INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year A - PROPER 29 - THE REIGN OF CHRIST
EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24.† This prophecy as a whole speaks of God's judgment of Israel's spiritual leaders, of the whole of God's people and the promise of a new messianic leader. Jesus saw his own ministry in the light of this passage and the apostolic church recognized him as the promised Messiah. Read John 10:1-18 to see how much this was so. But there is also a note of both salvation and judgment in the passage: salvation in verses 11-16; judgment in verses 20-22.
PSALM 100.†††† This familiar hymn has been sung by faithful people entering places of† worship for at least 2500 years. It proclaims the essential creed of Israel: The Lord is God, the creator of all; we are God's people; God's goodness and kindness are everlasting; God's faithfulness endures to all generations.
PSALM 95:1-7A.† (Alternate) This is one of series of psalms which may have been sung by pilgrims as they entered the temple precincts.† This excerpt praises God as Creator and Sovereign of the universe.
EPHESIANS 1:15-23.†††† Whether or not Paul was the author of this letter (a subject of much scholarly debate), it is one of the great treasures of the New Testament. It may not be a letter at all, but a prayer, especially its first three chapters. This passage of the prayer rises from personal and particular references to the one, universal purpose of God in Jesus Christ and the church: to bring all creation under the sovereignty of Christ.
MATTHEW 25:31-46.† †††The reign of Christ will begin with a final judgment this parable tells us. But that reign and God's eternal judgment are going on right now with each decision and action we take. How we live today has eternal consequences. We are to witness to the reign of Christ in the way we serve him in faithfulness, kindness and love to our neighbors in
If this is our faith, each one of us has to ask ourselves where we stand and how we are to respond to the opportunity God constantly gives us to be among God's people now and forever.†
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24.†††† The prophet Ezekiel played a significant role in Israel's
religious history, if for no other reason than that, like Jeremiah, he lived through the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the destruction of the temple and the exile of the greater number of the leading citizens. Included in this evile were the priestly families, of whom Exekiel was a member. He did not witness the actual sack of Jerusalem in 587 BCE because he had already been deported with King Jehoiachin ten years earlier. Rather, he was a witness from afar which may well account for the gloomy predictions of judgment and visions of destruction articulated in his prophecies. In fact, some modern analysts of Ezekiel's life and ministry have speculated that he may have suffered from schizophrenia.
When Jerusalem finally did fall to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, Ezekiel experienced a strange reversal of his prophetic insight. In the latter segment of his work, he expressed a prophetic hope which he did not have in his earlier pronouncements. Whereas words of doom against Judah and Jerusalem generally fill the early chapters of the book (chs. 1-24) and oracles against foreign nations are proclaimed in chs. 25-32, the concluding segment (chs. 33-48) contains promises of "the eventual restoration of Yahweh's people and a blueprint for a reconstruction of the cult." (Christopher T. Begg in *Oxford Companion to the Bible,* 218). Ch. 34 forms an introduction to this latter segment following the transitional interlude of ch. 33.
The passage preceding this reading (34:1-10) speaks of divine judgment of Israel's spiritual leaders because they abandoned Yahweh's people.† The note of judgment resurfaces in vss. 17-22. In the interim, Ezekiel promises that Yahweh will become as a shepherd seeking the his wandering flock, leading them to a suitable pasture and tending to the wounded and the weak (vss. 11-16).
The reading ends with two oracles which may not have any relation to each other. Vss. 20-22 speaks of a separation of the fat and the lean sheep. These metaphors represent the powerful leaders of the people who have oppressed and scattered the weak, and now will be judged by Yahweh. The final oracle envisages the appointment of a new shepherd, a Davidic prince who will shepherd the people in Yahweh's place.†
The metaphor of Yahweh as the shepherd of Israel is common in the language of the late prophetic period, especially in Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah. In fact, Ezekiel 34:13-16 can be read as an allegory of Yahweh's lovingkindness and mercy.† Jesus saw his own ministry in this light of this passage and the apostolic church recognized him as the promised Messiah. Read John 10:1-18 to see how much this was so. The Jewish interpretation of the passage recognizes the promise of a messianic leader of God's people, but differs as to the identity of Jesus in this role.
PSALM 100.†††† This familiar hymn has been sung joyfully by faithful people entering places of worship for at least 2500 years. It proclaims the essential creed of Israel: The Lord is God, the creator of all; we are God's people; God's goodness and kindness are everlasting; God's faithfulness endures to all generations.
