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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 34 - Proper 29 - Reign of Christ - Year A
Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Alt - Psalm 95:1-7a

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John normally structures his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 34 - Proper 29 - The Reign of Christ - Year A

     [NOTE: Throughout the Season after Pentecost the RCL 
     provides a set of alternate lessons which some 
     denominations prefer.  A summary of these readings is 
     also included below.]


EZEKIEL 34:11-16,20-24       This prophecy as a whole speaks of God's 
judgment of Israel's spiritual leaders, of the whole of God's people and 
the promise of a new messianic leader.  Jesus saw his own ministry in the 
light of this passage and the apostolic church recognized him as the 
promised Messiah.  Read John 10:1-18 to see how much this was so.  But 
there is also a note of both salvation and judgment in the passage: 
salvation in verses 11-16; judgment in verses 20-22.


PSALM 100                    This familiar hymn has been sung by faithful 
people entering places of worship for at least 2500 years.  It proclaims 
the essential creed of Israel: The Lord is God, the creator of all; we are 
God's people; God's goodness and kindness are everlasting; God's 
faithfulness endures to all generations.


PSALM 95:1-7a                (Alternate) This is one of series of psalms 
which may have been sung by pilgrims as they entered the temple precincts.  
This excerpt praises God as Creator and Sovereign of the universe.


EPHESIANS 1:15-23            Whether or not Paul was the author of this 
letter (a subject of much scholarly debate), it is one of the great 
treasures of the New Testament.  It may not be a letter at all, but a 
prayer, especially its first three chapters.  This passage of the prayer 
rises from personal and particular references to the one, universal 
purpose of God in Jesus Christ and the church: to bring all creation under 
the sovereignty of Christ.


MATTHEW 25:31-46             The reign of Christ will begin with a final 
judgment this parable tells us.  But that reign and God's eternal judgment 
are going on right now with each decision and action we take.  How we live 
today has eternal consequences.  We are to witness to the reign of Christ 
in the way we serve him in faithfulness, kindness and love to our 
neighbors in need. If this is our faith, each one of us has to ask 
ourselves where we stand and how we are to respond to the opportunity God 
constantly gives us to be among God's people now and forever.  


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS

EZEKIEL 34:11-16, 20-24   The prophet Ezekiel played a significant role in 
Israel's religious history, if for no other reason than that, like 
Jeremiah, he lived through the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the 
destruction of the temple and the exile of the greater number of the 
leading citizens.  Included in this exile were the priestly families, of 
whom Ezekiel was a member.  He did not witness the actual sack of 
Jerusalem in 587 BCE because he had already been deported with King 
Jehoiachin ten years earlier.  Rather, he was a witness from afar which 
may well account for the gloomy predictions of judgment and visions of 
destruction articulated in his prophecies.  In fact, some modern analysts 
of Ezekiel's life and ministry have speculated that he may have suffered 
from schizophrenia.

When Jerusalem finally did fall to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, Ezekiel 
experienced a strange reversal of his prophetic insight.  In the latter 
segment of his work, he expressed a prophetic hope which he did not have 
in his earlier pronouncements.  Whereas words of doom against Judah and 
Jerusalem generally fill the early chapters of the book (chs.  1-24) and 
oracles against foreign nations are proclaimed in chs.  25-32, the 
concluding segment (chs.  33-48) contains promises of "the eventual 
restoration of Yahweh's people and a blueprint for a reconstruction of the 
cult." (Christopher T.  Begg in *Oxford Companion to the Bible,* 218).  
Ch.  34 forms an introduction to this latter segment following the 
transitional interlude of ch.  33.

The passage preceding this reading (34:1-10) speaks of divine judgment of 
Israel's spiritual leaders because they abandoned Yahweh's people.  The 
note of judgment resurfaces in vss.  17-22.  In the interim, Ezekiel 
promises that Yahweh will become as a shepherd seeking the his wandering 
flock, leading them to a suitable pasture and tending to the wounded and 
the weak (vss.  11-16).

