Matthew 25 begins with two parables that call the Church to attend to the return of the king.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins calls the Church to await the coming of the bridegroom with lamps ablaze.
The parable of the talents reminds us that the generous master is returning to check on his investment.
Each of these parables presumes that we will recognize when the master has returned. But what if we won’t? What if the Lord already is present among us, hidden from our sight?
The parable of the sheep and the goats raises precisely this possibility.
Why does Our Lord speak about the judgment of the nations as separating sheep and goats? At least among farmers, sheep were of greater value than goats.
But something more is implied in the animal typology. God is the great shepherd of Israel: “The lost I will seek out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will build up, and the sick I will heal ...” (Ez 34:16). The sheep are those who have learned from the shepherd. They have learned the art of tenderness from the shepherd’s care.
Neither the sheep nor the goats recognize what they have done. The sheep have fed the hungry, quenched the thirsty, housed the homeless, clothed the naked, soothed the sick and visited the prisoner. They did all these things, not recognizing that they were serving the king.
The goats did nothing. Perhaps if they had known that their works of mercy were directed to the king, they would have done something to get his attention. But they didn’t. And unlike the sheep, who will inherit the kingdom, the goats will receive eternal punishment by being cast into the outer fire.
This parable should be troubling for us. We not only are waiting for the coming of Our Lord in glory; we must learn to recognize his hidden coming among us.
The feast of Christ the King is meant to attune us to the veiled advent of Our Lord.
Personally, if I were to come as king, you’d know it. There would be parades and abundant firework shows. I would hire a blimp to fly over the city, announcing my return.
But Our Lord exercises another kingship. He is the king who reigns upon the cross. In his death, life is hidden. In his weakness, there is power. In his foolishness, there is wisdom.
The king of heaven and earth, the savior of the world, has come among us from the beginning in hidden glory. He was born as an infant in the stable. He ministers in obscurity. And he was raised from the dead with no one watching.
Our Lord still comes among us to reign in hiddenness. He comes to us in the poor. He is present in the Scriptures, in the quiet contemplation of the word of God. He joins us in families that live out the Gospel without much ballyhoo.
And he reigns most fully in the hidden power of the Eucharist.
We cannot see him. We cannot grasp him. But he comes.
Our Lord will one day come to judge the nations. He will appear in glory. We will see him face to face.
Until then, our king is here although hidden. Let us pay him homage in the poverty of those who hunger and thirst. In the loneliness of the forgotten prisoner and the ill.
And our task is to worship this king. To give food. To give drink. To give hope.
After all, that is what our king taught us to do.
Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the managing director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.