The psalm may have been sung as the assembled worshippers processed through the gates of the temple and into the sacred precincts for a service of thanksgiving and thank offering. It may have had a liturgical structure in which vss. 1-3 were sung by one choral group of Levites at the head of the procession as they moved up to the temple gates; and vss. 4-5 sung by another group bidding the worshippers to enter. It is believed to have been written for such use in the post-exilic period. It could still be used very dramatically in a similar manner.††
The most familiar versions of this psalm are in the metrical forms dating from the English and Scottish Reformation. During the bloody reign of Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many English and Scots Protestants fled to Europe. In Geneva, an English community gathered, translated and revised a collection of metrical psalms. Many of these exiles returned to England on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, bringing this collection to be completed and published in England in 1562 as *The Whole Booke of Psalmes.* Among these was the familiar version of Psalm 100, "All people that on earth do dwell." The psalms served the unique purpose of engaging the people of the congregations in worship in much the same way that the prescribed responses of the Roman Catholic liturgy has done.
John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, carried a similar collection of psalms back to Scotland in 1559. It displaced an earlier collection authorized by James I. It remained the hymn book of the Scottish Kirk until the Westminster Assembly of 1643 which sought to bring about conformity in church government and worship throughout the two kingdoms. Controversy† ensued over which of two improved versions of the metrical psalms would be preferred. The English and Scottish churches chose different versions. In 1650, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650 appointed one of these "to be sung in congregations and families." Included was the familiar Geneva version of Psalm 100, now slightly altered for the better by a Scot, William Kethe.
One of these variations came about through a typographical error. In vs. 3 "we are his
people" read as "we are his folck (folk), he doth us feed", but appeared in print as "we are his flock." The variation makes such perfect sense that many may well sing it in this way.
PSALM 95:1-7A.† (Alternate) This is one of series of psalms which may also have been sung by pilgrims as they entered the temple precincts. This excerpt praises and thanks Yahweh as Creator and Sovereign of the universe. There is, however, a note of henotheism in vs. 3 where Yahweh is not only described as a great god, but the king over all other gods. This represents a theological position that contrasts Israelís god Yahweh with the gods of other nations, although elevated above such other gods as the Canaanite Baal, the Moabite Chemosh and the Ammonite Molech.
Vs. 6 contains an interesting reference to kneeling in prayer. This indicates that the procession of worshippers praising Yahweh had already entered the temple where each had reached his appointed station for worship. The Jews adopted several positions for prayer including prostration and kneeling. Prostration symbolized obeisance; kneeling was adopted for petition. The latter succeeded the former suggesting that one changed positions because there was something to see. Today, television often shows Jewish worshippers standing before the Western Wall of the Temple to pray and Moslem worshippers prostrate at prayer with forehead to the ground, then kneeling. For Christians, there is no absolutely correct position for prayer. We may approach God in positions that suit the moment. The important thing is to be reverent in what we are doing.
Vs. 7 repeats the familiar metaphor of Yahweh as shepherd of Israel found in other psalms and prophets like Ezekiel. That is why it became a familiar metaphor for Jesus.
EPHESIANS 1:15-23.†††† Whether or not Paul was the author of this letter (a subject of
much scholarly debate), it is one of the great treasures of the New Testament. It may not have begun as a letter at all, but as a prayer followed by a sermon admonishing the faithful to live a life worthy of the faith they have espoused in the unity of the Spirit under the sovereignty of Christ. This is the approach taken by NT scholar, John C. Kirby, of McGill University, Montreal, in his compelling analysis of the letter, *Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost* (McGill University Press, 1968).
The opening three chapters follow the pattern of a typical Jewish liturgical prayer known as a *berakah*. Not only does it exhibit poetic characteristics, its tone of wonder and solemnity evoke a mood of contemplative worship with the repeated phrase "to the praise of his glory." Though thoroughly Christian in character, this type of blessing recalls the prayers of Jewish worship in the synagogues out of which many of the early Ephesian Christians came.
This excerpt, on the other hand, includes certain elements which were typical of Paul's
letters. In vss. 15-16, for instance, he recalls the faith and the love of the Ephesians and gives thanks for them as he prays for them. He then returns to his earlier theme of what God has done through the resurrection of Jesus Christ: the dead have been made alive and the alienated have been reconciled.
We may conclude that Paul is speaking of a spiritual experience and there is an intellectual component to it as well. His prayer is that God may give them "a spirit of wisdom and revelation" as they come to know Christ (vs. 17). The following unusual phrase, " with the eyes of your heart enlightened," (vs. 18) ties together both knowledge of truth and the revelation which only faith can perceive.† That knowledge is intended to be an integral part of† faith is reiterated in the several soaring clauses of vss. 18-21. They are "to know" the hope to which they are called, the riches of their inheritance among the saints, and the working of God's power derived from Christ's resurrection and ascension to the place of total sovereignty.
