Year “A”: Mt 25:31-46
Who is Jesus? Who is this man who portrays himself in such starkly contrasting ways? He is more terrible, more awe-inspiring than King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther. Yet also he is more wretched, more pitiable than Job in the depths of his misfortunes.
Today on the last Sunday of the liturgical Year we take leave of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and we do so, as it were, with a great fanfare. The scene of final judgement we read this year for the Feast of Christ the King is proper to Matthew alone. It comes as the climax or culmination of a series of sayings and parables about the end of time and the Second Coming. Immediately after this the Passion narrative begins. St. Matthew’s Jesus speaks here, as always, with total confidence, total authority. He knows who he is. And St. Matthew writes in order that we also might know this, and might understand what difference it makes to us.
To establish the credentials of Jesus, Matthew introduces his Gospel with a genealogy. He begins with Abraham, then traces the ancestry of Jesus through King David, via Hezekiah, and Josiah, and Zerubbabel, and finally through St. Joseph, his legal father. This symbolises the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, for whose coming the whole Old Testament was but a preparation. But in itself this is not enough. Jesus cannot be simply one King among others. So Matthew shows how, in accordance with prophecy, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary (1:20). His name, “God is with us” (1:23), already somehow identifies him with the God of Israel. Wise men from the East come to adore him as both King and God, making Herod fear him as threat and supplanter (2:13). John the Baptist, greatest of the prophets (11:11), publicly announces Jesus as “the Lord” for whose coming he has been commissioned to prepare (3:11 etc.). And so the Gospel proceeds, and again and again Matthew underlines for us who Jesus is. He is the fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecy (5:17 etc.). That is: not only King, and Messiah, but also the Bridegroom of Israel (9:15), the mysterious Servant foretold by Isaiah (12:18), and the Son of Man seen in vision by Daniel (26:64). Twice in this Gospel (3:17, 17:5) a voice from heaven confirms the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son. And lest there should remain the slightest doubt, Jesus himself continually and from the beginning of his ministry demonstrates the reality of this identity. He works miracles of healing, and miracles of power over nature, and over demons. He speaks with authority, unlike any of the scribes (7:29). He refers everything habitually to his heavenly Father, whom he uniquely knows, and who alone truly knows him (11:27). He demands faith in himself, and commitment to himself, beyond the call of any other loyalty whatever (10:37; 19:21 etc.), even to giving up liberty and life for his sake (16:25). St. Matthew’s Jesus claims to be greater than either the Sabbath or the Temple (12:5). Such is his divine and sovereign authority, that he is able to confer this authority also on his disciples, even as he accepts their confession of faith (16:19; 18:18, 28:18 etc.) Later, Jesus will acknowledge his status as Messianic King before the Sanhedrin, and before Pilate, and the title set over his Cross will be: This is Jesus, King of the Jews (27:37).
Today’s Gospel sets out for us a purely binary alternative, based on how we have responded to Jesus in our life. As he says elsewhere: either we have been with him, or against him (12:30). So now, we are promised either eternal blessedness, or eternal condemnation. Either eternal life, or eternal death. And this choice set before us has been a feature of Matthew’s Gospel from the beginning. To be united to Jesus, identified with him, sharing his relationship with his Father: this for us is ultimate beatitude. Blessed are the poor in spirit, said Jesus, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven... Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (5:7). Whereas: to be separated from Jesus, by our own fault, whether having rejected him knowingly, or having missed what he came to give through negligence, thoughtlessness and self serving sloth: this must be for us the ultimate misfortune. And if this is a hard message to accept, it’s simply a necessary consequence of who Jesus is.
One remarkable feature of today’s Gospel is the personal pronoun which refers to Jesus: “I” or “me”; or, in the mouth of his interlocutors, “you”. I count 30 of them! You may recall a passage in Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth. He cites a study of Matthew’s Gospel made by the contemporary Jewish Rabbi and scholar Jacob Neusner. Neusner finds the moral content of the Gospel beautiful, and good, and perfectly in accordance with Jewish tradition. [We might think here in particular of a text where God through Isaiah exhorts faithful Jews to share their food with the hungry, to clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless poor (58:7)]. Jesus adds nothing essential to that message. Except, of course, as Neusner points out, himself.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood this perfectly. With her Missionaries of Charity she reached out to the poorest of the poor, without discrimination, in order that in each one she might serve, and honour, and love, and worship her Lord Jesus Christ. This was something that baffled the secular commentators, who were not slow to find fault. In that respect they echoed the critics of the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar, as narrated by St. Matthew in the scene immediately following this. To them, Jesus retorts: What she has done for me is a good work. You have the poor with you always. You will not always have me (26:10).
Today we come to pour out the ointment of our own witness, and our worship and love of Christ our King. We believe what Matthew teaches us: that Jesus of Nazareth is identified both with his heavenly Father, and with the least of his brethren. And we Catholics also accept his self identification with the Eucharistic elements. Take it and eat, he said at the Last Supper (26:26): This is my Body. And: Drink from this, all of you; for this is my blood.
And so we come to eat the Body of Jesus, and drink his Blood, in order that we may belong to him, be united with him, be identified with him. We come because we want to be numbered among those Jesus calls you whom my Father has blessed. We come for we want to inherit the Kingdom prepared for us since the foundation of the world (25:34); and to receive, once again, from Jesus, the promise of eternal life (25:46).