Matt 25:31 [Jesus said:] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Initial Observations This parable, found only in Matthew, needs quite careful handling. As we saw recently, it belongs to a pattern of parables in this part of Matthew. (See box below. Mk = Mark; Q = the Sayings Source; M = Matthew’s special material).
Old Testament background
In the Old Testament, a Day of the Lord is expected when he will intervene to punish the wicked and deliver that faithful and thus establish his own rule (Is 13:6, 9; 58:13; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7, 14; Mal 4:5). Sometimes a shorter expression is used, but the meaning is the same (e.g., “on that day,” Zeph. 1:9-10; Amos 8:9; “the day of the Lord’s sacrifice,” Zeph. 1:8; “the day of the wrath of the Lord,” Ezek. 7:19; cf. Isa. 2:12).
Kind of writing
In form, rather than a parable, this is a didactic tableau. It lacks the enigmatic element of the original Jesus parables and is more “teachy”, in the manner of Matthew. As the decoding shows, the parable is treated allegorically.
New Testament Foreground There are two interpretations of this parable. The traditional interpretation, which probably cannot be set aside, is that anyone who is kind to someone in need will be judged favourably. This is the “universalist” interpretation. There is another, usually called the “particularist” interpretation. According to this view, what Matthew has in mind is the narrow question of what will happen to good non-believers who have come to the help of believers in distress. This perhaps surprising reading depends on a number of observations about Matthew’s vocabulary and theology. It can be laid out in the following steps. Who is gathered for judgement? In Matthew’s text, “all the nations” never refers to Christians or even Christians and non-Christians together (see Matt 24:9, 14; 25:32; 28:19). There was a later Jewish tradition that there would be a separate judgement for non-believers (see Testament of Benjamin 10:8-9; 4 Ezra 13:33-50; 1 Enoch 90-91). Who are the least of my brethren (“members of my family” in the NRSV)? First of all, “one of these little ones” always refers to disciples in Matthew (Matt 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14). The expression “least of my brethren” takes up the idea of “little” and adds the technical term for a member of the Christian community, adelphoi, meaning brothers and sisters. In Matthew’s Gospel, adelphos always means a literal family member or else a disciple. In another passage, similar language seems to point to the service of the disciples by non-believers: Jesus said: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matt 10:40–42) Bearing all this in mind, contrary to the traditional reading of this parable, the issue at stake here is not “how will anyone who is kind be saved” but rather “what will happen to those non-believers who have come to the help of disciples”. The first question is really a modern one. The second question may reflect more accurately conditions in the first century. For example, no food was provided for people in prison as they awaited trial. Christians were imprisoned, as we know (1Cor 4:11-13; 2Cor 6:4-5; 11:25-27; 3Jn 5-7), they would have depended upon charitable non-believers to help them. The teaching of the parable, therefore, would seem to be this: Christians, in their vulnerability, enable non-believers to encounter Christ, because “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” There is a deep message for disciples today and the church: salvation is made available not by power or benevolence but by weakness and vulnerability. Such a teaching echoes the experience of St Paul, as we see in the next section. St Paul
St Paul Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (Romans 14:10–12
Brief Commentary Broadly speaking, the remarks made above set the ground for reading the parable, so that a very detailed comment is not necessary. This parable of the Last Judgment ends positively, with the just — judged favourably — on their way to heaven. Verses 31-33 The scene is set, with the traditional symbolism of the right and the left. Verses 34-36 A full description of the works of love is given. Verses 37-39 A shortened account is given. Verse 40 The particularist reading makes most sense at this point. Verse 41-43 A not quite so full description is given. Verse 44 The shortest account possible to speed up the telling. Verse 45 The same response as in v. 40, but this time in the negative. Verse 46 Judgment is then enacted, but the sequence is reversed: those going to eternal punishment are dealt with first so that the parable ends on a positive note of reward for good deeds. Pointers for prayer
Pointers for prayer 1. This judgment scene contains surprises for us. One is that nobody is condemned for doing wrong, but for their failure to do good. Jesus is telling us that being his disciple is a positive choice about how we live and relate to others. Perhaps sin-avoidance has sometimes dominated your view of what was being asked of you. What difference has it made for you when you viewed your Christian life as a daily opportunity to make a positive difference to others?
2. Another way of saying this is that the aim of Christian living is not me-centred (about my personal sanctification) but other centred (about responding to the needs of others). What happens to you when you get caught up yourself? Is your life not better, and often more enjoyable, when you can look beyond yourself to others?
3. The standard of love and concern that Jesus presents challenges us to look beyond our comfort zone to those who are most in need. Who are those most in need in your world? When have you been able to move beyond your comfort zone in reaching out to them?
4. Another surprise is to hear Jesus tell us that when we do something for another, he considers it as done to himself. When has seeing Christ in others helped you in your dealings with them?
5. The story is about the judgment of the whole of humanity. It presents an ideal of society in which human relationships at all levels are governed by the law of love. In your experience what difference has it made to a group to which you belonged when there was a definite sensitivity to the needs of all members? Prayer
Almighty God, you have conferred upon Christ Jesus sovereignty over every age and nation. Direct us, in the love of Christ, to care for the least of his brothers and sisters, that we may be subject to his dominion and receive the inheritance of your kingdom. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Thought for the day and prayer “King” is a foundational metaphor in the Bible, which in ordinary usage suggests power and glory. But even in the ancient biblical tradition, there are two great modifications. According to an Old Testament vision, a king is meant to be a shepherd to his people, a true shepherd who cares for and who knows and even loves his sheep. According to a New Testament vision, Jesus our king rules paradoxically by loving service, humility and the gift of himself. This example and teaching of Jesus have lost none of their power.
Prayer Wake us up, O God, and rouse us from the slumber of the everyday that we may recognise you in every moment and in every person, each day of our lives. Amen.