• Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17
• Psa 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6
• 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28
• Matt 25:31-46
The connection between herding sheep and ruling as a king is rather unique to Scripture. In the Old Testament it is King David—dramatically raised from lowly shepherd boy to the throne of Israel (1 Sam 16:1-13; 2 Sam 5:1-4)—who personified most vividly this connection between shepherd and king, memorialized poetically in Psalm 78: “[God] chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfolds. From tending ewes God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage. He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them” (vs 70-72).
Yet, significantly, it is God who is described in the Old Testament as being perfect king and righteous shepherd. He is named in the Psalms as “the great king over all the earth” who reigns over the nations and “sits on his holy throne” (Ps 47:3, 8-9). Recall, however, that when the elders of Israel demanded the prophet Samuel appoint a king over the nation it was a renunciation of God’s kingship. “They are rejecting me as their king”, said God to Samuel, “…deserting me to serve other gods” (1 Sam 8:4-9). God granted the selfish demand for a human king, but warned that mere mortal men would ultimately fail and disappoint as rulers, turning their subjects into slaves and separating them from a right relationship with God (1 Sam 8:10-18).
So even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14; 16:7), failed miserably in many ways, most notably by committing adultery with Bathsheba and then arranging for the death of her husband, the loyal soldier, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 11). “Against you, you alone have I sinned”, wrote David after being confronted by Nathan the prophet, “I have done what is evil in your eyes; So that you are just in your word, and without reproach in your judgment” (Psa 51:6). God, the true and perfect king, will render just judgment on all men, including King David.
David’s most famous psalm is probably the one quoted in today’s responsorial: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want…” (Psa 23:1). It is a short but beautiful depiction of God’s care for his people, drawing upon the image of God as shepherd that can be traced back to the first book of the Bible (Gen 49:24). The same theme is found in abundance in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel: the Lord God will tend his sheep, as well as rescue them, pasture them, give them rest, seek out those who are lost, bind up the injured, and heal the sick. There will, however, also be judgment, “I will judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats”. Mercy and justice exist perfectly in God, who knows every heart and intention.
Just three chapters later is this passage: “David my servant shall be king over them; they shall all have one shepherd” (Ez 37:24). This servant is the Son of Man and the Son of David, Jesus Christ, described by the Apostle Paul as the new Adam who brings life to those who belong to him and destruction to those who oppose him.
The stark contrast is just as obvious in the parable of the sheep and the goats. There is no third animal; there are only two possibilities: to inherit the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” or to be sent “off to eternal punishment”. In the Old Testament, of course, it is God who judges and separates the rams from the goats. The Son of Man can only judge the sheep and the goats because he shares intimately in the work of God—that is, because he is God Incarnate.
He is “the true Christ, the divine and heavenly Logos”, wrote Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History, “the only high priest of the world, the only King of all creation…” At his name, at history’s end, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess he is King and Lord.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 20, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)
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