November 26, 2017

Christ the King Sunday
‘OUR KING AND SHEPHERD’

BIBLE READINGS
Ezekiel 34:11-24
Psalm 95:1-7

Matthew 25:31-46

REFLECTION

Recently, my wife, Rita, had a very ‘Aussie’ experience: she tasted Australian lamb for the very first time. And she was surprised by the similarity in taste between lamb and goat meat that she used to eat back in Indonesia. The experience, however, quickly descended into a petty argument between us - which one is better: lamb or goat meat?

Surprisingly, my wife thinks that lamb is better than goat meat. I beg to differ. One of my favourite dishes back Indonesia is goat soup, and every time I tried to cook it using lamb instead, it never tasted the same. For me, goat meat has better texture and taste than lamb. It has a distinctive smell as well, which makes it even tastier.

That’s why I always find the Biblical image about the end of time when the ‘goats’ would be separated from the ‘sheep’ difficult to accept. Being the person who likes goat meat more than lamb, I don’t understand why the goats had to be become the ‘black sheep’ in the Bible.

But of course, they are only metaphors. They were inspired by the agricultural life that Biblical authors were used to. In that time, one of the roles of the shepherd was to separate his sheep from the wild goats that often were also grazing in the same pasture. So the goats represented those people who didn’t belong to the flock. They represented the people who had failed to live up to God’s covenant, to the way of life that God expected of the people of Israel to live. On the other hand, the ‘sheep’ represented the people who lived their life according to God’s covenant.

So the sheep represent ‘goodness’, while the goats represent ‘badness’. In the end of the day, God will judge between the two.

As Christians, we often avoid talking about God’s judgement. Judgement has become somehow a dirty word in modern Christianity. This is understandable, especially when the mentioning of the word judgement will draw people’s mind back to the ‘fire and brimstone’ message that people used to be preached upon in the past.

But God’s judgement is a fundamental part of both the Old and New Testaments writings. Judgement is part and parcel of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. In the end of the day, God will judge the people according to whether they have lived up to the covenant or not.

But God’s judgement does not mean that God revels in punishing people for their mistakes, like some people may think. It does not also mean that God sides with one race or one nation or one religion against the others, as some people hope. God’s role as the king who judges always goes hand in hand with God’s role as the shepherd who cares. God’s judgment always exists within the framework of God’s protection of the people, especially the weak and the vulnerable in the land.

We hear this message in our reading today from the book of Ezekiel. Here, God’s judgment was announced in relation to God’s role as the shepherd who looked after and protected the people in Israel. The earthly king and other leaders in Israel were also known as the shepherds. This was because the king’s main responsibility was to look after the people in his kingdom.

But the earthly king was only the representation of God, the true king of Israel. Whenever the earthly king failed to do his duty to protect the people; whenever he abused his power by oppressing the very people under his care, prophets like Ezekiel would remind him of his accountability to Israel’s true shepherd: God. In the end of time, the Shepherd of Israel would assert His authority by protecting the oppressed and destroying the oppressors, whoever they were.

So Biblical judgement is always linked to the caring of the people, especially the weak and the vulnerable. God would judge the people so that evil could be purged from the land and the rights of the marginalized could be restored and protected.

We hear a similar message in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Once again, God’s judgement is proclaimed here in relation to the caring of the marginalized: the strangers, the sick, and the prisoners.

This parable was told in the first century world when other people’s support was necessary for the survival of those with limited or without resources. Back then, there was no government agency like Centrelink that could provide people in financial difficulties with the help they needed. In Jesus’ time, people must rely on one another, especially on their families to survive.

But there were always people who fell through the cracks. There were many people who did not have families to support them, like the foreigners who had left behind their families in other countries; or the widows who had lost their husbands, who were often the sole breadwinners in their families; or those who had been ostracized by their families like the lepers.

Another category of people who were vulnerable at the time were the prisoners. Back then, people were put in prison to await trials. And while they were in the prisons, it was the responsibility of their families to provide them with basic necessities like food and clothing.[1] Prisoners who did not have families were especially vulnerable. With no families to support them, they may not survive their time in the prison.

When Matthew retold Jesus’ parable in his book, many of these vulnerable people were also Christians. The Christian communities all across the Roman Empire consisted of vulnerable people like the widows and slaves. Many Christians did also go to prison because of their faith.

The Church was the family that these people had; in many cases, the Church was the only family that these people had. As such, by retelling Jesus’ parable, Matthew wanted to remind the Christian communities that it was their responsibility to take care of ‘the least’ amongst them. It was the Church’s responsibility to provide these vulnerable people with basic necessities to ensure their survival.

