Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46
In chapters 21-25, Matthew positions Jesus in Jerusalem, after his Galilean activity which has dominated the Gospel up to this point (Matthew 4:17—20:34).
Following verbal conflicts with the Rome-allied Jerusalem leaders (Matthew 21-23), the Matthean Jesus delineates a sequence of end-of-age events. These events culminate with his return as the Son of Man. Following Daniel 7:13-14, he establishes God’s worldwide rule including the destruction of Roman power (24:27-31).
What happens after his return and triumph?
The question is not answered until 25:31-46. In the meantime, between 24:31 and 25:31, the Gospel focuses its readers’ attention on the return of Jesus as Son of Man. It urges readers to prepare for Jesus’ arrival by living faithfully and watchfully. Five scenes including three parables make this appeal to be ready.
Verse 31 of chapter 25 takes up the aftermath of the return of Jesus. Not for the first time in the Gospel, verses 31-46 present a description or imaginative preview of the last judgment. Such previews have appeared previously in 13:24-30, 36-43, and 47-50 as well as briefly in the parables immediately preceding this judgment scene (24:51; 25:19-30). These previews function to assist readers in preparing for the judgment.
This accountability scene comprises two contrasting sections. The longer section concerns the vindicated sheep, the righteous (25:31-40). The shorter section focuses on the condemned goats, the unrighteous (25:41-46).
Two issues in particular determine the interpretation of the passage.
The first issue concerns the identity of those whom the Son of Man gathers before his throne after he has returned with his angels. Who are “all the nations” (25:32) that he summons and separates as a shepherd separates sheep and goats?
Are they all Gentiles? All non-Christians? All Christians? All humanity?
Christians are included in the judgment since 24:32—25:30 urges Jesus-followers to be ready for Jesus’ arrival. The commission to a universal mission embraces Jews and Gentiles (24:14; 28:19). The judgment, then, enfolds all humanity, all nations. “All” means all.
The Son of Man, now identified as the king, proceeds with the judgment by separation (25:34). He consigns the sheep to his right and the goats to the less favored left.
On what basis, the second interpretive issue?
Verses 35-39 name six human situations of misery that the vindicated have relieved: feeding the hungry, supplying drink for the thirsty, offering welcome to strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison.
The Son of Man draws these recipients together, styling them as “the least of these who are my brothers and sisters/members of my family” (25:40). Who are the recipients and what is the significance of the actions done to them?
These criteria for the vindication of the righteous have been interpreted along two main lines.
One approach argues that the nations are judged on how they have responded to Jesus-followers and their proclamation of the Gospel.
- The worldwide mission by Jesus-followers has given “all the nations” a chance to respond to their proclamation (24:14).
- The phrase “the least of these my brothers and sisters” (25:40, 45) uses language that refers to Jesus-followers (10:40-42; 12:46-50). In 18:5-6 to welcome a child is to welcome Jesus.
A second approach argues that “all the nations” are judged on how they have treated the poor, the marginalized, the needy, and the vulnerable.
Throughout his public activity, Matthew’s Jesus focused on repairing the material and somatic damage that much of the population has suffered from the strategies, practices and personnel of Roman power. Jesus has healed the sick, exorcized the demon-possessed, fed the hungry, welcomed the marginalized. He has commissioned his followers to continue this work (10:8).
Deciding between these options is difficult since a good case can be made for each position. Several factors indicate, however, that the criterion for judgment is not response to missionaries, but whether the nations have cared for the vulnerable and needy.
- The phrase “the least of my brothers and sisters of mine” (25:40, 45) does not automatically refer to Jesus-followers. The language of “brother/sister (adelphos) can refer to Jesus-followers (12:49-50) but only one-quarter of its uses do so.
- While the language of “little one” (mikros) can refer to Jesus-followers (10:42; 11:11; 18:6, 10, 14), here the different superlative form is used (elachistos). The different word removes an obvious linguistic link. Elsewhere in the Gospel, the term does not refer to Jesus-followers.
- It does not seem realistic to hold the nations responsible for not caring for needy Jesus-followers. The situations of misery identified in verses 35-39 were widespread in the hierarchical Roman world. They impacted some eighty percent of the population. They were not restricted to Jesus-followers (Longenecker 44-59).
- Consistency with Jesus’ restorative practices that repair imperial damage constitutes the criterion for judgment.
The scene, then, depicts the judgment of all people on the basis of whether they have provided the life-sustaining needs of the poor and vulnerable.
Verse 40 adds a further claim.
Surprisingly, the king/Son of Man declares that to show mercy and justice to these victims of imperial oppression and exploitation is to offer mercy and justice to him. The claim addresses, among other things, the Gospel’s concern with Jesus’ presence when, post Easter, he is physically absent (1:23; 18:20; 28:20). He is present among the societally vulnerable and damaged.
The remainder of the scene (25:41-46) narrates the destiny of those on the left, the goats. These nations created but ignored the misery and needs of the vulnerable. They are condemned to “eternal punishment.”
The scene thus ends with a paradox. On one hand, it resists the damage inflicted by imperial structures. It urges actions to alleviate and repair that misery. It holds the powerful accountable for their destructive actions.
Yet on the other hand, it imitates the imperial paradigm.
It asserts God’s dominating rule over all nations. It divides supporters and opponents. It punishes the latter. It does not break the imperial mold. It does not imagine, for example, God abandoning imperial practices to woo all people into structures and relationships of mercy and justice (Matthew 5:43-48).
- Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon, 2006.
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2000.
- Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. Pages 36-59.
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
March 26, 2023