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The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, Year A

Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


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GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So we will read this parable and then we will try to unpack it and link it in a special way to the Church's doctrines on heaven and hell, which are very important, very central doctrines rooted in the Scriptures themselves.  So let's read the parable and put it in its original context.  Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says this at the end of his famous discourse:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'  And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'  Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'  Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Okay, so what's being described here?  Well although we call this a parable, it's a little different than some of the other parables we've been looking at in Matthew's Gospel.  It's not a long story, it's really almost more of a short analogy where Jesus is briefly comparing his parousia, his second coming in the final judgment at the end of time, with the separation of sheep and goats by a shepherd.  So the opening lines of the parable make clear that that's the context.  First, when it says “when the Son of Man comes in glory,” Jesus is talking about his final advent, his final coming at the end of time.  Second, when it talks about all the nations being gathered before him, that's describing the final judgment.  The final judgment is at the end of time when all of the dead will be raised, and not only the Israelites, but every nation, every people under heaven, everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time until the end of time will be judged by the Lord in what the Church refers to as the general judgment or the final judgment.  So Jesus makes clear from the beginning of this parable that that's what he's actually talking.  He's talking about the coming of the Son of Man at the final judgment.

And in that context, he uses the analogy of a shepherd separating the sheep and the goats as a metaphor for the final separation of the righteous, who will inherit everlasting life, and the wicked, who will inherit everlasting punishment.  So the imagery here is not an accident because if you look at sheep and goats, one of the things you will notice about the two animals is that they have very different, so to speak, personalities.  Sheep are, as a rule, docile to the master.  They follow the shepherd, they follow his voice, they flock together, they are docile creatures.  Goats — and if you ever had a goat you would know — are stubborn, as a rule they are very stubborn animals.  So even with the imagery here of sheep and goats, you can kind of already get a sense of what the difference between the righteous and the wicked are.  The righteous are those who are obedient to the Lord, who are docile to the will of God; whereas the goats, the wicked, are those who are prideful, who are stubborn and who have refused to do the will of God.  Jesus doesn’t make that explicit, but it is just kind of implicit in the language and imagery of sheep and goats.  So he puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand, and then he begins to pronounce judgment.

So the judgment of the sheep is “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  This is interesting.  So a few elements here.  First, salvation is a blessing.  It's a gift of God.  That is why he calls them “blessed of my Father.”  Second, it's described in terms of inheriting the kingdom.  So notice — my English teachers always used to tell me don’t mix your metaphors —  that Jesus is mixing his metaphors here.  On the one hand he is using an image, a metaphor of sheep and goats and a shepherd, separating them, and in the very same parable he's also using the metaphor of a king giving an inheritance to his subjects.  So they are inheriting the kingdom of God, which it says here “was prepared from the foundation of the world.”  So this isn’t an ordinary kingdom, this is an eternal kingdom.  In other words, God has known from the very first day of creation, from the beginning of time, those who would inherit eternal life.  This is called the doctrine of providence, that God knows all things.  He's not surprised by how things will turn out at the final judgment.  He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen until the end of time.  This is his divine foreknowledge and also his divine providence, that he's been guiding it and preparing for it from the foundation of the world.

Now, the question everyone wants to ask though is how do I get into the kingdom?  What's the condition for entering into the kingdom?  And in this parable Jesus says something that might be shocking, it might be a little striking to us.  We can imagine him saying enter into the kingdom, inherit the kingdom all of those of you who believed in me or who accepted me as the Messiah.  You would think that he might put faith as a condition for entering into the kingdom, and we'll see elsewhere that knowing Christ is an essential aspect of entering into the kingdom.  We saw that earlier in some of the parables.  But in this parable the emphasis falls on what the Church calls the corporal works of mercy.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, visiting the sick, caring for those who are in need; these corporal works of mercy, welcoming the stranger, what does that mean?  It means in particular sojourners, immigrants.  So in the first century A.D., when a person would immigrate from another country into the holy land, they were essentially bereft of the protections, the ordinary protections, of family, friends, employment and those kind of things.  So God made very clear to the people in the Old Testament that they were to welcome the stranger and not to abuse the stranger or abuse the immigrant or the alien or the person from another country.

