Matthew 25:31-46

Mercy as the Ultimate Criterion of Judgment

Matthew had used the previous stories to warn of different outcomes in the “not-yet” future of prepared and unprepared approaches to life in the “now”.  He did not categorise the story that would follow.  Rather than a parable, it would provide a grandiose symbolic account of final judgment.  In its own way, it would contribute to specifying the practical content of a life of preparedness.

Matthew 25:31-46     The Judgment of the Nations

The story originated from within Matthew’s own community, or possibly from Matthew himself.  It was contained, neither in Mark’s Gospel, nor in the source that Matthew shared with Luke.  It served to confirm Jesus’ insistence, mentioned elsewhere in the Gospel, of the non-negotiability of justice, mercy and faith as defining factors of Kingdom life in the world.

31When the Son Man comes in his glory
and ‘all the angels with him’,
then he will sit on his glorious throne.  
32 All the nations will be assembled before him,
and he will separate them from one another
as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.  
33 He will put the sheep at his right
and the goats at his left.

The details suited the shepherding customs of Galilee.  Sheep and goats would graze together during the day, but needed different treatment to cope with cold nights.

The issue was the fate of the nations. 

34 Then the king will say to those on his right,
“Come along, my Father’s blessed ones.  
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
since the world was founded.

Life in God’s Kingdom was part of God’s creating vision, intended from the foundation of the world for everyone.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat;
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a foreigner and you welcomed me;
36 poorly clad and you clothed me,
sick and you came to see me;
I was in prison and you came to me.”
37 Then the just ones will answer him,
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you a drink?
38 When did we see you a foreigner and welcome you,
or poorly clad and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison
and go to see you?”  
40 In answer, the king will say, “I tell you clearly,
whatever you did to one of the least of my brothers or sisters,
you did to me.”
41 Then he will say to those on his left,
“Go away from me, cursed ones, to the eternal fire
prepared for the devil and his angels. 

The eternal fire had not been created for human persons, but for the devil and his angels.  According to the story, however, it would become the destiny of persons who, during their lives, had aligned themselves with the devil and the devil’s kingdom.  The choice had been theirs.

42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink;
43 I was a foreigner and you did not welcome me;
poorly clad and you did not clothe me;
sick and in prison, and you did not come to see me.”
44 They will answer him then and say,
“Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty,
a foreigner, or poorly clad or sick or in prison,
and did not look after you?”  
45 Then he will reply, and say,
“I assure you, whatever you did not do
for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me.”

At this stage , the text omitted the phrase brothers and sisters used above, and was content to mention simply one of the least of these.

46 And they will go to eternal punishment;
and the just ones to eternal life.” 

The somewhat prolonged discourse finished with Matthew’s by now familiar signature theme of punishment and reward.

Clearly, as it is found in Matthew’s Gospel, the story has been moralised, either by the early Christian community or by Matthew, possibly by both.  Details have been added to the story to make the moral meaning even stronger.  The basic story may have come from Jesus, who intended it to be heard as a parable.   If the introductory words spoken by the king and the final moral of the story are ignored, what is left of the story is open enough to stir the imagination – which is the usual purpose of a parable.

At the completion of the story, the Gospel narrative will continue with the account of Jesus’ assassination and his subsequent post-resurrection encounters with two women disciples at the tomb, and with the eleven disciples in Galilee.  Who are responsible for Jesus’ brutal treatment and eventual execution? And who encounter the risen, forgiving, ever trusting Jesus?  The parable makes the point that the historical Jesus is encountered in the victims of injustice of every age and place, and, in them, continues to be either brutalised, ignored or loved.

Experience teaches that every person, in different situations and at different times, can fit the categories of oppressed, oppressor, or those who reach out to victims of injustice with love and compassion.

The real issue is not to which group people belong – since they belong to all.  Rather, the parable invites everyone to recognise the profound resonance of every social interaction.  The victimisation and execution of Jesus are not simply events that happened elsewhere, a long time ago.  Their equivalents confront people constantly.  The sacrificial death of Jesus calls everyone to examine and to recognise the same dynamics at  work in them that drove the Jewish leadership, the crowds, Pilate, the Roman and Jewish military, Judas, Peter and the deserting apostles.

A further beautiful consequence, however, is that disciples are empowered to bring the non-recriminating, forgiving and reconciling love and peace of the risen Jesus, firstly, to their own guilty selves and, then, to the world at large.

That, however, was not the way that Matthew recounted the story.  Why did Matthew tell it his way?  Clearly, his purpose was moralistic, and even threatening.  Beyond that, the meaning is not entirely clear; and reputable scholars are not unanimous.  

Sometimes, his final version has been read as a comment on general judgment: people will be judged according to the degree of practical compassion they have shown to others in need.  Jesus would consider such actions as done to himself and would welcome the doers accordingly.

This interpretation would sit well with Jesus’ prioritisation, throughout the Gospel, of mercy above sacrifice; it would connect to the stories immediately preceding it, by serving to clarify how people should stay awake during the delay in Jesus’ return.

The justification of this interpretation, however, depends on two other disputed issues: 

  • Who are those referred to as the nations?
  • Who are the least of his brothers and sisters?

In relation to the first question, Jews referred to peoples, other than themselves, as the nations.  For a Jewish audience, the term did not include Jews; it meant simply “everyone else”.

