Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46
This text comes at the end of the fifth and final extended teaching of Jesus in Matthew, a discourse focused on the end of the age and the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24-25).
This final discourse comes in response to the questions of the disciples: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus has spoken of signs on earth and in the heavens (24:4-35), but he has also said that no one knows the day or the hour, “neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (24:36). Repeatedly, he has emphasized that his disciples must remain vigilant; they must be ready for his return at any moment (24:36-25:13).
One thing that is certain, according to Jesus, is that the Son of Man will come in glory to judge the nations. The image of the Son of Man coming in glory reflects the language Daniel 7:13-14, which speaks of one “like a human being” coming with the clouds of heaven, who is presented to the “Ancient of Days” and is given dominion, glory, and kingship. The Son of Man imagery appears frequently in Jewish apocalyptic literature, and Jesus consistently uses it when speaking of his return (24:30-31; 26:64).
In this parable, “all the nations” (panta ta ethne) are gathered before the Son of Man. The Greek word ethne can be translated as “gentiles (non-Jews),” “peoples,” or “nations.” The broader reading of “peoples” or “nations” seems more appropriate here. Matthew has given us no reason to believe that any people or nation will be exempt from judgment.
The coming judgment is compared to a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The criteria by which all will be judged are crystal clear. Jesus has already said that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).” So, in the final judgment, it is clear that he has demanded nothing for himself. He has expected only that we serve him by serving the “least of these.”
This teaching is a fitting conclusion not only to the discourse about the end of the age, but to all of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, much of which is concerned with righteousness (dikaiosune). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). In the interpretation of the law that follows (5:21-48), it is clear that righteousness is not about the letter of the law, but about the spirit or true intent of the law. It is about mercy (9:13), about loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself (22:37-40).
In the final judgment, those who are at the right hand of the Son of Man are called the righteous (dikaioi). It is not because of their superior knowledge of Scripture or exceptional spiritual gifts that they are called righteous. Rather, it is the mercy and compassion that they have shown to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned that indicates their righteousness. The Son of Man, who is also identified as a king, says to 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” (25:40).
For those at the king’s left hand, the situation is the opposite. In ignoring the needs of the least of these, they have rejected the Son of Man (25:41-45). They are sent away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (21:46).
It would be easy to interpret this teaching as a lesson in works-righteousness. After all, the Son of Man judges people based on what they do or do not do. Yet the teaching is much more nuanced than that. Those on the right hand are told, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you” (25:34). The kingdom is an inheritance, a gift, not something earned. Moreover, the righteous are unaware of what they have done. “Lord, when did we see you hungry?” They have not been acting in some calculated way to earn God’s favor. They have simply been doing what comes naturally for them in caring for their neighbors in need. Their actions are a sign of their relationship with a loving and merciful God, with the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve.
Those on the king’s left are likewise surprised to learn that they have encountered him in the lowly and needy. They too have simply been doing what comes naturally — looking out for their own interests and not being bothered with the needs of others. This too is a sign of their relationship — or lack thereof — with the Son of Man. They simply do not know him or understand his way of love and mercy.
This teaching is not only a fitting conclusion to all that Jesus has taught in Matthew, it is also a preparation for the passion story that is about to begin. These words of Jesus, identifying himself with the world’s outcasts, come immediately before the narrative of his own betrayal, arrest, torture, and execution. As Robert H. Smith says, “The Son of God stands deliberately and voluntarily in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated, the tortured. He began as a refugee and he ends as a condemned criminal.”1 He gives his life a ransom for many.
The parable of the sheep and the goats can be difficult to preach for those who are wary of talking about judgment. Yet if there were no judgment, it would mean that God didn’t care about the injustice and suffering in the world. But in fact, God does care. God cares passionately about the suffering of the least of these, and about whether we cause or ignore it — so much so that Jesus bore this suffering in his own body in order to triumph over evil and death.
Jesus will return “to judge the living and the dead,” as we confess in the Apostle’s Creed; he will return to put things right. This is good news for all victims of injustice and evil and for all who hunger and thirst for righteousness (5:6).
Even as the Son of Man is now highly exalted, raised from the dead and seated far above all rule and authority, he is not distant and aloof. He is a king who still lives among his subjects, disguised as a pauper. He is a merciful ruler who still comes to meet us in all our brokenness, and calls us to meet him in the needs of a broken and suffering world.
- Robert H. Smith, Matthew (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989) 299.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of justice, you have shown yourself in this world in the poor, the hungry, and the needy. Make us willing participants of your grace and generosity, so that when you come again, we will know your face. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
We come to the hungry feast ELW 479
We give thee but thine own ELW 686
What feast of love ELW 487
Come my way, my truth, my life, Ralph Vaughan Williams