In the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City (which is in Rome), there is a very large painting. We refer here to Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. It portrays a very large and muscular and powerful Christ. Below him on his right are people who are ascending. They are the saved. Below him on his left are people who are descending. They are the damned. Christ is turned to his left, facing those on whom he is about to pass judgement. With his left arm across his body, he shields himself, a gesture that suggests a denial of access to his presence. With his right arm raised above his head, a gesture of power, he executes judgement on them. The painting is behind the altar. No doubt its placement there is intentional. It’s what the people first saw when entering the chapel to worship.
Critics in subsequent centuries condemned the church for such paintings. They claimed that religious art served as a tool of social control. Images of judgement and the horrors of eternal punishment were used to manipulate the masses. Such images enabled the elite to shamelessly profit from a culture of fear and guilt that religious art intended to aid and abet.
Leaving aside the question whether or not the critics are right, let us at least note that there is a wealth of theology to ponder in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which is a magnificent painting. That too was a purpose of religious art, especially in a time when the majority of the churchgoing population was illiterate.
But, ironically, there is almost nothing in the last judgement found in our lessons that resembles Michelangelo’s Christ. To be sure, the Lord is revealed in power and glory, seated on his throne, with all his angels around him. But our lessons do not let us dwell there; instead, they invite us to contemplate Christ the King under two images. The first is that of the shepherd. In the biblical imagination, the ideal king was compared to a shepherd, as we are about to see. The second is that of the needy—the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, the hungry and thirsty, and the naked. In an encounter with them those now before the bar of judgment recognized him—or failed to recognize him. What this has to tell us about Christ the King—this too we are about to see.
Christ is king. In applying the term, “Son of man” to him, that is what our gospel lesson is telling us. Bible scholars are agreed that it comes from the Old Testament prophet Daniel, who records his vision of one like a “Son of Man” coming with the clouds of heaven. According to Daniel, to the Son of Man is given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will never pass away, and his kingship is one that will never be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14).
Christ is the king of the nations. All nations will come and bow down in worship before him and give glory to his name.
But note the nations are portrayed under the image of sheep and goats. In the land of the Bible, wherever we see sheep and goats, we can count on it that a shepherd is close by. In ancient Israel, the king was compared to a shepherd, as we have already mentioned. This association owes its origins to David, Israel’s model king. God took David from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be ruler over his people Israel. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart, according to Psalm 78.
But David proved to be the exception to the rule. Through the prophets God complained that the shepherds were ignorant of him and his ways; that they rebelled against him; and that they destroyed and scattered the sheep.
This abusive misrule of Israel’s leaders prompts God himself to intervene. He cares for his people so much that he can no longer bear to leave them in the hands of leaders who do them harm instead of good. In our Old Testament lesson, we learn that God himself will search for the scattered sheep and bring them to abundant pasture. He will make them to lie down. This means that he will free them from the harassment of their enemies.
God’s care is revealed above all in his concern for the lost, the injured, and the weak. God’s care for the most vulnerable stands in stark contrast to the kings’ exploitation of them. The prophets denounced the kings for crushing the heads of the weak into the dust and thrusting the rights of the oppressed to one side.
Returning to our Old Testament lesson, we learn that God is on the side of the weak. There are two classes of sheep: the weak and the lean, on the one hand, and the strong and the fat on the other. The strong exploited the weak for the sake of gain. They have grown fat at their expense. They pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with their horns until they scattered them.
God promises to judge between sheep and sheep. He will make sure that each will get his own fair share. And instead of rich pasture, God will feed the strong and the fat with justice.
God then discloses the figure who will shepherd his people. That figure is David. The church has regarded him as a messianic figure. That is, it refers to the David, or more properly the Son of David, who was to come. This is Jesus Christ himself. He is the faithful shepherd. He protects the sheep from their enemies, he seeks the lost sheep, and ensures that all of them have the pasture they need.
Our gospel lesson discloses to us even more about our shepherd king. He cares for his own so much that he identifies himself with them. Under the cover of the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner, the shepherd goes out to meet the sheep. Here we arrive at our second image. Christ the King encounters us in the needy. We can make this point even stronger: Christ the King encounters us as the needy.
