When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the Angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory.
Today’s Gospel, today’s feast, is full of paradox. We have just heard the most dramatic claim to Kingship, to universal Lordship made by Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel: and it’s his last public utterance before the events of his Passion begin. The scene of the Last Judgement is set on a cosmic scale, when the world and time as we know them have come to an end. There Jesus, the Son of Man, the King of glory sits on his throne, raised high before the gaze of all of humanity. But immediately afterwards St. Matthew will show us Jesus amid very different scenes: the house at Bethany, the upper room, Gethsemani, the house of Caiaphas, the court of Pilate, Golgotha. Here we will see this same King of the Universe, the universal Judge, the Lord of all betrayed, falsely judged, mocked, scourged, spat upon, crowned with thorns, crucified.
By way of underlining this point, St. Matthew begins with six verbs evoking power: he will come, he will sit, he will separate, he will place, he will speak, he will command. Then immediately, and four times, come six verbs of weakness: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. Here we have set before us, in its most stark and high relief, the astounding paradox of the Incarnation. He who from all eternity was equal to God the Father has humbled himself to assume the condition of a slave; and therefore God has raised him very high.
The paradoxes of today’s Gospel do not end there. Today we see that the one who saves also condemns; the one who unifies also separates; the one who is all mercy and compassion also sits as Judge.
Nobody can possibly evade this scene. Whether we like it or not, whether we believe or not, the time will come when we must face Jesus and give him an account of how we have spent our life. If the secular world thinks of Jesus at all, it dismisses him as an irrelevance. As far as it’s concerned, we can do without him, and can even think it a liberation to live in defiance of his moral precepts. But the secular world is wrong. Not only must we all face him at the end of time: we do all face him even now, in the poor, the hungry, the sick, refugees, those in prison. He is present in them; he identifies himself with them, he loves them with a special love, and he asks us to serve him in them.
The Scottish Bishops are today launching a special Week for Inter-Faith Dialogue. The Feast of Christ the King seems to be a good starting point such an initiative. We enter into dialogue with members of other religions on the firm basis of our unshakable faith in Christ. A condition of honest and positive dialogue is that there be no spirit of relativism, no desire for compromise, no negotiation in search of commonly agreed doctrine. No: we are Christians, and we believe, firmly and truly, that there is only one God. Those who are saved will be saved by Jesus Christ; and their salvation will consist in entering eternally into his relationship with his Father in the Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel is certainly uncompromising about that. But also, today’s Gospel remarkably points to the surprise that will be felt at the Last Judgement. Many who did not even know Jesus will there be accounted blessed, and given a share in his Kingdom. Perhaps in this life they were Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus; perhaps even they were atheists. We have no right to judge them; only Jesus does. In the meantime though he wants us to live with them in peace; to cooperate with them in making our world a better place for everyone; to serve him and love him also in them.
All that is rather comforting, and uplifting, and hopeful. But there is an aspect of today’s Gospel which is far from comforting; which is not in any way meant to be comforting. So many commentators simply ignore this aspect, or try to explain it away, or suggest that it doesn’t actually apply to anyone. But Jesus said it, because he wanted us to know about it, and to take it very seriously; so I suppose I’d better mention it now too.
According to the parable, the King at the end of time will place on his right the sheep, and on his left the goats. To the former he will say the unimaginably wonderful, thrilling words: Come, you blessed of my Father. But to the latter his words will be chillingly harsh; dreadful beyond imagination. Depart from me, he will say, with your curse upon you.
In the light of these words, I don’t see how any orthodox Christian could believe that everyone automatically goes to heaven. You could only believe that if you also believe that what we do in our life doesn’t really matter; has no bearing on how we will be in eternity. Today our Lord rules out that idea, just as he rules out the idea that he could be just one religious teacher among many others. I don’t see how he could have stated these truths with greater insistence.
In today’s Gospel, those who are to be saved are described in terms of the good they did to others in the course of their life. Why? Because the Kingdom we are all called to enter is characterised by love, by mercy, by justice, by goodness, by compassion, by communion, and it’s centred on the person of Jesus. How can we enter it definitively if we have ignored him in our life; if we have in practice acted against those qualities; if we have devoted ourselves only to service of self? Those who follow that path have already departed from the Lord. Unfortunately it’s the case that a person can freely choose to separate himself from the source of all goodness. We are gravely warned that on the last day, the Lord could finally ratify such a decision. Whereas: to reach out in love and compassion to the poor, to the afflicted, to the needy, is to do now what Jesus did, to love as he loved, to be merciful as he was merciful. It’s to be conformed to Jesus: to be made fit for his Kingdom.
So St. Paul said: have in you that mind, that heart which was in Christ Jesus. Be humble as he was humble; be compassionate as he was compassionate; love as he loved: and then you will enter into his glory, as he has already entered it.