Today’s gospel for the feast of Christ the King is not for the faint-hearted. The theme of this familiar parable of the sheep and the goats is judgment, an unsettling thought, to say the least, for most of us. But the parable suggests that not only the timing but also the criterion of judgment will take us all by surprise. Hence, both the good and the bad in the parable are equally perplexed: both are found to have been unaware of the significance that their actions (or inaction) had borne. The reaction of the unfortunates on the Lord’s left oscillates between indignation and exasperation: they are at a genuine loss to understand how they could have got things quite so wrong: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and not feed you?” they ask, as if somehow the rules had been changed without warning.
Sadly for them, however, the final judgment seems entirely unconcerned with anything they might have expected to stand them in good stead: spiritual achievement, doctrinal and liturgical exactitude, political and ecclesiastical alignments all appear to count for nothing. But those on the Lord’s right are just as startled and they, too, ask: “Lord, when did we see you hungry…? Their surprise, however, arises from having placed no great store by the good they did in this life: they had responded to obvious need simply by doing what was obviously needed. Why wouldn’t they help their indigent neighbour? Their motive was compassion, and their unselfconscious virtue was its own reward.
The gist of this parable of judgment is that the sole, stark, uncompromising consideration upon which our eternal salvation hangs, is compassion. Did we or did we not respond to the needy with compassion? Not because it was expected of us, or because we considered it meritorious; certainly not for the sake of our CV; not even invoking that dubious if conventional ‘religious’ motivation, “for God’s sake”; but solely for the sake of the one in need.
What’s especially unnerving in this gospel is the echo that runs like an antiphon throughout the gospels, aimed usually at the much-maligned Pharisees: namely, the real possibility that, even now, we might be missing the point. Didn’t St Paul famously remind us of the same: “If I have not love, I am nothing”? The Psalmist makes the same point: “In vain is your earlier rising”. And Langland in Piers Ploughman, too, when he speaks of the “goodly chaplain, chaste but without charity: like a lamp without a light.”
This gospel implies that our task is not narcissistically to make ourselves presentable to God by tidying up our ‘spiritual’ selves, as if we needed to merit his love, but rather to glorify Him by being fully alive. (St Irenaeus)
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, we won’t be judged by how we coped – or didn’t cope – with our weaknesses, but by what we did with our strengths. Weakness and failure will accompany us throughout our lives. Under God’s providence, they can serve to ensure that we never look down on anybody – how could we? – and, in the light of this parable, that we never confuse condescension with compassion.
But there’s a further, even more far-reaching point made by this gospel. It offers a radically different reading of all our relationships by reminding us that in every relationship, we relate also to Christ himself. Whether it’s with our closest intimates or the person at the check-out or the beggar on the street, every relationship is a relationship with Christ Himself.
Lastly, the feast itself of Christ the King was a consci0us counterblast to the idolatry of political absolutism, in all its guises. When Pius XI instituted it in 1925, Europe was a cauldron of competing ideologies, all claiming absolute, even quasi-religious, allegiance. Mussolini had been in power for three years in Italy. In Russia, Bolshevism continued to deploy its murderous muscle. In Germany, the National Socialist Party was already a menacingly malign presence. On the other side of the world, in Mexico, vicious anticlerical laws had already claimed the lives of many Catholics, lay and ordained, a nation-wide persecution.
The feast of Christ the King that marks the end of the liturgical year asserts that the source of all authority is diametrically opposed to the craving for power and domination at the root of so much political and personal wrong. The fact that the King of Kings “rules” from the Cross gives the lie to the fatal illusion that power and control are the sole measure of success in this life. In that skewed view of our humanity, the first casualty is always compassion. But it was compassion for each of us that led Christ the King to pay the ultimate price, the ultimate proof, by his own lips, of love and friendship.