Leadership is not an easy career path. Yes, it can bring popular acclaim, prestige and all sorts of material rewards. But from the vantage point of those who have to follow, we do not always fully understand the challenges leaders have to face, the many details they have to keep constantly mindful of, all the people they have to please, the dangers they have to avoid, the many decisions they have to make, and all the whining they have to listen to. For instance, I am not a parent, but I am better able to appreciate now what my parents were willing to go through, figuring out how to feed, clothe and educate me and my siblings through the years, how to stay sane themselves while keeping us happy and motivated and hopeful for the future. I can understand better now some of the decisions they made, sending us to Catholic school, sending us out to play with the neighborhood kids, forcing us to weed the vegetable garden, forcing us to take afternoon naps in the summer, not allowing us to watch TV on school nights. I am sure those of you who are parents experienced familiar flashbacks when you had to deal with your own children in similar circumstances. But for the most part, we are trusting of our parents. We learned through experience to give them the benefit of the doubt because we were generally convinced they were concerned for our welfare, that they wanted to protect us and shield us from every danger, that they wanted us to succeed at whatever we chose to do, that they wanted us to learn from our mistakes, that they wanted us to make well-reasoned and mature decisions, that they wanted us to be independent and self-sufficient one day, and that they looked forward to us eventually moving out and making a life for ourselves. (And don’t let college moving day fool you. Those are tears of joy.) But we don’t get to choose our parents, and not everyone is cut out to be a parent. So if you turned out emotionally stable, half-way self-confident and manageably sane, not accounting for the requisite psychological scars from your unique experience of growing up (and we all have scars), you have your parents to thank. Now pray your kids turn out just as good, if not better.
But in cases where larger groups of people are involved, good leadership tends to be evaluated differently. Historically people were seldom asked what kind of leaders they wanted. In the age of emperors, monarchs and military rulers, effective leadership was often equated with the leader’s personal success, winning wars, possessing wealth and territory, being surrounded by famous and beautiful people, stirring up fear and hatred in their enemies. With the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and the brewing discontent of peoples long oppressed and subdued, a handful of Arab leaders who have governed primarily with their own interest in mind are now fearing their removal from what they had easily regarded a lifetime achievement. With greater access to education and the rapid spread of technology, people who have lived under despots and dictators are flexing their muscles and making their voices heard. But choosing new leaders is not an easy task. There will always be people who will feel left out, who will not be happy, and who will not get what they want. But even more important, can there ever be a perfect leader, who will be loved and respected by all, who will bring success and prosperity to all, and who will be widely acclaimed and renowned everywhere?
Humanly speaking, that is simply not possible. So the church offers for our consideration the kind of leadership that transcends all weakness and selfishness, that is benevolent and gracious, that is universal, absolute and eternal. The liturgical feast of Christ the King was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI at a time of much turmoil and strife in Western Europe. It was the church’s response to growing secularism in that time, and the slow and insidious dismissal of faith and religion from the public forum. This initial response was somewhat defensive, almost combative, at a time when secular power and political leaders were seen to reject the influence of Christianity. But the church had to come up with a different approach. Pius XI directed the attention of the faithful not to the restoration of temporal power, but to the renewal of Christ’s rule in the lives of believers. Pope John XXIII adopted the same perspective in convoking the Second Vatican Council in 1962 by calling upon all people, Catholics, all Christians, and all people of good will “no longer to ’serve under the banner of Christ the King,’ but to ask God to ‘help us live by his gospel,’ and to be brought ‘to the joy of his kingdom.’ This is the prayer that places our every day Christian life in the exact perspective of the feast of Christ the King.” [Days of the Lord, The Liturgical Year, Volume 4: Ordinary Time, Year A. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN. 1992. pp 256ff.]
And the scripture readings present us the kind of leadership that characterizes the rule of Christ our King. The prophet Ezekiel invokes the image of a shepherd caring for his flock. Christ is shepherd of his people. He leads them to pasture, protects them from harm, saves them from danger. He seeks out the lost, brings back those who stray, binds up the injured, heals the sick. The sleek and the strong are the arrogant and the proud-hearted, which he will destroy. And that reference to him being judge between one sheep and another, between rams and goats, the prophet points out that the good shepherd is willing “to intervene to maintain order in his flock. He will not allow the weak to be bullied by the strong; he will push these away in order to protect the more vulnerable.” [ibid, p264.]
So when the image of shepherd and sheep resurfaces in the gospel, although the setting is the final judgment at the end of time, Jesus Christ who is King and shepherd still has the best interest of his flock at heart. He maintains his preference for the weak and the vulnerable: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, the imprisoned. And the King determines our punishment or reward in light of our treatment of the weak and vulnerable. He is not concerned whether or not we have spent hours on our knees in prayer, whether or not we have observed the rules of purification and fasting. But he is concerned about whether or not we have cared for our neighbor, whether or not we have gone out of our way to minister to their needs. And he does not tell us to serve the weak and vulnerable for their sake. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me … what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”
The Kingdom of Jesus Christ our Shepherd and King is not to be confused with any earthly society, where leaders are conferred popular acclaim, prestige and material wealth, and each person focuses primarily on their own success and prosperity. In the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the shepherd king laid down his life for his sheep, and each person serves the king by serving his neighbor. Do the values of the gospel challenge your politics? If they don’t, you’re either Jesus Christ himself or you’re not paying attention.