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Christ our Shepherd, Christ our King | Word Alive

Luke Stocking

Friday, November 20, 2020

Detail of stained glass image depicting Christ the King in St. Joseph Church, Monroeville, Ohio. Photo credit: Nheyob on Wikimedia Commons, used under the terms of license CC BY-SA 4.0

Christ our Shepherd, Christ our King

A reflection for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A

by Luke Stocking

There are two images that run through this Sunday’s readings: the Shepherd and the King. They are the readings for the Sunday that ends our liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King. Note that it is not the feast of “Christ the Shepherd”. A king does not have much in common with a shepherd – unless you are a sheep or a goat. The interplay in the readings between shepherd and king is full of wisdom. We recognize Christ the King by coming to know Christ the Shepherd.
Christ the King is not the king who dominates and oppresses. Christ the King is like Ezekiel’s shepherd – the one who seeks us out. He is the one who “rescues (us) from all the places to which (we) have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness”. Christ the King binds up the injured and strengthens the weak. He feeds us with justice.
In my teen years, I made the acquaintance of a PK, short for “Pastor’s Kid”. He was the son of the local Baptist minister. In one of our conversations about faith, I described this Sunday’s Gospel as foundational for how I see what the Christian faith calls us to. I told him I believe we are asked to recognize Christ in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the prisoner and that this comes from Scripture. At first, he was having a hard time pondering what scripture I could be talking about.
Then he exclaimed, “Oh, you mean the sheep and the goats!” Then it was my turn to be confused. I did not remember anything about sheep and goats. What I remembered was the question, “Lord when was it we saw you….?” What I remembered was the answer, “Just as you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” We looked at the scripture together. There were the sheep and the goats for me. There were the works of mercy for him.
Over the years, I have reflected on this event in my life. I have come to think that we were both focusing on different things in the same story. I was not interested in God the King, who separates out the sheep from the goats. He was not interested in God the Shepherd, who mysteriously chooses to identify with the poor and is revealed through them. We were both missing something.
God cannot “feed us with justice” unless there are consequences when we do not treat our brothers and sisters with the human dignity that they deserve by virtue of being children of God. There is a time for the Shepherd to separate the sheep from the goats. At the same time, if we miss the divine revelation in the works of mercy because our only motivation is fear of God’s final judgement, then we miss the whole point, and we do not truly experience God’s justice because we choose to obey but not to know God.
I once learned that at the root of the word obey is the notion of “deep listening”. By listening we come to know and by coming to know we can choose to obey. Choosing to obey Christ the King/Shepherd results in a terrifying liberation. It means that we choose to put no earthly authority above God. While the call to listen to God poses challenges to our relationship to civil authorities, it can also complicate our relationship to religious authorities.
Religious authorities, being human, can sometimes fail to see that Christ the King, whom they represent, is modelled on the love of the shepherd for his flock. They, too, can look to earthly kings instead – who demand obedience for their own power and wealth rather than for the common good.
Christ the King/Shepherd is not a pawn in a chess game of power between presidents and popes for our earthly obedience. When this happens, the result is something equally misguided – we cease to put our faith into anything but ourselves. When this happens, you end up with things like the Marilyn Manson t-shirt from the 90’s whose warning so disturbed me when I saw it. “Beware of God,” it said on the front. On the back, it altered one tiny word from the precious Psalm of today, “The Lord is a Shepherd.”
The Lord is my Shepherd. But I am not a sheep who follows the Shepherd for fear that I will be punished if I do not. “Your rod and your staff – they comfort me” because they lead me on “the right paths”. I know, with the trust of my own mother’s voice who taught me the words as a child, that “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

The readings for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A, are
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28 4:13-18
Matthew 25:31-46

Luke Stocking is the deputy director of public engagement for Development & Peace - Caritas Canada. He is a guest columnist for the Catholic Register and is a graduate of the St. Michael’s School of Theology.

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