Matthew 25: 31-46 The Judgment of Wisdom

Separation of the Sheep and the Goats, 6th Century Mosaic. This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60952241

Matthew 25: 31-46

31 “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.”

This final parable in Matthew’s gospel builds upon the foundation laid by the previous five parables but also steps beyond them into cosmic setting of dividing the blessed ones of Father and the cursed ones. This final parable brings together imagery from across the gospel as well as several resonant images from the Hebrew Scriptures woven into a tightly woven tapestry. Like a tapestry, you can appreciate the pattern from an initial glance but when you look closely you can discern how the individual threads are brought together to form this final image. Unfortunately, I think this parable is sometimes treated like an ancient tapestry that seems out of place in the modern homes we’ve constructed and some would perhaps like to confine it to a museum as a witness to the artistic stylings of an ancient culture but for those with eyes to see and ears to hear it concludes the teaching of Matthew’s gospel and prepares us for the passion narrative which follows.

Matthew has, in the previous two parables, used imagery often associated with Israel’s relationship with their God: God as bridesmaid and God as ‘house master’ entrusting the stewardship of the household to slaves who wield great power on their master’s behalf. Now we are thrust into the cosmic sphere with the reintroduction of the title the Son of Man, in a way that closely links this title with Daniel’s introduction of this figure in Daniel 7:13-14:

As I watched the night visions, I saw one like a human being (Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Throughout the gospel the Son of Man has been linked to suffering, but here we also see it linked to glory. The suffering and glory of the Son of Man are held together in the trial before Caiaphas the high priest when Jesus states, “Form now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (26:64) But for the moment the parable looks beyond the upcoming suffering to the time when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory and the peoples are gathered to him.

There are two possible readings of this parable which rotate on how one views the ones gathered and these littlest ones who their Lord is now seen through. One reading is that the Greek ethnos is translated simply as nations indicating all the nations (Jews and Gentiles) gathered before the Son of Man and sorted by how they respond to the ‘least of these.’ In this reading “the least of these who are members of my family” are the hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick/weak, and prisoners of the world. The second reading translates ethnos as Gentiles understanding the ‘least of these who are members of my family” as the followers of Jesus who carry the message of Jesus to the nations. There are strengths to both readings and the text can encompass both meanings. However, most of what follows will focus on the second reading since it highlights a way of thinking about this parable less common in the church. The reading here will also move away from an individualistic way of thinking about this parable to a framework that fits within the Jewish communal ideas of righteousness and hospitality.

Although there are portions of the Hebrew Scriptures which talk about the care for those who are less fortunate in the sense of an individual’s action, like Proverbs 19:17[1]: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in kind.“ But the individual’s actions are a part of the community which seeks to live in the covenant they have received from their God as a witness to the world. When Isaiah challenged the community to care for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, and the afflicted he could use singular pronouns to talk about the improper collective actions of the community:

Is this not the fast I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke: Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Isaiah 58:6-10

Israel and the church were intended to be communities of righteousness that would be lights that would illuminate the nations. Part of this expectation includes hospitality, which these new disciples were to expect in the places they go to both in Israel (10:5-15 where they are to rely on the hospitality of the villages and towns they come to) but also in the future when they are sent to go into ‘all nations.’ Particularly in Western societies we tend to read the scriptures in terms of individual responsibility, but a community of hospitality and righteousness doesn’t allow a person to remain hungry, thirsty, naked, sick/weak, or in prison without receiving care. Mark Allan Powell, when discussing the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke, highlights this in talking to American, Russian and finally Tanzanian students for their interpretation of the parable. American students tended to highlight the son’s actions which lost his inheritance, Russian students tended to highlight the famine which brought about hunger in the land, but for me the most insightful was the answer he received in Tanzania:

The boy was in a far country. Immigrants often lose their money. They don’t know how things work—they might spend all their money when they shouldn’t because they don’t know about the famines that come. People think they are fools just because they don’t know how to live in that country. But the Bible commands us to care for the stranger and the alien in our midst. It is a lack of hospitality not to do so. This story, the Tanzanians told me, is less about personal repentance than it is about society. Specifically, it is about the kingdom of God. (Powell 2007, 27)emphasis mine

As we saw in Matthew 10:5-15, the judgment on communities that do not receive these disciples coming to them as strangers will receive a harsher judgment than Sodom and Gomorrah who failed to show hospitality to the divine visitors who entered their community.

In this cosmic parable where the Son of Man assumes his glory before all the peoples, nations and languages and some find themselves on the right[2] and others on the left judged for the way they received this unexpected divine visitation in the presence of these ‘little ones of God’s family.’ The attentive listener may hear the way Matthew has once again has pointed to the unique ways that ‘God is with us’ in these little faith ones sent out into the world needing care, welcome and compassion. It also creates a link between the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and the two texts help interpret one another: perhaps the poor in spirit who are blessed or those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are found among those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick/weak, and imprisoned. The peoples of the world are blessed for how they receive these strangers and aliens in their midst. Are they the kind of society where their needs will be met or are they the type of society that hides themselves from their own kin?

The ‘blessed ones’ inherit the kingdom which was prepared for them from the ‘foundation of the cosmos.’ In hospitality they gave food to those hungering, drink to the thirst, gathered together[3] with the strangers, clothed the naked, visited the weak/sick,[4] and ‘came towards’ the ones in prison. On the one hand a community which does this towards the ‘little ones of God’s family’ probably practices this hospitality towards any strangers who find themselves in their midst, but probably in this parable they are blessed for the way they show hospitality for the least of God’s family[5] and by their actions show their righteousness. In contrast, the unrighteous do not practice this hospitality towards the strangers in their midst and find themselves left outside the kingdom of heaven. These ‘cursed ones’ have chosen the way of the devil and his angels and find themselves outside God’s promised ‘age of life’ enduring the ‘age of punishment’ or ‘age of fire.’[6]

Matthew’s gospel has continually pondered what the Jewish covenantal idea of righteousness looks like in practice for this community of Christ followers. Often this is framed in the wise/foolish framework of wisdom literature where the wise can take part in the celebration, or the master’s joy, or the kingdom prepared from the beginning of the cosmos while the foolish find themselves outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Righteousness does not look like individual piety, and there are those who may call on the name of the Lord, and who have heard the words of the Lord, but have not built their lives upon those words. This community of little ones go out as strangers among the nations expecting to see signs of the kingdom of God among those who welcome them, but conversely the nations are blessed or cursed based on the way they receive these humble messengers. Ultimately, any judgment remains in the hands of the Son of Man or God and not the disciples, the most they can do is shake the dust off their sandals. Just as the ‘housemaster’ continued to send slaves to his vineyard looking for the harvest from his vines, so the Son of Man continues to send slaves to the nations looking for the fruit of hospitality.


[1] See also Tobit 4:16 and Sirach 7:32-35

[2] Most translations smooth this out to be the right hand, but hand is not present in the Greek and it merely indicates the right side.

[3] This is the Greek sunegago (where the word synagogue comes from) which means to gather together with.

[4] Greek astheneo which can mean weak or sick, may be due to disease, age, or injury.

[5] Literally: ‘the least of my brothers’

[6] Most translations render the Greek aion (eon) as eternal, but as throughout this translation I’ve attempted to avoid these terms which carry a lot of baggage in Christian thought. Matthew has a conception of righteousness and condemnation for wickedness which is never fully developed. For a fuller discussion see Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades, and Hell

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