Is it possible that the end of all this will be that not only Jesus Christ reigns over all things (vs. 22), but that because Christ is the head of his body, the church also shares his sovereignty? If so, does this not reaffirm the triumphalist concept of Christendom? A fairer interpretation, however, holds that it is Christ, not the church, who is the sovereign. Neither the ecclesiastic community, in the most catholic sense of that term, nor one of its ministers, however selected, has any claim to the absolute embodiment of Christ or his "vicar" on earth.
"The fullness of him who fills all in all" (vs. 23) might be said to refer to the faith that Christ is "the essential content of the church"; but to quote F.W. Beare (*The Interpreter's Bible,* vol. 10, 636) it would be better to take the phrase to mean that the relationship between Christ and the church is complementary, "that which makes complete. Christ and the church together form an organic unity.... Clearly, the thought of the church as Christ's fullness is related to the thought that the whole created universe is tributary to him and will undoubtedly be gathered to him. In the church the ultimate cosmic unity is realized in nucleus and in anticipation."
Thus, we are dealing with an eschatological vision of the church, not as it existed in Paul's time, or as it has been throughout the past two millennia, or as it is today. The scandal of our disunity that leads to prejudice, rivalry, hostility, condemnation and even open warfare is sufficient evidence of that. Paul's envisions the church as "the microcosm of what all existence will finally be," as E.F. Scott said in his commentary on this passage. (*Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians,* 160.)
Let William Barclay have the last word from *The Epistle to the Ephesians* (*Daily Bible Readings.* Church of Scotland, 1956): "There is a legend which tells how Jesus went back to heaven after His time on earth....The angels were talking to him and Gabriel said, "You must have suffered terribly for men down there.... Do they all know about how you loved them and what you did for them? .... What have you done to let everyone know about it?" .... Jesus answered, "I have asked Peter and James and John and a few others to make it the business of their lives to tell others about me, and the others still others, and yet others, until the farthest man on the widest circle knows
about what I have done."† Gabriel looked very doubtful, for Gabriel knew well what poor stuff men were made of. "Yes," he said, "but what if (they) fail? What if the people who come after them forget? What if away in the twentieth century people just don't tell others about you? Haven't you made any other plans?" And Jesus answered, "I haven't made any other plans. I am counting on them."
MATTHEW 25:31-46.†††† This parable tells us that the reign of Christ will begin with a final judgment. But it is a parable, a story told to persuade people on how to live as they prepare for that inevitable experience, not a description of what the event will be like. The story also has an eschatological and a messianic emphasis set in place by its very first clause, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels with him ...." That is a typical description from the apocalyptic tradition derived from Jewish literature of the centuries BCE greatly influenced by forerunners in both the prophetic and possibly the wisdom traditions. (See Ezekiel 38-39; Isaiah 24-27; Zechariah 12-14.) Its stock-in-trade was revelation through visionary experience; and this parable contains some very vivid images of that kind.
In vss. 31 and 32 there are two images of the judgment which may seem to be unusually juxtaposed. The first envisages a typical a royal court where the monarch is surrounded by courtiers and the whole populace is gathered before the throne waiting for a critical decision. The second describes the much humbler scene of a shepherd at the end if a day separating sheep from goats as they enter the fold for the night. The task was an easy one, for in the Middle East sheep are generally white and goats black. The monarch's task might not be so easy, for the character of human beings is much more complex.
The story does simplify the basis on which the judgment is made. It has to do with how each person responds to everyday opportunities to help others in need. The length and detail with which this poignant emphasis is described assures even the hasty reader that this is what the story means.† The reign of Christ and God's eternal judgment are going on right now with each decision and action we take. How we live today has eternal consequences. We are to witness to the reign of Christ in the way we serve him in faithfulness, kindness and love to our neighbors in need.
Yet this parable is not a simple story offering polite moral counsel seeking for ethical
behavior to create a kinder, gentler, self-satisfied society. Coming as it does immediately before the Passion story, this parable connects our time in history and the time of Jesus as an historical person with the reality of eschatological judgment at the† end of time. The way this parable describes how the faithful are to live is the way Jesus lived "as one that served." His actions constantly affirmed his messianic character. Matthew constantly reminded his audience of this in his choice of names by which he referred to Jesus of Nazareth, in this instance the OT messianic figure of the Son of Man. As he turned to the all important conclusion of his gospel, Matthew was saying that in Jesus the Messiah the divine judgment which Israel has anticipated for so
long had arrived. The gospel speaks across the millennia with the same clarion call of
judgment: the crucified and risen Jesus, the ever present 'God with us,' is now deciding who will have a part in the eternal reign of love fulfilled in God's creation.