Now we have to be careful here. The gospel is not introducing here a notion of Jesus similar to that of pagan gods. In ancient mythology, the gods often assume human form, even combining human and animal forms. For example, in the Hindu scripture the Bhagavat Gita the god Vishnu appears to the prince Arjuna under the form of his charioteer Krishna, trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty as a warrior.
But the incarnate Son of God does not assume various forms. He is and remains the one Lord Jesus Christ now and forever. But he is bound to his people with ties so intimate that what affects them affects him also. When Saul of Tarsus was waging his campaign of terror against the fledgling church, Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road, and asked: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” You see, to persecute one of his own, to whom he is bound by the most intimate of ties, is to persecute him.
An example from our own experience is that of a mother and her child. When the child suffers, the mother feels the pain as if it were her own. Indeed, mothers will go even farther to say that their pain is even worse. “Whenever you did it to the least one of these, you did it to me.”
Let us explore this further. Jesus is the royal man, because he is not ashamed to be human. But what does it mean to be human?
When a baby is born, physicians make three observations to tell if a baby is physically healthy.
- Does the child cry out, expressing the fear of not having security, and the need for comfort and care?
- Does the child reach out to experience the touch of another human being, the reflex response of connection?
- Does the child take in food, receiving from others what is necessary for growth?
According to authors Chip Dodd and Stephen James, these questions do not cease to apply to us as we grow up; they accompany us from birth to death.
- Do we cry out? That is, do we express our needs and feelings and desires in response to how we are created, in response to how we are meant to live?
- Do we reach out? That is, do we live in relationship and humility and continue to ask for the respect, support and care we need from others?
- Do we take in? That is, do we receive the good that is offered from others so we can offer it to others in turn?
We tend to see the stranger, the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick and the prisoner as the other guy or the other gal. We then interpret our gospel lesson to mean that we are to approach them from our position of strength, from our place of superiority, to help them out. To do so is to belong to the sheep, whom the shepherd king welcomes into eternal life. To refuse to do so is to belong to the goats, whom the shepherd king consigns to eternal punishment.
But is this really what our lesson is teaching us? What if these categories of people in need are really telling us about the human condition, which we all share? The truth is that as human beings we are all needy. But we don’t want to admit this. We want people to see that we have it altogether. We seldom let people know how great our need is, because we want to convince them that we are making it in life. But this is seldom true, at least not all the time.
In the church, under the kingship of Jesus, who shared fully the human condition, we can let our guard down. We can be who we are with him, because he was not ashamed to be who he is with us. By becoming one of us, he has given us the freedom to acknowledge our need, because he made our need his own. He has released us to be vulnerable to one another, because he made himself vulnerable to us. He has given us permission to be truly human, because he became truly human himself.
How do we flesh this out in our lives together? Our church has a mission statement. In it we state that through his Spirit Christ forms us into a community that learns to “speak as well as to listen, to receive as well as to give.” You may be full; I may be empty. You give to me out of your plenty, and I receive from you without feeling shame about it. And then when I am full, and you are empty, I give to you out of my plenty, which you receive from me without feeling shame about it. When this happens, we come closer to what it means to be the church. When this happens, we come closer to realizing our identity as Christ’s sheep, the people of his pasture.
So then, what about the goats? Who are they? They are the people who don’t acknowledge their humanity. They’re ashamed of the human condition. They shun their neediness. But this is dangerous, because in disowning our neediness, we cannot recognize it in others. Those who stand before the judge protest that that they never saw him in his need. But to fail to see him in others is to fail to see them altogether. What else does this express but the terrible state of absolute loneliness, the final destination of the all-sufficient self? It’s the state of the person who refuses to live in honest relationship to himself, to others, and to God. This is the very definition of hell. In this connection, note that the last verse of our gospel lesson doesn’t say that Christ the King casts the goats into eternal punishment. It says that they go away into eternal punishment. The truth is that they are already there here and now. To go into eternity in this state is where they are already heading.
But let’s not despair over them. In Christ our shepherd king, there is hope for us. And if there is hope for us, there is hope also for the goats. For we were all goats. But the good news is that in Christ God has entered into our loneliness, into our hell, and made them his own. He thereby has opened us up to ourselves, to others, and to God. This is the good news that we must share with the goats, because it is for us as well as for them. Amen.