Christ in all persons so show compassion to anyone in need.
However, human needs can’t be decided by a means test nor defined by stereotypes—pain and suffering can cross all social boundaries. Certainly, Jesus reached out to poor people and healed the sick, but he also ate and drank with outcasts and sinners, counting amongst his closest friends tax-collectors who had collaborated with Rome, wealthy women who funded his ministry, freedom-fighters, and fishermen who had run their own family business. He helped a centurion and synagogue-leader, counselled a member of the ruling Sanhedrin, offered new life to a spunky Samaritan woman and showed compassion for a sinner who may not have been a prostitute, as often assumed, but must have come by plenty of money one way or another to be able to afford the costly perfume she poured over his feet. Jesus helped and accepted strangers irrespective of their situation or status, knowing they each had needs, each were impoverished or imprisoned by something. Even people who wear tiaras can have needs that maybe God only knows.
It doesn’t matter what hat we wear, whether it’s a baseball cap or bishop’s mitre, tiara, hard hat or the invisible kind that mums and dads, volunteers and committee members, kids or folk of any age put on, we can all need or experience compassion and offer loving-kindness as we learn to see Christ in others and be Christ for others through the various roles we play. We may not be perfect, but perhaps—just perhaps, the Gospel describes a moment of profound insight when we see the whole spectrum of human need and failings, including our own. In that instant of total honesty that some might call judgement, we can also experience pure grace—the amazing grace of God’s mercy that frees us to be ourselves, to accept and love ourselves, thereby freeing us to love others too. Wherever the such love, the love of Christ reigns we find the kingdom of God.