The reading ends with two oracles which may not have any relation to each 
other.  Vss.  20-22 speaks of a separation of the fat and the lean sheep.  
These metaphors represent the powerful leaders of the people who have 
oppressed and scattered the weak, and now will be judged by Yahweh.  The 
final oracle envisages the appointment of a new shepherd, a Davidic prince 
who will shepherd the people in Yahweh's place.  

The metaphor of Yahweh as the shepherd of Israel is common in the language 
of the late prophetic period, especially in Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah.  
In fact, Ezekiel 34:13-16 can be read as an allegory of Yahweh's loving 
kindness and mercy.  Jesus saw his own ministry in this light of this 
passage and the apostolic church recognized him as the promised Messiah.  
Read John 10:1-18 to see how much this was so.  The Jewish interpretation 
of the passage recognizes the promise of a messianic leader of God's 
people, but differs as to the identity of Jesus in this role.


PSALM 100   This familiar hymn has been sung joyfully by faithful people 
entering places of worship for at least 2500 years.  It proclaims the 
essential creed of Israel: The Lord is God, the creator of all; we are 
God's people; God's goodness and kindness are everlasting; God's 
faithfulness endures to all generations.

The psalm may have been sung as the assembled worshippers processed 
through the gates of the temple and into the sacred precincts for a 
service of thanksgiving and thank offering.  It may have had a liturgical 
structure in which vss.  1-3 were sung by one choral group of Levites at 
the head of the procession as they moved up to the temple gates; and vss.  
4-5 sung by another group bidding the worshippers to enter.  It is 
believed to have been written for such use in the post-exilic period.  It 
could still be used very dramatically in a similar manner.   

The most familiar versions of this psalm are in the metrical forms dating 
from the English and Scottish Reformation.  During the bloody reign of 
Mary Tudor (1553-1558), many English and Scots Protestants fled to Europe.  
In Geneva, an English community gathered, translated and revised a 
collection of metrical psalms.  Many of these exiles returned to England 
on the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, bringing this collection to be 
completed and published in England in 1562 as *The Whole Book of Psalms.* 
Among these was the familiar version of Psalm 100, "All people that on 
earth do dwell." The psalms served the unique purpose of engaging the 
people of the congregations in worship in much the same way that the 
prescribed responses of the Roman Catholic liturgy has done.  

John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, carried a similar collection of psalms 
back to Scotland in 1559.  It displaced an earlier collection authorized 
by James I.  It remained the hymn book of the Scottish Kirk until the 
Westminster Assembly of 1643 which sought to bring about conformity in 
church government and worship throughout the two kingdoms.  Controversy  
ensued over which of two improved versions of the metrical psalms would be 
preferred.  The English and Scottish churches chose different versions.  
In 1650, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650 appointed 
one of these "to be sung in congregations and families." Included was the 
familiar Geneva version of Psalm 100, now slightly altered for the better 
by a Scot, William Kethe.  

One of these variations came about through a typographical error.  In vs. 
3 "we are his people" read as "we are his flock (folk), he doth us feed", 
but appeared in print as "we are his flock." The variation makes such 
perfect sense that many may well sing it in this way.  


PSALM 95:1-7A   (Alternate) This is one of series of psalms which may also 
have been sung by pilgrims as they entered the temple precincts.  This 
excerpt praises and thanks Yahweh as Creator and Sovereign of the 
universe.  There is, however, a note of henotheism in vs. 3 where Yahweh 
is not only described as a great god, but the king over all other gods.  
This represents a theological position that contrasts Israel's god Yahweh 
with the gods of other nations, although elevated above such other gods as 
the Canaanite Baal, the Moabite Chemosh and the Ammonite Molech.