So what Jesus is saying here is that all those works of mercy, what we call the corporal works of mercy, when you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.  Now that is a fascinating verse.  It's been made famous by Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, who as their mission have the care for the poor and the needy.  And Mother Teresa very famously said that those five words were kind of the essence of her mission and ministry: you did it to me.  When Jesus says that he tells us everything we need to know about the poor and the lowly, namely that any act of charity done to the poor is in essence an act of charity done to Christ himself.  It's a kind of mystical theology of the poor as living members of the body of Christ.  So Jesus says when you have done it to the least of these my brethren, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry, you actually did this to me.  So the reward for those acts of mercy is to enter into the kingdom of God.  And the parable ends by saying that the righteous will enter into eternal life.  So that's another image for not just the kingdom of heaven, but what the Greek says here is zōēn aiōnion.  We get the word zoology from that, the study of life.   Zōēn aiōnion is a life that lasts forever, it's the life of the age to come, eternal life.  That is the sheep.

What about the goats?  This one is somewhat less positive.  The goats who were placed on the left side are not blessed but cursed.  In other words, they were punished for their sins.  “Depart from me, you cursed,” he says “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So instead of being saved and inheriting the kingdom, they are damned.  They enter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  That's a very important point there.  You can see Jesus teaching that the fallen angels are themselves separated from God for all eternity.  An the image that he uses to describe the pain of that separation is the image of eternal fire.  This obviously, in this context here, would refer to a kind of spiritual fire, because the angels don't have bodies, but they're experiencing in some way, in some mysterious way, the pain of being separated from God for all eternity.  And in this case, it is very sobering, Jesus says that the damned are separated from God, but in a sense are joined to the devil and his angels.  Their lot is with the devil and his angels in this eternal fire.  Again, this is part of divine providence, it has been prepared by God from the very foundation of the world and now it is being brought to culmination at the final judgment.

So you might want to ask yourself here, what's the reason?  What do I need to do to avoid experiencing this eternal separation from God?  I always like to joke with my students, if you're at the final judgment and you see two lines, get in the sheep line, don’t get in the goat line.  But obviously that's just a joke here, the judgement is already decided on the basis of the actions by which we have lived our lives.  And in this case, the goats, again it doesn't say they are adulterers, it doesn't say they are murderers, it doesn't say that they are idolaters or any of those positive sins that we would normally associate with grave sin — and rightly, those are definitely described as grave sins in the Old Testament and in New Testament — but what is described here, and this is really shocking, is sins of omission.  Namely, that unlike the sheep, the goats here fail to perform the works of mercy, the corporal works of mercy, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit those who are sick or in prison, to give water to the thirsty.  So that's the only thing described here; it is that they did not do those things to the least of Jesus’ brethren, and so as a result Jesus says when you fail to do that to them, you also fail to do that to me.  In other words, when you fail to love your neighbor, you actually fail to love God.  It's a very sobering, very important principle of the law of Christ in the New Testament.

 


SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

We’ll read through that, and then we’ll just try to unpack the implications of this solemnity. Paul says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

And then it skips here down to verse 28:

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be…

The RSV here reads:

...everything to every one.

That is a very bad translation. The literal in Greek is that “God may be all in all.” So I’m adapting that there, just because when you say “God may be everything to every one,” in our contemporary context, it sounds like...for people who love puppies, God will be a puppy. Or people who love chocolate chip cookies, God will be a cookie. That’s not what Paul is saying. I don’t know why I chose those examples, but there you go. People do like puppies and cookies.

But that is not what Paul means. He’s talking about God being all in all. It’s the universal reign of God over all creation and the suffusion, in a sense, of all creation with the power and the life-giving Spirit of God. We’ll talk about what that means in just a second; I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up and just walk through what Paul’s getting at in these verses and then why the Church gives us this particular reading for the feast of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Okay, so a couple things. First, the imagery of first fruits. Here Paul is taking a standard agricultural image, both from the Old Testament but also from just Jewish experience in the first century AD, and using it as an analogy or a metaphor for the final judgment...for the end of time.

