The big piece of equipment the optometrist swings in front of your face and has you look through during an eye exam is called a phoroptor. It holds all the lenses that they flip back and forth in front of your eyes as you try to read the eye chart, in order to find the best prescription of lenses for you to see clearly if you don’t naturally have 20/20 vision.
Well we need a spiritual phoropter today, because it is the last Sunday of the Church year, when we remember and celebrate Christ as our King. But as we envision Christ as King today, we need a special focus. The lenses we might use to bring into focus our world’s notion of kingly power simply don’t work for getting a clear vision of Christ as King. Christ bears little resemblance to the kings of this world. To get a clear view of Christ as King, we need to flip out the lenses of power and majesty, and flip in the lenses of humility and compassion.
In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Markus Borg argues that a rule of compassion was central to who Jesus was. He sees the crystallization of this compassion rule in one verse taken from the sixth chapter of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus commends his disciples to, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” And Borg argues that it is through this crystallization, this lens that we will best see Jesus for who he is: a compassionate king.
In Jesus’ own day, the dominant crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was not in sync with Jesus compassion rule either. If the crystallization of Jesus message was, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, the crystallization of the Jerusalem religious establishment was “Be holy as God is holy”. At that time and point in history, that religious establishment understood holiness to be directly linked to keeping the purity code. This code was based on the many laws related to purity that are found in the book of Leviticus. Based on this code, the labels of “pure” and “impure” were applied to persons, places, animals and social groups in the first century Jewish world. And these classifications had significant social ramifications with regard to the valuing of people in society. Those seen as pure were imbued with a higher value than those seen as impure because the dominant theology of that time and place said the purer you are, the more like God you are. Let me just stress that this was one theological strain in Judaism that held sway at one particular moment in the history of the Jerusalem religious establishment. It is a strain of theology that is not unique to Judaism; indeed it is a strain of theology that has recurred in many different times, places and faith traditions before and since.
With this purity code as it’s predominant lens it is no wonder that the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day did not recognize Jesus as King. Jesus, though a devout Jew, was a man who blatantly broke the purity code by eating with those whose behavior deemed them as impure, such as tax collectors and prostitutes; by touching and healing those whose physical conditions deemed them impure, like lepers and the blind and lame; by keeping company with women, whose impurity came as part of their birthright. In almost everything he did, Jesus blatantly called into question the social boundaries that had been so carefully constructed by the purity code. It is no wonder that the adherents to that code did not recognize him as king. They were expecting the promised messiah and king of Israel to come as a great political ruler who would lead a regime change by overthrowing the impure gentile government of Rome that so oppressed first century Israel. The last thing they thing they were looking for was for their messiah and king to come and challenge their religious piety.
Yet Jesus did not challenge those purity code boundaries in order to mock of anger the religious establishment. Rather he did so to proclaim that God’s holiness had little to do with external forms of purity and everything to do with internal purity, which he defined as compassion. His words and actions, his living and his dying preached this, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.”
In Hebrew the word compassion is the plural of the noun which translates into the English word womb. So to say that God is compassionate is to say that God is womb-like. And so, to seek to imitate God is to seek to be womb-like too. That is, to feel for others as a mother or father might feel for their children – in ways that are life giving, nourishing, caring, embracing, and encompassing. That is what lies at the heart of so many of Jesus’ words and actions. Even when he is being confrontational with the religious establishment he is doing so out of a desire to break open their rigid focus on purity and to lead them into a place of compassion.
But lest we get too focused on the folly of the religious establishment of that day, perhaps we should flip the lens onto ourselves. We need only look around to recognize that compassion is not the predominant lens that focuses our society. If the message, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”, was central to Jesus, what could we say is the central message to our society? “Be successful as God is successful”? “Be powerful as God is powerful”? What is the dominant lens of our cultural phoroptor? When we look through that lens do we see Christ as king or as confronter? Do we see ourselves as sheep or as goats?
That is the question of this morning’s parable. In this parable the son of man, in the final judgment, applauds that part of the human herd that have looked out, not just for themselves but also for others – those whose vision is focused on the life of the larger community. This parable announces that social orders that are in sync with the reign of Christ are those that have a community focus at their heart. Social orders in which power and wealth are instruments used to serve the common good. Social orders in which no one is left behind. Indeed Christ does not just applaud these ways of being in the world, he says that he is to be found among those who are on the outskirts of the flock – so to serve him is to serve them.
Christ the King says:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty, a stranger in your midst, naked, ill and in prison, and in my need you gave me water, clothing, comfort and friendship.” (Homilies for the Christian People, p. 176)
Christ is not some being sitting on a throne up above the sky, robed in glory and remote from us. Christ our King reaches out to us each day, in the minutia of our lives. As one eloquent preacher put it:
“Christ the king is hidden in the open hand begging for a taste of bread and a cup of water, in the struggle for justice and peace, in the lives of women and men who abandon the strategies of fear and intimidation for the politics of hope and mercy…It is there Christ reigns.” (Ibid.)
Let us pray:
Compassionate King and Shepherd, your love gives us the vision to see that we are a herd of cross-bred sheep and goats. We long to be more fully yours. Come correct us where we have gone astray, tend us, and lead us in your ways and for your most gracious purposes that we might meet you again in each other and in each person we would serve in your name! Amen+