Indeed, many people who were vulnerable in the society at the time became Christians because of the kind of care that the Church provided. For these people, the Church replaced the families they never had or the families they had lost or the family that had rejected them. The Church had become the support system that provided them not only with spiritual nurture, but also with basic necessities.

So Jesus’ parable continues the consistent message in the Bible: that God will judge us according to our attitude towards the least amongst us. Once again, as Christians, we tend to put aside this aspect of judgement and focus more on God’s mercy and compassion. But we need to restore the sense of accountability in our life as followers of Jesus. The forgiveness of our sins through Christ’ sacrifice on the cross does not mean that we now can do whatever we like in our life. Stanley Hauerwas, one of the leading theologians in the world today, once said that:

"The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid 'the least of these.'"[2]

One thing that we can do to make a difference in the life of the ‘least amongst us’ today is in the area of fashion industry. In 2013, 1,134 lives were cut short in Bangladesh when the building they were working in collapsed. The victims were garment workers who made clothes for the apparel industry in the Western world, including here in Australia. The final products are similar to the ones sold in our local retail shops like Kmart, Target, Billabong, or multinational retailers like Zara and H&M.

The tragedy exposed to the world the working conditions that people in third world countries have to endure to supply our apparel industry with products that we love. Many of these people have to work in unhealthy and unsafe buildings, like the one that collapsed and killed more than a thousand people in Bangladesh. Many receive very low wages, not enough to support their families to live above the poverty line. Many, including children, are forced or even trafficked to work in the industry.

In the wake of the tragedy, a Christian charity group: Baptist World Aid Australia, released a report called Ethical Fashion Report. The report monitors the apparel industry and puts the companies in the industry into grades from A to F. The grades are given based on the steps these companies have or have not taken to stop or minimize exploitation in their supply chain in third world countries. They have to prove whether or not they have done things necessary to support the rights of the workers in their supply chain. These rights include “a safe work place, a living wage, and freedom from slavery”.[3]

This year, the report rates 106 apparel companies who sell their products in Australia, covering 330 brands.[4] Alarmingly, from those 106 companies, only 13 companies deserve to receive A grade, while 10 companies receive F grade. The median grade is C.[5] We are still a long way indeed before we can arrive at the time when fashion industry in this land will be run more justly.

Friends, the main purpose of the report is not to condemn or punish retailers in Australia, but to protect the vulnerable. Consumers have the right to know that they are spending their money on goods that are not the product of exploitation or on companies that do not benefit from it. The report is an invitation to these companies to start taking real actions to lift the living standard of the people who create their products. We, on our behalf, have to increase our awareness of the plight of ‘the least amongst us’ and do our very best to care for them by shopping ethically. Apparently, we only need to pay 40 cents extra to help the garment worker who makes our clothing receive a fair and sustainable living wage.[6] By paying more and carefully choosing where we shop, we can put pressure on the industry and help making sure that the ‘least’ amongst us are taken care of.

Friends, we are not to become the fat sheep in the pasture whom Ezekiel warned in our reading today. We need to remind ourselves not to be the kind of sheep who “eat the best grass and trample what they don’t eat and drink clear water and muddy what they don’t drink”. If we become such people, remember that God will be our judge. And, it’s clear from all our readings today, that God will side with the weak sheep in the pasture.

Friends, Psalm 95 proclaims that God is the King not only of the world, but also of all gods. In our world today, there are many other gods that people worship; gods like wealth or fame or power. But for us, there is only one God: the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus, the Maker of the earth and everything in it. This God demands that we care for the oppressed, the marginalized, the disadvantaged. And our place in His kingdom will depend on how we treat ‘these least of all’.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] Carla Works, Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46, on www.workingpreacher.org (November 20, 2011).

[2] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 211 in Carla Works, Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46, on www.workingpreacher.org (November 20, 2011).

[3] Gershon Nimbalker, Jasmin Mawson, Hsu-Ann Lee, Claire Cremen, The 2018 Ethical Fashion Report – The Truth Behind the Barcode, 19th April 2017 (Baptist World Aid Australia), p. 5.

[4] Debra Killalea, Retailers Praised for Transparency but Ethical Fashion Report 2017 Highlights Room for Improvement, an article on www.news.com.au (April 19, 2017 – 1:22pm).

[5] Gershon Nimbalker, Jasmin Mawson, Hsu-Ann Lee, Claire Cremen, The 2018 Ethical Fashion Report – The Truth Behind the Barcode, 19th April 2017 (Baptist World Aid Australia), p. 7.

[6] Debra Killalea, Retailers Praised for Transparency but Ethical Fashion Report 2017 Highlights Room for Improvement, an article on www.news.com.au (April 19, 2017 – 1:22pm).