Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Ezekiel was writing from exile, the first exile, the one that must have been quite a shock because Isaiah had promised God was in the Temple and that it would protect Jerusalem forever. Jeremiah rejected that idea and said God lives in your heart. Ezekiel is somewhere in between. In this passage he is showing how God gets to determine who his sheep are, no matter where they are. And He will gather them and give them what they need. Other sheep, that is other nations and ethnicities won't fair quite as well according to the prophecies found in this book.
This fine line is walked by saying God punished the Jewish people for specific reasons, breaking the codes. Because of that, Yahweh abandoned the Temple, and it was destroyed. It was a lesson from which they should learn. For other nations, God can destroy as he sees fit, because he's God. That's it, lesson over. A few chapters after this, we hear of the "latter days" and a great battle where peaceful Israelites will be set upon by Gog and Magog. God will intervene and all creatures will shake at God's presence. None of this ever happened of course, but Ezekiel had a great influence on the history of Judaism and people still believe they should work to make these things happen.
Ephesians 1:15-23Ephesians will be covered extensively next year, but here we are at the first chapter just as Year A is ending. It was probably not written by Paul, but you can see the strong influence of his style although it's not quite as personal as Paul's actual works. Introductions like this tend to serve well as summaries, and this is a passage used at Christmas, so it moves us toward that. It is seen as a great piece of poetry, praising glory and praying for those who need it.
Matthew 25:31-46I love this passage for its clear statement about just what gets you into heaven, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the prisoners. If Christians would just stick to that, we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we do. And many of them do, but it's all that other stuff they do that starts the arguments.
I also enjoy how nobody gets what he's saying. Whether it's the sheep or the goats, the ones who are getting the praise or the ones to be punished, they think it's about what they did for Jesus. In either case, it's what they did or didn't do for the "least of these" that mattered. This is the end of the story and the author is telling you Christ is a metaphor. He's telling you it is about what you actually do on earth to address the earthly needs of others.
I love that this is such a concise way to express ideas that are expressed in modern philosophies. In Utilitarianism, a "greatest good for the greatest number" philosophy, you do well to focus on the down trodden. If you give to the ones who need the most, you make the greatest impact and their increased health and happiness will likely get shared to those around them. There is also Social Contract Theory that says everyone should be able to participate if they make certain agreements. If a group is ignored or given less for no reason, that breaks the contract and there may be consequences for that. Marx's cycle of cultures and Kant's de-ontological ethics are other examples. But neither of those make good poetry like this.
I also hate this passage for bringing up eternal punishment. It wouldn't be a problem if people understood it was a story. If people understood that if you walk by that person in need often enough, it haunts you everywhere you go. "Eternally" is referring to your entire existence and the effect of your choices on everyone you ever came in contact with. But for Biblical literalists, this is evidence for hell and an eternal soul. So many other philosophical problems arise out of that belief, you'd think they would have abandoned it by now, but I guess it does have some psychological value. If that's what you're into.