So the first fruits was basically the fruit part of the harvest—whether a harvest of grain, like of wheat, barley, in the spring...or the harvest of grapes or fruits in the fall harvest. In the book of Exodus 23:19, God commands His people to offer Him the first fruits of the harvest. So for example, in the spring when the first sheaves of grain would begin to sprout, they would actually cut down one of those sheaves. And they would bring that sheaf—before they would grind it down and make wheat out of it and eat it themselves—they would bring an offering of the first fruits, which are often the best, and they would give it to God as a sacrifice in the temple. The sheaf offering is sometimes called the feast of first fruits, so the offering of the sheaf.

And that act of giving God the first fruits of your harvest was basically the agricultural equivalent of a tithe. So many people are familiar with tithing. Even if Catholics don’t do it, they’ve heard about their Protestant friends doing it, because it’s very popular in Protestant churches to teach the practice of tithing. And that goes back to ancient Israel in which God would require people to give ten percent of their income or revenue or their harvest to Him. It was a way of taking the first ten percent and giving it to God, which is both a kind of sacrifice. It's a kind of act of thanksgiving. It’s a recognition that everything we have comes from God. But it’s also an act of faith.

It’d be one thing if you gave God the last fruits, after you made sure your family got fed and you got fed and you paid all the bills. And then once all that’s done, then you give God the last fruits. When you give Him the first fruits, you’re taking the risk that there might not be other fruits, and giving Him that cut off of the top as a sacrificial offering in faith.

So Paul takes that analogy of the first fruits of the harvest and he says that’s what the resurrection is. When Jesus is raised on Easter Sunday, He’s the first sheaf of grain that was cut down and now being offered up to God. So His death is like it’s being cut and then the resurrection—well, the cross is His offering, sacrificial offering to the Father—but then literally He goes up into the Father’s realm, just like the smoke of the sacrifice goes up into sky, goes up into Heaven. So the Paschal Mystery is itself a kind of image or should I say, the fruit fruits is an image of the Paschal Mystery...of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.

What Paul is saying then, is that Christ is the first fruits of a harvest that will be fully harvested at the resurrection of the dead on the last day. So He’s the first offering, and then we are the rest of the harvest. So it's a very powerful image, very cosmic, agricultural image for the resurrection of Jesus. And I think it’s important for us to think about it this way, because at least in my experience of teaching, a lot of modern day Christians think of the resurrection primarily (if not exclusively) as a vindication of Jesus’ divinity or a vindication of His Messianic identity. So people said He wasn’t the Messiah, but the resurrection proves that He was.

And that’s of course true. That’s a dimension of the resurrection, but it’s not the fullness of the mystery, because for Paul, the resurrection is much more than a vindication of who Jesus was. It’s also—sorry for the big word, but it’s an ante-donation of what is to come. It’s a down payment, in advance, of what God has in store for the rest of humanity who are in Christ. So what happens to Jesus in the middle of time in the resurrection will happen to all those who are in Christ at the end of time in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, on the day of judgment.

So the harvest is a perfect image for that, for a first century Jew who is familiar with the stages of harvesting the wheat and offering the first fruits to God and then gathering in the rest. Which, by the way, they would also...after that first grain offering which took place the day after Passover on the day of the sheaf offering, Pentecost (which is fifty days later) was another harvest festival where they would bring in the rest of the sheaves and make another offering to God. So there’s a kind of parallel between the offering of Jesus during Passover of Himself and then Pentecost, fifty days later, in a sense represents the gathering of the nations, the gathering of the Church being offered to God.

So it’s beautiful and powerful, and I think very helpful way for modern Christians to think about eschatology, because we’re so disconnected from the rhythms—at least, especially you’re in the west, if you live in an industrialized city or society. It’s very easy to get disconnected from the rhythms of planting and harvest and the seasons of the year. But Paul uses those seasons that people are familiar with to explain the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. That’s the first point.

Second point is Paul’s use of the imagery of Adam and Christ...

