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The rightful king

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Gospel Commentary Nov. 22, Mt 25:31-46

 By Steven Oetjen 

A peculiar feature of the early Israelite people, from the time of Moses to the time of the Judges, was that they had no earthly king. They had various kinds of leaders — priests, prophets, judges — who served as mediators through whom God led. But they had no king, because the Lord himself was the king of his people. It was for God and God alone to rule.

This all changed when the people approached Samuel with a request for him to appoint a king “to govern us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). There’s a certain sense of safety and security that comes with having a king. They wanted that. Even though God had shown himself both mighty and trustworthy in leading them into the Promised Land through countless military victories, they no longer trusted him to lead them in battle. They wanted to be like all the other nations. Samuel was rightfully upset by this, and the Lord reassured him, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” God told Samuel that he would grant their request, but warned of the terrible things that would happen as a result.

The monarchy was thus established in Israel. Samuel anointed Saul as the first king. He was succeeded by David, then Solomon, and so on. With only a few exceptions, Solomon’s successors were terrible rulers. They may have been politically savvy, but in their worldly concern they only led the people further and further into idolatry. As a result, the unthinkable happened. Jerusalem was conquered, the Temple destroyed and the people sent into exile. They wanted an earthly king, and God let them have it. They rejected God as their king, and this is where it brought them: They lost their land and their sovereignty, and their identity as a people was crushed.

And yet a promise remained. God had said to King David, “I will raise up your offspring after you … and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). God would not abandon his people, nor would he abandon the royal line of David. This kingdom would last forever, and one from the line of David will rule. Though things seemed hopeless, the Jews held out hope for a Messiah-King who would reestablish the kingdom.

God had a marvelous plan to fulfill this hope. And who could have seen it coming? God, who was once rejected by his people in favor of an earthly king “like the nations,” would himself become man in the line of David and reclaim his rightful throne.

This is Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate as the King of the Universe. Today’s Gospel shows Christ the King in his great power, and also shows how his power does not correspond to the world’s idea of power. On the one hand, it shows him as the king who comes in glory and is seated on his throne, judging all the nations definitively. On the other, it shows him identifying himself with the weakest in the world: “Whatever you did (or did not do) for these least brethren of mine, you did (or did not do) to me.” These two points are not opposed. This is the nature of his transcendent power. God doesn’t need to compete with the wicked on their own terms or to use worldly strength to accomplish his ends. As St. Paul says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor 1:24-25).

Mankind may rebel against him, but his designs are never thwarted. The story of our salvation history is evidence of this. God permits things to take a circuitous path sometimes, but, despite the way things appear in the world, nothing is ever outside the course of his providence. God can even use those who work against him for his own purposes. There’s no better example of this than the crucifixion. In dying, death had no victory over him but was only conquered. He used the cross, a cruel instrument of death, as the instrument of our salvation.

In his immense power and absolute sovereignty, he has chosen the weak to shame the strong. No matter the course of history, God’s victory is absolutely certain. We only need to be found among his sheep, not the goats.

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020