Vs. 6 contains an interesting reference to kneeling in prayer.  This 
indicates that the procession of worshippers praising Yahweh had already 
entered the temple where each had reached his appointed station for 
worship.  The Jews adopted several positions for prayer including 
prostration and kneeling.  Prostration symbolized obeisance; kneeling was 
adopted for petition.  The latter succeeded the former suggesting that one 
changed positions because there was something to see.  Today, television 
often shows Jewish worshippers standing before the Western Wall of the 
Temple to pray and Moslem worshippers prostrate at prayer with forehead to 
the ground, then kneeling.  For Christians, there is no absolutely correct 
position for prayer.  We may approach God in positions that suit the 
moment.  The important thing is to be reverent in what we are doing.

Vs. 7 repeats the familiar metaphor of Yahweh as shepherd of Israel found 
in other psalms and prophets like Ezekiel.  That is why it became a 
familiar metaphor for Jesus.


EPHESIANS 1:15-23   Whether or not Paul was the author of this letter (a 
subject of much scholarly debate), it is one of the great treasures of the 
New Testament.  It may not have begun as a letter at all, but as a prayer 
followed by a sermon admonishing the faithful to live a life worthy of the 
faith they have espoused in the unity of the Spirit under the sovereignty 
of Christ.  This is the approach taken by NT scholar, John C.  Kirby, of 
McGill University, Montreal, in his compelling analysis of the letter, 
*Ephesians, Baptism and Pentecost* (McGill University Press, 1968).  

The opening three chapters follow the pattern of a typical Jewish 
liturgical prayer known as a *berakah*.  Not only does it exhibit poetic 
characteristics, its tone of wonder and solemnity evoke a mood of 
contemplative worship with the repeated phrase "to the praise of his 
glory." Though thoroughly Christian in character, this type of blessing 
recalls the prayers of Jewish worship in the synagogues out of which many 
of the early Ephesian Christians came.  

This excerpt, on the other hand, includes certain elements which were 
typical of Paul's letters.  In vss.  15-16, for instance, he recalls the 
faith and the love of the Ephesians and gives thanks for them as he prays 
for them.  He then returns to his theme of what God has done through the 
resurrection of Jesus Christ: the dead have been made alive and the 
alienated have been reconciled.

We may conclude that Paul is speaking of a spiritual experience and there 
is an intellectual component to it as well.  His prayer is that God may 
give them "a spirit of wisdom and revelation" as they come to know Christ 
(vs. 17).  The following unusual phrase, " with the eyes of your heart 
enlightened," (vs. 18) ties together both knowledge of truth and the 
revelation which only faith can perceive.  That knowledge is intended to 
be an integral part of faith is reiterated in the several soaring clauses 
of vss.  18-21.  They are "to know" the hope to which they are called, the 
riches of their inheritance among the saints, and the working of God's 
power derived from Christ's resurrection and ascension to the place of 
total sovereignty.
 
Is it possible that the end of all this will be that not only Jesus Christ 
reigns over all things (vs. 22), but that because Christ is the head of 
his body, the church also shares his sovereignty? If so, does this not 
reaffirm the triumphalist concept of Christendom? A fairer interpretation, 
however, holds that it is Christ, not the church, who is the sovereign.  
Neither the ecclesiastic community, in the most catholic sense of that 
term, nor one of its ministers, however selected, has any claim to the 
absolute embodiment of Christ or his "vicar" on earth.

"The fullness of him who fills all in all" (vs. 23) might be said to refer 
to the faith that Christ is "the essential content of the church"; but to 
quote F.W.  Beare (*The Interpreter's Bible,* vol.  10, 636) it would be 
better to take the phrase to mean that the relationship between Christ and 
the church is complementary, "that which makes complete.  Christ and the 
church together form an organic unity....  Clearly, the thought of the 
church as Christ's fullness is related to the thought that the whole 
created universe is tributary to him and will undoubtedly be gathered to 
him.  In the church the ultimate cosmic unity is realized in nucleus and 
in anticipation."