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Gospel, First Reading & Psalm


Second Reading


***Subscribe or Login for Full Access.***

GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

So we will read this parable and then we will try to unpack it and link it in a special way to the Church's doctrines on heaven and hell, which are very important, very central doctrines rooted in the Scriptures themselves.  So let's read the parable and put it in its original context.  Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says this at the end of his famous discourse:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'  And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'  Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'  Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Okay, so what's being described here?  Well although we call this a parable, it's a little different than some of the other parables we've been looking at in Matthew's Gospel.  It's not a long story, it's really almost more of a short analogy where Jesus is briefly comparing his parousia, his second coming in the final judgment at the end of time, with the separation of sheep and goats by a shepherd.  So the opening lines of the parable make clear that that's the context.  First, when it says “when the Son of Man comes in glory,” Jesus is talking about his final advent, his final coming at the end of time.  Second, when it talks about all the nations being gathered before him, that's describing the final judgment.  The final judgment is at the end of time when all of the dead will be raised, and not only the Israelites, but every nation, every people under heaven, everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time until the end of time will be judged by the Lord in what the Church refers to as the general judgment or the final judgment.  So Jesus makes clear from the beginning of this parable that that's what he's actually talking.  He's talking about the coming of the Son of Man at the final judgment.

And in that context, he uses the analogy of a shepherd separating the sheep and the goats as a metaphor for the final separation of the righteous, who will inherit everlasting life, and the wicked, who will inherit everlasting punishment.  So the imagery here is not an accident because if you look at sheep and goats, one of the things you will notice about the two animals is that they have very different, so to speak, personalities.  Sheep are, as a rule, docile to the master.  They follow the shepherd, they follow his voice, they flock together, they are docile creatures.  Goats — and if you ever had a goat you would know — are stubborn, as a rule they are very stubborn animals.  So even with the imagery here of sheep and goats, you can kind of already get a sense of what the difference between the righteous and the wicked are.  The righteous are those who are obedient to the Lord, who are docile to the will of God; whereas the goats, the wicked, are those who are prideful, who are stubborn and who have refused to do the will of God.  Jesus doesn’t make that explicit, but it is just kind of implicit in the language and imagery of sheep and goats.  So he puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand, and then he begins to pronounce judgment.

So the judgment of the sheep is “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  This is interesting.  So a few elements here.  First, salvation is a blessing.  It's a gift of God.  That is why he calls them “blessed of my Father.”  Second, it's described in terms of inheriting the kingdom.  So notice — my English teachers always used to tell me don’t mix your metaphors —  that Jesus is mixing his metaphors here.  On the one hand he is using an image, a metaphor of sheep and goats and a shepherd, separating them, and in the very same parable he's also using the metaphor of a king giving an inheritance to his subjects.  So they are inheriting the kingdom of God, which it says here “was prepared from the foundation of the world.”  So this isn’t an ordinary kingdom, this is an eternal kingdom.  In other words, God has known from the very first day of creation, from the beginning of time, those who would inherit eternal life.  This is called the doctrine of providence, that God knows all things.  He's not surprised by how things will turn out at the final judgment.  He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen until the end of time.  This is his divine foreknowledge and also his divine providence, that he's been guiding it and preparing for it from the foundation of the world.

Now, the question everyone wants to ask though is how do I get into the kingdom?  What's the condition for entering into the kingdom?  And in this parable Jesus says something that might be shocking, it might be a little striking to us.  We can imagine him saying enter into the kingdom, inherit the kingdom all of those of you who believed in me or who accepted me as the Messiah.  You would think that he might put faith as a condition for entering into the kingdom, and we'll see elsewhere that knowing Christ is an essential aspect of entering into the kingdom.  We saw that earlier in some of the parables.  But in this parable the emphasis falls on what the Church calls the corporal works of mercy.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, visiting the sick, caring for those who are in need; these corporal works of mercy, welcoming the stranger, what does that mean?  It means in particular sojourners, immigrants.  So in the first century A.D., when a person would immigrate from another country into the holy land, they were essentially bereft of the protections, the ordinary protections, of family, friends, employment and those kind of things.  So God made very clear to the people in the Old Testament that they were to welcome the stranger and not to abuse the stranger or abuse the immigrant or the alien or the person from another country.