Earlier in the Gospel, Matthew had recounted how Jesus had promised: ... in the rebirth that is to come when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel [19.28].  Perhaps that promise had raised the question: If disciples were to judge Jews (the twelve tribes of Israel), who would judge non-Jews, the nations? 

The issue of the salvation of the nations would have been quite pertinent in Matthew’s community, which contained a number of Gentile members.  Naturally, they would have wondered about the fate of their families and general fellow citizens, who did not convert and may not have had contact with Christians (other than themselves).  How would they fare in the heavenly Kingdom?

Perhaps the story suggested that the Son of Man himself would judge the non-Jewish nations.  In that case, the criterion for their judgment would not be their faith in Jesus, whom they had not known, but their practical compassion to the least of my brothers and sisters.

This makes the second question pertinent: In Matthew’s mind, who are those to whom Jesus referred as the least of his brothers and sisters?  Was he referring to suffering members of the Christian community, or to undefined hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick or imprisoned in general?

Earlier in the narrative, Jesus was referring solely to disciples when he had said: Those who make you welcome make me welcome; and who make me welcome, welcome the one who sent me.  Those who welcome prophets because they are prophets will receive a prophet’s reward.  Those who welcome the just because they are just will receive the reward of the just.  Those who give even a drink of cold water to one of these little ones because they are disciples, I tell you this clearly, will not miss out on their reward.. [10.40-42]. 

However, the context of that quotation was the missionary discourse.  There, Jesus had a restricted focus: he was endeavouring to encourage his disciples, whom he was plainly addressing.  The relevance of the comment need not be extended beyond that limited perspective.  Thus, it need not rule out the possibility that Jesus included the hungry, thirsty, naked, strangers, sick or imprisoned of the world in general as brothers/sisters of his.

In this story, Matthew may have been addressing no more than the pressing issue of the salvation of those non-Jews about whom some of the members of his own community were particularly concerned.  The question about the much broader issue of the salvation of Gentiles in general may never even have entered his head; or, if it had, he may have had no idea about its answer.  At the end of his Gospel, he would show Jesus sending out disciples to reach out on mission to the nations in general, and to teach and to baptise, and, in this way, make Christians of them.  Even that commission would give no clue about the salvation of those to whom the Gospel would never reach.

Penetrating Beneath the Words

Eternal Life.  Contemporary readers need to look beyond Matthew’s words.  They live in a world where the majority of people have no contact with Christian disciples; and, consequently, have no way either to reach out to them, or to neglect them.  Have they any hope of entering into eternal life?  And in societies where Christians live, will non-believers be judged precisely by their attitude to Christians?

Eternal life (salvation) consists in sharing, in and through Christ, in the life of God, even if unconsciously at times.  God is love.  Eternal life is loving.  The adventure of eternity is to allow oneself to be loved unconditionally and infinitely intensely – to surrender to the incandescent, all-consuming and transforming love of God.  But love is alive, and it is not one-way.  Surrendering to God means being suffused with love, transformed by it, and, in turn, responding to God, and to everyone, with unconditional and intense love.

No one in this life manages to surrender to love totally, to God or to anyone.  People are afraid to surrender control completely in order simply to be loved; they may be radically unable to do so.  Jesus spoke of the experience as “dying to self”.

Seen in this light, judgment would seem to be the ratification by the Son of Man (or by God) of the hesitant orientation people have already made of their lives through their myriad choices and actions.  Have they opened outwards, courageously, in love towards God and others? Or have they effectively imprisoned themselves within their own boundaries, and turned inwards in self-interest and fear?

As Jesus said:
“... I was hungry and you gave me something to eat;
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink;
I was a foreigner and you welcomed me;
poorly clad and you clothed me,
sick and you came to see me;
I was in prison and you came to me..”

In one sense, God does not judge – God simply loves.  Those who allow themselves to be loved, and to be saturated in love, enjoy eternal life, life to the full.  Those who close themselves from loving, and shut themselves up within their own limited ego (to be isolated within themselves for eternity), experience a mode of being that is really non-life.

Heaven and hell need not be seen as reward or punishment determined and imposed by God.  They are the experience, freely chosen and lived without distraction, of either loving and being loved, or existing, turned in on self , alone and isolated for ever.

Why, then, be Christian? If the criterion for entry into eternal life is, simply, practical love, does that make Christ unnecessary?  

According to Christian belief, eternal life is not another version of immortality.  Eternal life means sharing in the life of the Risen Christ.  It is something inconceivably better than mere immortality – though its precise meaning remains beyond comprehension.  Christ’s life, death and resurrection are certainly not irrelevant or unnecessary.  Whoever is saved enjoys the experience of risen life in Christ. Salvation, other than in Christ, is not the way of God.  Yet, salvation in Christ can happen without people explicitly knowing or loving Christ.

People will have their own reasons for being Christian.  Many are such because they find the experience wonderfully meaningful.  Other more objective answers might be:

  • Because the Church, in and through its own brokenness, has a mission to reveal to people their destiny, to encourage people to choose to love, to show the unexpected depths that love can have, and to provide the sustenance and support needed to orientate their lives, consistently, towards love.  That is the mission of every Christian who believes.
  • Because the choice to love consistently is difficult.  In a world that, in many ways, has little idea of the possibilities of intense love, those who choose to love need mutual support.  Given the sin of the world, the lone Christian who chooses to be so is a virtual impossibility. 
  •  The world needed Jesus to show it what perfect love consisted in.  The memory of Jesus must be kept vibrantly alive.

Next >> Matthew 26:1-16