Thus, we are dealing with an eschatological vision of the church, not as 
it existed in Paul's time, or as it has been throughout the past two 
millennia, or as it is today.  The scandal of our disunity that leads to 
prejudice, rivalry, hostility, condemnation and even open warfare is 
sufficient evidence of that.  Paul's envisions the church as "the 
microcosm of what all existence will finally be," as E.F.  Scott said in 
his commentary on this passage.  (*Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians,* 160.)

Let William Barclay have the last word from *The Epistle to the Ephesians* 
(*Daily Bible Readings.* Church of Scotland, 1956): "There is a legend 
which tells how Jesus went back to heaven after His time on earth....The 
angels were talking to him and Gabriel said, "You must have suffered 
terribly for men down there....  Do they all know about how you loved them 
and what you did for them? ....  What have you done to let everyone know 
about it?" ....  Jesus answered, "I have asked Peter and James and John 
and a few others to make it the business of their lives to tell others 
about me, and the others still others, and yet others, until the farthest 
man on the widest circle knows about what I have done."  Gabriel looked 
very doubtful, for Gabriel knew well what poor stuff men were made of.  
"Yes," he said, "but what if (they) fail? What if the people who come 
after them forget? What if away in the twentieth century people just don't 
tell others about you? Haven't you made any other plans?" And Jesus 
answered, "I haven't made any other plans.  I am counting on them."   


MATTHEW 25:31-46   This parable tells us that the reign of Christ will 
begin with a final judgment.  But it is a parable, a story told to 
persuade people on how to live as they prepare for that inevitable 
experience, not a description of what the event will be like.  The story 
also has an eschatological and a messianic emphasis set in place by its 
very first clause, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all his 
angels with him ...." That is a typical description from the apocalyptic 
tradition derived from Jewish literature of the centuries BCE greatly 
influenced by forerunners in both the prophetic and possibly the wisdom 
traditions.  (See Ezekiel 38-39; Isaiah 24-27; Zechariah 12-14.) Its 
stock-in-trade was revelation through visionary experience; and this 
parable contains some very vivid images of that kind.

In vss.  31 and 32 there are two images of the judgment which may seem to 
be unusually juxtaposed.  The first envisages a typical a royal court 
where the monarch is surrounded by courtiers and the whole populace is 
gathered before the throne waiting for a critical decision.  The second 
describes the much humbler scene of a shepherd at the end if a day 
separating sheep from goats as they enter the fold for the night.  The 
task was an easy one, for in the Middle East sheep are generally white and 
goats black.  The monarch's task might not be so easy, for the character 
of human beings is much more complex.  

The story does simplify the basis on which the judgment is made.  It has 
to do with how each person responds to everyday opportunities to help 
others in need.  The length and detail with which this poignant emphasis 
is described assures even the hasty reader that this is what the story 
means.  The reign of Christ and God's eternal judgment are going on right 
now with each decision and action we take.  How we live today has eternal 
consequences.  We are to witness to the reign of Christ in the way we 
serve him in faithfulness, kindness and love to our neighbors in need.  

Yet this parable is not a simple story offering polite moral counsel 
seeking for ethical behavior to create a kinder, gentler, self-satisfied 
society.  Coming as it does immediately before the Passion story, this 
parable connects our time in history and the time of Jesus as an 
historical person with the reality of eschatological judgment at the end 
of time.  The way this parable describes how the faithful are to live is 
the way Jesus lived "as one that served." His actions constantly affirmed 
his messianic character.  Matthew constantly reminded his audience of this 
in his choice of names by which he referred to Jesus of Nazareth, in this 
instance the OT messianic figure of the Son of Man.  As he turned to the 
all important conclusion of his gospel, Matthew was saying that in Jesus 
the Messiah the divine judgment which Israel has anticipated for so long 
had arrived.  The gospel speaks across the millennia with the same clarion 
call of judgment: the crucified and risen Jesus, the ever present 'God 
with us,' is now deciding who will have a part in the eternal reign of 
love fulfilled in God's creation.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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