Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46
One of the tricky parts of preaching this text is learning to read it as it appears toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel.
Of all of Matthew’s eschatological parables in chapters 24-25, this particular parable of the goats and sheep is probably the most appealing. This text has been taken up in literature and in the popular mind as disclosing a mysterious ground of opening to the other, as a kind of ethical vision that keeps us attuned to the presence of Christ in neighbors in need. Just think of Martin the Cobbler.
I don’t wish to dismiss such a reading, but as a student of Matthew’s Gospel, I have to be honest. I also need to read this parable in light of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole and in relation to Matthew’s apocalyptic eschatology, too. Such a move gives Matthew 25:31-45 a somewhat different cast and focus — but still can lend itself to preaching in our context.
We begin with Matthew’s apocalyptic eschatology. At the head of this vision is the Son of Man with his angels, functioning as king. While the portrayal of the Son of Man is not consistent across apocalyptic literature (see Daniel 7-12 and compare to the Similitudes in 1 Enoch 37-71), the figure of animals in apocalyptic literature is pretty typical. The longer narrative portrayal of the Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch 85-90 leaps to mind. All this is to say that apocalyptic eschatology frequently appeals to the beastly to work through its themes of injustice, sin, and the ultimate sovereignty of God.
The separation for judgment and salvation is also fairly common in intertestamental apocalyptic literature. What stands out as unique is the shared ignorance of the sheep and the goats: they seem surprised at their fate and were not aware whether they had either neglected or responded to “the least of these.” Most apocalyptic visions reveal (apokalypto = reveal); this one confounds both sheep and goat.
If we place this particular eschatological parable in the context of Matthew as a whole we begin to pick up some characteristic emphases that should also guide our reading. This is the final parable in the series of Matthew 24-25. It is a judgment vision over which the Son of Man presides. The ethical emphasis is no doubt there: Matthew expects not just words, but deeds — and here, given the dual surprise of sheep and goats, rendered as if the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing! But when we look a second time, we see another array of Matthean emphases that push back on the idea that this is just one more ethical judgment scene.
First, the ones being judged are not Jews nor Jewish Christians specifically, but “the nations.” This is a traditional term for the gentiles. The question that Matthew’s Jesus handles in this vision is not about the ethics of the church or even Jesus’ disciples, but the response to the least of these on the part of the nations, the gentiles. Please recall as well that Matthew’s Jesus is concerned to equip and empower a persecuted church.
What concerns this judgment is not the ethics of the faithful, but the judgment of the gentiles: those who would either respond positively or negatively to the “little ones,” the “least of these” that make up Christ’s community. This vision is the final eschatological parable because it answers the question: what will God do with all the others outside the community, those who either persecute Christians or otherwise feed, visit, or clothe them in their time of persecution? If you were part of that little community, you might want to know that the Son of Man, the King, the Shepherd, has got your community’s back, ultimately.
Of course, this view is probably less pleasing to our ears. It seems, frankly, sectarian and may seem to fall short of the ethical heights we had hoped it would aspire to. Yet there are still important things to remember from the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Love of enemies is central to the teaching of the Jesus who narrates this parable. If its concern is the persecuted community, that community is still called to love in line with this radical ethic. Whatever this end vision is, it is not about asserting that our persecutors will get theirs and that Christians will get to watch them suffer. There is, in other words, a mystery here.
The sheep and the goats still do not know. But the church in this final eschatological parable is given a kind of apocalyptic judgment vision to see how the Son of Man, the King, the Shepherd, will respond to the nations. Judgment means that things will be set right. But here, it also means more. The community of faith is given a preview of what is to come and in the process now sees outsiders, the nations, in a different light. God will remember their suffering in persecution. God will also remember the kindness, the mercy, the love from those whom they might think are enemies, to them, to the church, “the least of these.”
The question then becomes: what about us? What is our fate as God’s people? We mainliners may not be persecuted, but we feel more than a little shunted to the side in a culture undergoing profound change. Matthew’s vision of the sheep and the goats relativizes at least some of our assumptions. These others outside of our churches are not ultimately to be “otherized,” but seen in light of the demanding, unconditional love of God, which extends, yes, even to enemies. The mainline white church sometimes seems perilously close to hardened hearts. Could it be that an end-time vision of sheep and goats may be just we need to soften us up as an old age ends and a new one dawns?