Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46
Scholars often identify this story not as a parable, but as a “figurative teaching” or an “apocalyptic prediction,” i.e., a story that depicts the final judgment and clarifies the criteria by which the judgment will be made.
But this story is a true parable, a puzzle that includes the kind of twists so typical of Jesus’ parables. Like many of Jesus’ most powerful parables, it is also a trap. Readers wander into it thinking that we will be able figure out how to be counted among the sheep, only to discover that the very attempt locates us within the goat herd.
Two aspects of context are especially important. First, the parable corresponds to the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) as bookends for Jesus’ teachings in Matthew. Like the Beatitudes, the parable describes the essential values and practices that define those who participate in the coming empire of heaven. Second, within the more immediate context of Matthew’s “eschatological discourse” (chs. 24-25), it is the capstone of Jesus’ long, winding answer to the question his disciples ask as he ends his occupation of the temple and prophesies its destruction: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). Jesus answers this in many ways — violent chaos, cosmic portents, “no one knows” — but in this parable we learn that the coming Son of Man has been present all along among the most vulnerable members of the society.
The parable clearly, integrally connects the advent of the heavenly king/judge/Son of Man with practices of compassionate care among the “least ones.” This makes the parable a striking commentary on Daniel 7:13-14, the source of the image of the “human one” or “Son of Man” coming in glory (Matthew 25:31, cf. 24:30-31). The Son of Man comes with universal and everlasting dominion (Daniel 7:14, Matthew 28:18), but does not act like a typical ruler or judge. The Son of Man of this parable overturns the paradigms of power and makes his dwelling place among the least. Apparently the king/Son of Man has not merely been present in disguise among the least ones, rather he is one of them. This is the first shock of this parable.
The second shock comes when we try to determine who the least ones are. The parable explicitly confirms the criteria of compassion — enumerated no less than four times! (Matthew 25:35-36, 37-39, 42-43, and 44) — upon which judgment turns. We know clearly what to do, but to whom should we do it? Who are the least ones? This question has come to dominate many discussions of the parable. Because Matthew’s Jesus uses similar language elsewhere in the Gospel (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14) to designate members of the community of disciples, some interpreters argue that Jesus has in mind especially, if not exclusively, the needy members of the Christian community itself, perhaps especially the wandering Christian missionaries of Matthew’s day. A narrow target group also helps keep the project manageable. Others argue that compassion should be directed to anyone in need, Christian or not, thereby creating a much larger pool of potential “least ones.” Why didn’t Jesus give his disciples a clearer identification of the least ones? Perhaps because doing so would make us all goats.
The king speaks first to the sheep, the righteous, affirming that they are blessed by the father and inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34). They have given him food, drink, hospitality, clothing, care, and visited him when he was in need. The king’s address to the goats runs through the same list of criteria, articulated in the negative. Remarkably, both the sheep and the goats express the same surprise in response to the king’s address to each of them: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry … ?” Although their questions are virtually identical, the questions carry radically different implications. The sheep apparently acted out of genuine compassion, without any awareness that the king might be present among the least ones and without any thought of potential reward. In the patronage economy of the ancient world, where gifts and debt were one of the primary means of ordering relationships, it was considered foolish to give to those at the bottom of the pyramid, who could not be expected to repay. The sheep have been busy, however, ignoring this social code. The goats, on the other hand, are still trapped within this code. On their lips, the same question the sheep have asked implies something quite different. For them, “When did we see you hungry … ?” implies that, had they only known of the king’s presence among the least ones, they would have been right there pitching.
The quest of modern Christians to identify the least ones as precisely as possible aligns us with the goats. Even the broadest definition of the least ones, as anyone and everyone in need, carries a similar consequence if the ensuing acts of compassion are motivated by the reward promised in the parable. When motivated extrinsically, in fact, such deeds cease to be “compassionate” at all. They devolve into the kinds of charity that preserve the vulnerability of the least ones in order to confirm the “righteousness” of the benefactors. In other words, as we pursue our quest to identify the least ones, the jaws of the parable snap shut. We discover ourselves in the goat pen.
In the Beatitudes Jesus identifies the subjects of the empire of heaven as the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness’ sake. Apparently Jesus has the same group in mind when he describes the sheep in this parable: those who find intrinsic value in identification with and care for the most vulnerable. This group would seem to have little interest in relationships dictated by the terms of “social justice” or “evangelism,” which so often turn people into objects and abstractions. The relationships the sheep pursue, in contrast, locate them smack in the middle of the least ones themselves, where the king himself is. For these, the Son of Man is not still coming. He is already here.