So what Jesus is saying here is that all those works of mercy, what we call the corporal works of mercy, when you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.  Now that is a fascinating verse.  It's been made famous by Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, who as their mission have the care for the poor and the needy.  And Mother Teresa very famously said that those five words were kind of the essence of her mission and ministry: you did it to me.  When Jesus says that he tells us everything we need to know about the poor and the lowly, namely that any act of charity done to the poor is in essence an act of charity done to Christ himself.  It's a kind of mystical theology of the poor as living members of the body of Christ.  So Jesus says when you have done it to the least of these my brethren, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry, you actually did this to me.  So the reward for those acts of mercy is to enter into the kingdom of God.  And the parable ends by saying that the righteous will enter into eternal life.  So that's another image for not just the kingdom of heaven, but what the Greek says here is zōēn aiōnion.  We get the word zoology from that, the study of life.   Zōēn aiōnion is a life that lasts forever, it's the life of the age to come, eternal life.  That is the sheep.

What about the goats?  This one is somewhat less positive.  The goats who were placed on the left side are not blessed but cursed.  In other words, they were punished for their sins.  “Depart from me, you cursed,” he says “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So instead of being saved and inheriting the kingdom, they are damned.  They enter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  That's a very important point there.  You can see Jesus teaching that the fallen angels are themselves separated from God for all eternity.  An the image that he uses to describe the pain of that separation is the image of eternal fire.  This obviously, in this context here, would refer to a kind of spiritual fire, because the angels don't have bodies, but they're experiencing in some way, in some mysterious way, the pain of being separated from God for all eternity.  And in this case, it is very sobering, Jesus says that the damned are separated from God, but in a sense are joined to the devil and his angels.  Their lot is with the devil and his angels in this eternal fire.  Again, this is part of divine providence, it has been prepared by God from the very foundation of the world and now it is being brought to culmination at the final judgment.

So you might want to ask yourself here, what's the reason?  What do I need to do to avoid experiencing this eternal separation from God?  I always like to joke with my students, if you're at the final judgment and you see two lines, get in the sheep line, don’t get in the goat line.  But obviously that's just a joke here, the judgement is already decided on the basis of the actions by which we have lived our lives.  And in this case, the goats, again it doesn't say they are adulterers, it doesn't say they are murderers, it doesn't say that they are idolaters or any of those positive sins that we would normally associate with grave sin — and rightly, those are definitely described as grave sins in the Old Testament and in New Testament — but what is described here, and this is really shocking, is sins of omission.  Namely, that unlike the sheep, the goats here fail to perform the works of mercy, the corporal works of mercy, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit those who are sick or in prison, to give water to the thirsty.  So that's the only thing described here; it is that they did not do those things to the least of Jesus’ brethren, and so as a result Jesus says when you fail to do that to them, you also fail to do that to me.  In other words, when you fail to love your neighbor, you actually fail to love God.  It's a very sobering, very important principle of the law of Christ in the New Testament.

 


SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):

We’ll read through that, and then we’ll just try to unpack the implications of this solemnity. Paul says:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

And then it skips here down to verse 28:

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be…

The RSV here reads:

...everything to every one.

That is a very bad translation. The literal in Greek is that “God may be all in all.” So I’m adapting that there, just because when you say “God may be everything to every one,” in our contemporary context, it sounds like...for people who love puppies, God will be a puppy. Or people who love chocolate chip cookies, God will be a cookie. That’s not what Paul is saying. I don’t know why I chose those examples, but there you go. People do like puppies and cookies.

But that is not what Paul means. He’s talking about God being all in all. It’s the universal reign of God over all creation and the suffusion, in a sense, of all creation with the power and the life-giving Spirit of God. We’ll talk about what that means in just a second; I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up and just walk through what Paul’s getting at in these verses and then why the Church gives us this particular reading for the feast of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Okay, so a couple things. First, the imagery of first fruits. Here Paul is taking a standard agricultural image, both from the Old Testament but also from just Jewish experience in the first century AD, and using it as an analogy or a metaphor for the final judgment...for the end of time.

