Reading 1—Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17
Responsorial Psalm—Psalm 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6
Reading 2—1 Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28
Gospel—Matthew 25: 31-46
The Shepherd King
- The image of the shepherd is used in Scripture, as well as other ancient literature, to refer to a benevolent ruler. Like a shepherd caring for his flock, a good king is one who feeds and protects his people. The passages in these readings depict the Lord as a shepherd, a king who cares for his people.
- The Psalm also calls to mind the image of a shepherd king. In some translations, the first line of this Psalm is rendered as “The Lord rules me,” rather than the more familiar “The Lord is my shepherd.” The Church has recognized that this well-known “Shepherd Psalm” shows the Lord as a king. The Lord who rules as a good shepherd protects his people and delivers them from their enemies.
- Ezekiel addresses a nation in exile. In the passages preceding this reading, Ezekiel addresses the shepherds of Israel. He castigates these shepherds for tending only to themselves while failing to feed their sheep. The prophet brings a word of comfort to the people by saying that the Lord himself will be their ruler. The leaders of Israel were derelict, and so the People of God face terrible suffering and crisis. This is the context in which the Lord says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” When leaders fail, the Lord remains faithful.
- Jesus is the good shepherd, the king, who cares for his flock, the Church. He is the Incarnate Lord, who continues to shepherd his people.
- While the image of the king who is a shepherd may bring comfort, these passages also remind us that the Lord is also a judge, who separates the wicked from the righteous. Ezekiel says that he will judge between the sheep of his flock. In Matthew, he judges between the sheep and the goats. In the words of our Holy Father, “In his death and resurrection, Jesus will manifest himself as the Lord of History, the King of the Universe, the Judge of all. But the Christian paradox is that the Judge is not vested in the fearful trappings of royalty, but is the shepherd filled with meekness and mercy.”
- Both St. Paul and the Psalmist refer to enemies. The Lord prepares a table before the Psalmist’s enemies, while St. Paul talks about death as the last enemy to be destroyed, at the end of time, when God will be all in all.
- Enmity with God and his plan is a choice. We are given the freedom to choose between the path of life and the path of death. As Pope Francis said:
He seems almost not to judge, but merely to separate the sheep from the goats, whereas being good or evil depends on us. He only draws out the consequences of our choices, brings them to light and respects them. Life, we come to see, is a time for making robust, decisive, eternal choices. Trivial choices lead to a trivial life; great choices to a life of greatness. Indeed, we become what we choose, for better or for worse.
- The goats are those who fail to perform the works of mercy—who lack charity. They choose to build themselves up, to make themselves “sleek and strong,” at the expense of others. They exploit and oppress the vulnerable. We may be able to build up for ourselves a small, earthly kingdom, but in doing so, we exclude ourselves from the kingdom of God.
- So how do the People of God gain access to his grace? How do we live under the reign of the Lord? How do we “belong to Christ”? According to Matthew, we do the works of mercy. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “If we put love for our neighbour into practice in accordance with the Gospel message, we make room for God's dominion and his Kingdom is actualized among us. If, instead, each one thinks only of his or her own interests, the world can only go to ruin.”
- St. Thomas Aquinas also sees in this Psalm a reference to the sacraments. The table that is spread before us is the altar where we enjoy communion with our king. And so it is in joining Christ through participation in the Eucharist and through works of mercy outside the church walls that we become friends of Christ.
Christ Our Hope
- A key component of these passages is that the Lord is the one who brings about transformation. When Ezekiel prophesies to a beleaguered Israel, the emphasis is on the Lord’s initiative. When it is time for the sheep and the goats to be separated, it is the Son of Man in glory, the shepherd king, who separates the sheep from the goats.
- It is tempting when looking at the Church to believe we can solve the crises she faces on our own: If only we could rid the Church of those we judge to be the goats, then our problems would be solved. To be sure, we should use our gifts and virtues to contribute to the renewal of our Church and broader society. But at the same time, the Lord is the one who leads us beside still waters. And so any work undertaken for the Church must be informed by prayer, in which we ask the King of the Universe to be our shepherd.