We come this Sunday, in Matthew's Gospel, to the final discourse of Jesus before his passion.
It is also the last "parable" (it is really more a description of judgment than a parable) in the eschatological discourse.
The theme of judgment in Matthew's Gospel plays a central role. We encounter it already at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3. Throughout the Gospel, we are continually made aware of a tension between obedience and disobedience. Like the person who came to Jesus and asked "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16-24), so we too wonder on what side we will find ourselves -- the right or the left?
The question, however, is simply an excuse for doing nothing, as Bonhoeffer has pointed out. The person attempts to engage Jesus in an endless ethical discussion about works or good deeds. In this parable, the question resurfaces but in an importantly different way: "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?" (25:44). Those at the left hand of the Son of Man seek an excuse and almost put the blame on the Son of Man himself as if to say, "You didn't reveal yourself; how could we see you?"
The curious and also amazing aspect of their question is that it is repeated twice in the parable -- once by those on the right and then by those on the left -- and yet there is an enormous difference in meaning! When it is asked by those on the right, the question stems from what might be called a holy ignorance. These were people who had entered the joy of their master without even knowing it. Such participation is not self-evident. The joy they knew was not complete; it was mixed with suffering, danger, risk, tribulations and most likely many disappointments. And yet, it was joy. They acted out of mercy. They went the way of the cross and now find themselves at the right hand of the Son of Man.
On the contrary, those on the left did not know mercy or joy and we might add they did not know simplicity either. They complicated every situation allowing their own judgment as to whom they had to serve deafen them to the cry of those who were calling out in need. They did not live in the spirit of the beatitudes.
Judgment, as it appears in this parable, has more to do with mercy than it does with works. Has the community of believers been formed in a spirit of mercy? Those on the right hand of the Son of Man (also designated the "King") are those who have gone through the great tribulation, those who have lived out their baptism, not those who have conscientiously performed good works or have been morally upright. They are the ones who have risked dying and rising with Jesus in this world and are not waiting for some other future world or life.
In this final discourse, we rediscover another theme that has been running throughout Matthew's Gospel−the theme of discipleship. At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is this call to an obedience that is not prescription or law or sacrifice but joyful living in mercy without calculation. This joyful living takes believers to an unexpected place. It takes them to the cross; it takes them to the cross in human lives, to the cross in the life of family, community, society, nation, and world. It takes them to the place of God's suffering in the world.
Much attention has been given in the history of interpretation to the identity of the lowliest "brothers." Are they part of the community of believers or are they outsiders? Do they belong or not? Yet, the parable itself doesn't seem to be concerned about their identity other than to identify their suffering (hungry, naked, imprisoned, etc.). The parable of judgment is far more focused on the life of mercy that has or has not been lived by those who call out "Lord, Lord!" The criterion of judgment is not one's confession (not even one's ecclesial appurtenance) but the mercy we have lived. The parable is far more concerned about how believers have lived out their baptismal vocation and let their light shine before others so that all may see their good works and give glory to God (5:16). The only identity that seems to worry Matthew in this description of judgment is the identification of the other with the King, the Son of Man, with Jesus.
Once again, the "good works" has less to do with ethical actions than with living a life of mercy in which the Son of Man is revealed -- if only on the last day. This entails, for the believing community, a considerable change in self-perception. Rather than considering themselves holders or keepers of the mystery of God (in their liturgy, in their works, in their piety), they discover that God is always already outside the circle they draw and the boundaries they create. Mission itself becomes redefined when we consider the move outwards as a move towards God! The community is sent out from the Lord's Supper as body of Christ only to discover that the body of Christ is already waiting for the community in those suffering in the world. Then, in yet another Gospel reversal, it would appear that the judgment we are all subject to is not one from on high but a judgment that is spoken through the need of our neighbor.
We are at the end of the church year. The final judgment concludes both the year and this section of Gospel readings from Matthew. We stand continually within that final judgment -- in the Gospel, the passion story of Jesus Christ; in our liturgical year, the advent of this passion in the incarnation.