Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King/Reign of Christ
Sorting seems a natural instinct for we humans.
Like children on the playground, we pick teams. In more egalitarian scenarios (the ones run by the teachers), we counted off, 1,2,3. All the 1s over here, the 2s over there, the 3s at the table in the back. I learned early on in my tenure as a pastor in a university town not to joke about the school’s in-state rival. No one found the distinction trivial. The annual football game between the two always meant for a dicey Sunday morning as fully one half of the congregation was in mourning no matter the game’s outcome. It matters which side we are on, what colors we wear, who won and who lost.
Sorting has been a part of human experience forever, hasn’t it? Before there were nations, there were tribes, different languages, distinct cultural practices, varied roles within the group, all designed to make sure people stayed in their lane. I can’t help but think about Harry Potter and the famed sorting hat. “Gryffindor!” “Hufflepuff!” “Ravenclaw!” And, of course, the sinister, “Slytherin!” A place for everyone and everyone in their place. Such clarity makes life neater, more manageable. No need to really get to know someone because we all know what those Slytherin people are like, don’t we?
We know all we need to know about the neighbor with the political yard sign that is opposite ours. We know all we need to know about those who listen to that radio show. We know all we need to know about people from this town or that country. We’ve got it all – got them all – sorted out. We like being sorted. Me with my folks, you with yours. Neater. Less stress. No need to worry about being challenged, changed or made uncomfortable. There’s a book about this, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” It would seem that while we might prefer our sorted lives, something important is missing in our siloed culture.
But God sorts, too. Jesus talks a lot about the sorting that will come at the end of the age. Good fish and bad fish, wheat and chaff, wheat and weeds, sorted. Good fruit is distinct from bad fruit. At some point, all will be revealed, and God will make clear who is on the divine team and, well, who isn’t. Doesn’t Revelation talk about the lake of fire into which get tossed those whose names are not written in the book of life? Those whose names are written in the book: you come here. Let me see, nope, you aren’t here, off you go into the lake of fire. Sorted.
Perhaps we might add a subtitle to this Sunday’s header. Maybe we could call this “Christ the King Sunday: God’s Big Sort.” The text from Ezekiel has God gathering in the sheep who’ve been unjustly, violently scattered and then God gets to dividing into teams. Fat sheep to the left, lean sheep to the right. Those who’ve exploited and abused their fellow sheep, gotten fat at their expense, no more. Off you go where you can’t harm the vulnerable anymore. Then Jesus, in his glory, all the angels as his posse, sorts the sheep from the goats. Sheep who saw me in the least of these to the right, goats who didn’t, you go left. Neither of these are a random picking of teams, a numbering off, or at the whim of a magic hat. No, divine determination of placement comes down to how we treated our flock mates. God’s sorting is unlike ours. God’s ways are not our ways.
We choose neighborhoods, churches and schools where people look like us, mostly act like us and don’t call into question our values and choices by their presence and perspectives. If I get to know the family whose first language isn’t English, or who votes differently than I do, or who questions my church’s stance on women’s ordination, I must then acknowledge my prejudices, see the humanity in groups I have demonized, or even articulate why I believe what I believe without rancor and disdain. That sounds like work to me. I’d rather be sorted.
But God doesn’t sort like that. God cares little about the differences we make fundamental and final, and far more about how we treat our fellow sheep, regardless of where they live or how they vote or even what they believe. The question these Christ the King Sunday texts force us to ask is whether we are living under Jesus’ reign and his commands, or our own. Who is doing the sorting, God or us? What criterion are we using to pick teams? God’s or ours?
This morning I heard a story on Morning Edition about migrants in China. In China they have a way of sorting people called hukou. The reporter said, “Hukou is China’s rigid household registration system, in which a person’s residency is tied to the place where their family is from.” If you move you are not eligible for services like public school. The story delves into just one ramification of this sorting. Migrant children, if they want an education, must enroll in private schools. These schools are not licensed by the government and are periodically shut down as a result. Teachers and students are forced to try to find an alternative school and hope it, too, doesn’t get shuttered.
A teacher, and migrant herself, who’d experienced such an abrupt closure said through an interpreter: “All the teachers and students scattered and they need to find their own place. When they were expelled, she felt like the city is excluding the migrants.” Sorted. In China. In the United States. In my town. In my kids’ school. Everywhere.
Migrant, refugee, undocumented, citizen, rich, poor, worthy, unworthy, in, out, welcomed, excluded, Jews, Greeks, male, female, slaves, free – the categories we impose and enforce are endless. God’s categories, on the other hand, are limited to two: those who fed, clothed, cared, visited and those who did not. Apparently, how Christ our King sees and sorts us depends upon how we saw and sorted others.
Did we see and respond with compassion to “the least of these”? Did we see the face of Christ in those in prison, the hungry and the sick, and treat them as we’d treat our King, or did we put them in another category entirely? When the time comes, that’s the only test question we will have had to answer correctly – not with our words, but with our lives.
- What are some of the other passages where things are divinely sorted? When you look at those passages, what are the criteria for being in one category or the other?
- Is this passage from Matthew akin to works righteousness? Why or why not?
- In the Ezekiel passage, the sheep are in one flock, but some are lean, and some are fat. How do we exploit fellow members of our flock, getting fat at their expense? What are we willing to do to change that?
- Part of what happens in the divine sorting is that some are gathered, and some are scattered. What does it mean to be gathered in by God? What about scattered?
- Note how the categories in Matthew 25 (hungry, thirsty, naked, etc.) are consistent throughout the biblical narrative. Look at Isaiah 58:7, Ezekiel 18:7 and Job 31:32, for example. What do you make of the consistency of these categories?
- Contrast Christ’s rule with that of current earthly “kings.”
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