The expression “a preferential option for the poor” or “option for the poor and vulnerable” is a basic tenet of Catholic Social Teaching, a body of papal encyclicals from the late 19th century up through today. It consists of seven basic themes of which the US Bishops have nice introduction here. One of those themes is “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.” This theme says that a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Many times we read the Matthean passage and feel the call to individual acts of compassion and justice, but the US Bishops also direct our attention to more systemic issues of economic justice and domestic poverty. Lots of links and lots to consider! And you might be asking “what does this have to do with Psalm 8?”
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, it makes me recall the words of Revelation 19:16 where the expression “King of kings, Lord of lords” is spoken of Jesus in his second coming. But did you notice that the word “king” is hardly mentioned in our readings today. It is used once in the gospel, not at all in the other readings. Odd, don’t you think? But then again, “He will sit upon his glorious throne…” are the words in the opening verse of our gospel – rather “kingly” I would think.
The idea of kingship fills Scripture. We speak of the kingdom of God and who can forget King David of Israel. But did you ever wonder how Israel got a king? Abraham, the father of all believers – not a king. Moses – not a king. The great judges and leaders of Israel, Sampson and Deborah – not kings. So where did the idea of king come from? That is an interesting story, told in 1 Sam 8: “Israel gets a king.”
The Lord had always watched out and cared for Israel, raising up great leaders when needed – like Moses and the Judges. But the people of Israel got tired of instability and this ebb and flow of anointed leaders, and so one day they ask the last of the judges, Samuel, to go to God and ask for a king – so they can be – not God’s people – but people like other people. Reluctantly Samuel does. God tells Samuel, this is disappointing, but then Israel has always been hardheaded. OK, but tell them the king will have certain rights. And so, Samuel tells the people, OK, but here will be the rights of the king:
He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses, and they will run before his chariot. He will also appoint from among them his commanders of groups of a thousand and of a hundred soldiers. He will set them to do his plowing and his harvesting, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will use your daughters as ointment-makers, as cooks, and as bakers. He will take the best of your fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and your vineyards, and give the revenue to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best oxen and your asses, and use them to do his work. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves.
“Still want a king?” The people say “yes” only proving the old adage of being careful what you ask for. In 1st and 2nd Kings, as well as 1st and 2nd Chronicles, scripture recounts the failings of all the kings of Israel (and Judah) from David to Jeckoniah. At the end of each account of the king, the accounts give an assessment of the king on how they did in shepherding the people of God in their covenant with God. Notice “shepherding” – not any of the regal, lofty terms we would use to describe the actions of a king
Where our readings today hardly use the work “king” there is no shortage of references to “shepherds.” Listen again to the words of the first reading from Ezekiel: “For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark…I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal (but the sleek and the strong I will destroy), shepherding them rightly.” Our Psalm cries out, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
So, you have two descriptions of kings: one from 1st Samuel that describes a king as an absolute monarch who takes from the people for his own benefit. And then there is the one who comes as King of all those other kings, and yet will be as a shepherd – looking after, tending, rescuing, pasturing, giving rest, seeking out, bringing back, binding up, and healing. The one who sits upon the “glorious throne” a reference to the great vision of God as King – there upon the mercy seat in the Temple.
Maybe now, the scene foretold by Jesus to his disciples about the great end-times judgment makes sense. There is Jesus, judging, enthroned upon the Mercy Seat, separating the sheep from the goats – and the criterion is “were you kingly? Not as people imagine a king, but as you were baptized?” In your baptismal ceremony, the words were spoken that say, Just as Christ is prophet, priest and king, so too … “so too” – and that means you. “So too” do we share in the kingship of Christ. The king who rules as a shepherd – looking after, tending, rescuing, pasturing, giving rest, seeking out, bringing back, binding up, and healing.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food,” said Jesus, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
We care for the poor not out of guilt, ascetic renunciation, some secular theory of a socialistic ideal that rejects private property, nor because the poor are virtuous. Rather, in serving the poor we care for our own souls by imitating the character of God himself.
Christian care for the poor isn’t just a utilitarian act of social justice (Bill Gates does that), an altruistic act with no element of self-interest or expectation of reward (per Emmanuel Kant), and not even merely a sign of a believer’s personal faith (per the Protestant Reformers). Rather, care for the poor is the privileged way to serve God and to live out our baptismal vows.
It is the way it has always been. When St. Paul met with the early Church leaders in Jerusalem and was commissioned to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he says that the only thing he was asked to do was to remember the poor, “which is the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).
If you are to claim Christ as your king, if you are to claim your part in the kingship, then right and holy shepherding of others is part and parcel of that claim. You are anointed in baptism to share in Christ’s kingship, his right shepherding.
May the grace to live out that anointing… may that grace be yours.
In a recent issue of American Magazine, Mark Neilsen wrote a wonderful piece called “Asking for Change: The challenge of giving without grudges.” He tells of his ongoing and frequent encounters with a poor woman named Donna. She appears in his life when there is need in her life. What was especially wonderful about the article was his own ongoing reflection on his reactions and emotions surrounding each encounter: “Like the time she asked me to loan her $20 for an emergency, and I came to learn that it really was not a loan at all…” Be you pastor or parishioner, in modern life almost everyone has encountered their own “Donna.” Perhaps the first time we might actually expect they will repay the loan. After that how many of us realize it isn’t a loan, but as Mark describes: “a gift, minus the generosity.” I think there are also other descriptions: “a gift, with the warning – ‘don’t let me catch you using it for any foolishness.'” Or perhaps, “a gift minus the glance” – as in never making eye contact and just hoping the moment passes as soon as possible. Continue reading