I think this Gospel reading is wonderful because of the rather vivid picture that it paints. When I hear it, I can’t help but picture the king separating the sheep from the goats, making known their good works, or lack thereof, and ushering them into their version of eternity. It would seem that the moral of the story is very clear: we are all put here to do some very important things for the Kingdom of God; we are called to use our time and talent to serve those in need. These are the corporal works of mercy, and we should all certainly know them and do them. They aren’t mere suggestions, they are, apparently, the way that we get into heaven.
And that would be a very good message, but I think Jesus is going for something else because that message would be a good one any time of the year. So, the question we have to ask ourselves is why this message at this point of the Church year? And perhaps just as poignantly, why this message so close to the end of Jesus’ life? This reading comes from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which is just twenty-eight chapters long. Indeed, in the very next chapter, Judas begins to conspire against Jesus. So here at the end of Jesus’ life, and on the very last Sunday of the Church year, why this particular parable?
Well, we don’t have to look very far for the answer. The very setting itself tells us what Jesus was getting at: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” So this is clearly a prediction of the end of time, particularly the day of judgment. And I think this setting makes that vivid picture even more vivid. Here our Lord has all of his creatures before him, and he begins to separate them out. There are two places that one might go: the kingdom or eternal fire.
I think we all know what line we’re supposed to get into. But just in case there was any doubt, the Gospel makes it very clear. The kingdom, he says, was “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” For you. The eternal fire, on the other hand, was “prepared for the devil and his angels.” So not for you. And this echoes a truth that has been preached all along the way of this Church year. We were made for heaven, heaven is our true home, and we are just passing through this place.
But just because the kingdom was prepared for us doesn’t mean we can’t make the wrong choice. The devil and his angels have already made their choice, and they’re hoping to take as many of us with them as they can. They do that by convincing us that we can live our lives any way we choose. They try to convince us that morality isn’t really objective, that anything is okay as long as it works for me. What they want us to say is that we are in charge, that there isn’t any God. They want us to choose life outside the Kingdom of God – you know, that kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
And we can choose that if we want to, but it will be a lonely place, with more than our share of sadness. To get to the real Kingdom, all we have to do is to accept the wonderful sheep and shepherd imagery that we have in today’s readings. In our first reading, Ezekiel portrays our God as a shepherd who goes out of his way to seek out and save the ones who are lost. This is a shepherd who wants to heal our brokenness and make us fit for the Kingdom of God. In just the same way, the sheep who are destined for the Kingdom might recognize the Son of Man throughout the Church year and throughout the Gospel and respond to his call to live for the Kingdom and not just for today, to care about others and love as we have been loved, and let that Love take us to our rightful place.
Today, on the last Sunday of the Church year, we celebrate Our Lord Jesus Christ the King of the Universe. We proclaim boldly that our Jesus is King of kings and Lord of Lords and there is absolutely no other. We profess that one way of life isn’t just as good as another, that there is only One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life and that is our Lord Jesus Christ. He is King of the Universe and King of our hearts and our lives. When we make the right choice to follow our King and do what he has commanded, we can follow him to that Kingdom that was prepared for us from the foundation of the world.