So the first fruits was basically the fruit part of the harvest—whether a harvest of grain, like of wheat, barley, in the spring...or the harvest of grapes or fruits in the fall harvest. In the book of Exodus 23:19, God commands His people to offer Him the first fruits of the harvest. So for example, in the spring when the first sheaves of grain would begin to sprout, they would actually cut down one of those sheaves. And they would bring that sheaf—before they would grind it down and make wheat out of it and eat it themselves—they would bring an offering of the first fruits, which are often the best, and they would give it to God as a sacrifice in the temple. The sheaf offering is sometimes called the feast of first fruits, so the offering of the sheaf.

And that act of giving God the first fruits of your harvest was basically the agricultural equivalent of a tithe. So many people are familiar with tithing. Even if Catholics don’t do it, they’ve heard about their Protestant friends doing it, because it’s very popular in Protestant churches to teach the practice of tithing. And that goes back to ancient Israel in which God would require people to give ten percent of their income or revenue or their harvest to Him. It was a way of taking the first ten percent and giving it to God, which is both a kind of sacrifice. It's a kind of act of thanksgiving. It’s a recognition that everything we have comes from God. But it’s also an act of faith.

It’d be one thing if you gave God the last fruits, after you made sure your family got fed and you got fed and you paid all the bills. And then once all that’s done, then you give God the last fruits. When you give Him the first fruits, you’re taking the risk that there might not be other fruits, and giving Him that cut off of the top as a sacrificial offering in faith.

So Paul takes that analogy of the first fruits of the harvest and he says that’s what the resurrection is. When Jesus is raised on Easter Sunday, He’s the first sheaf of grain that was cut down and now being offered up to God. So His death is like it’s being cut and then the resurrection—well, the cross is His offering, sacrificial offering to the Father—but then literally He goes up into the Father’s realm, just like the smoke of the sacrifice goes up into sky, goes up into Heaven. So the Paschal Mystery is itself a kind of image or should I say, the fruit fruits is an image of the Paschal Mystery...of Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and ascension.

What Paul is saying then, is that Christ is the first fruits of a harvest that will be fully harvested at the resurrection of the dead on the last day. So He’s the first offering, and then we are the rest of the harvest. So it's a very powerful image, very cosmic, agricultural image for the resurrection of Jesus. And I think it’s important for us to think about it this way, because at least in my experience of teaching, a lot of modern day Christians think of the resurrection primarily (if not exclusively) as a vindication of Jesus’ divinity or a vindication of His Messianic identity. So people said He wasn’t the Messiah, but the resurrection proves that He was.

And that’s of course true. That’s a dimension of the resurrection, but it’s not the fullness of the mystery, because for Paul, the resurrection is much more than a vindication of who Jesus was. It’s also—sorry for the big word, but it’s an ante-donation of what is to come. It’s a down payment, in advance, of what God has in store for the rest of humanity who are in Christ. So what happens to Jesus in the middle of time in the resurrection will happen to all those who are in Christ at the end of time in the resurrection of the dead on the last day, on the day of judgment.

So the harvest is a perfect image for that, for a first century Jew who is familiar with the stages of harvesting the wheat and offering the first fruits to God and then gathering in the rest. Which, by the way, they would also...after that first grain offering which took place the day after Passover on the day of the sheaf offering, Pentecost (which is fifty days later) was another harvest festival where they would bring in the rest of the sheaves and make another offering to God. So there’s a kind of parallel between the offering of Jesus during Passover of Himself and then Pentecost, fifty days later, in a sense represents the gathering of the nations, the gathering of the Church being offered to God.

So it’s beautiful and powerful, and I think very helpful way for modern Christians to think about eschatology, because we’re so disconnected from the rhythms—at least, especially you’re in the west, if you live in an industrialized city or society. It’s very easy to get disconnected from the rhythms of planting and harvest and the seasons of the year. But Paul uses those seasons that people are familiar with to explain the mystery of Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of the dead on the last day. That’s the first point.

Second point is Paul’s use of the imagery of Adam and Christ...

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