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Matthew 25:31-46 Biblical Commentary:
MATTHEW 21-25: THE CONTEXT
Chapters 23-25 are Jesus’ final discourse (lengthy speech) in this Gospel. The setting is the temple, and the time is early Holy Week—between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday.
In chapter 23, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees and laments over Jerusalem. Chapters 24-25 deal with eschatology (last days—end of time). Jesus prophesies persecutions (24:9-14) and the Desolating Sacrilege (24:15-28), and tells of the coming of the Son of Man (24:29-31). He then gives the lesson of the fig tree (24:32-35) and tells of the necessity of watchfulness (24:36-44).
Jesus’ discourse includes several parables that emphasize preparation for the master’s (Jesus’) return:
• The Parable of the Faithful and the Unfaithful Servant (24:45-51), where readiness for Christ’s coming consists of being found at work when the master arrives.
• The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (25:1-13), where readiness consists of carefully checking preparations prior to sleeping.
• The Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), where readiness consists of faithful stewardship over that which the master has provided.
The Eschatological Discourse concludes with The Judgment of the Nations (25:31-46), which portrays Judgment Day. Readiness here consists of faithfulness in “the least of these” (25:40) ministry.
MATTHEW 25:31-46. THE JUDGMENT OF THE NATIONS
Often called The Judgment of the Nations, verses 31-46 have also been called The Parable of the Sheep and Goats because of its parabolic twists and turns. Just as a parable surprises us with a sudden curve as it comes across the plate, Jesus surprises the righteous (vv. 37-39) and the unrighteous (v. 45) with his judgment. However, this is not really a parable but is instead an eschatological (end of time) vision that describes a real future event.
MATTHEW 25:31-33. THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS
31“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32Before him all the nations (Greek: panta ta ethne—multitudes, nations, Gentiles) will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.”
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (v. 31). The Son of Man comes in glory. Both the title (Son of Man) and the vision come from Daniel 7:13-14. Son of Man is Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself (8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:9; 12:8, 32, 40; 13:37, 41; 16:13, 27-28; 17:9, 12, 22; 19:18; 20:18; 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44; 25:31; 26:2, 24, 45, 64). The phrase has a humble ring to it, but there is no modesty in the description of the Son of Man here. He comes in power and glory.
Note the contrast between Jesus’ first and second comings. In his first coming, Jesus emptied himself, coming into this world as a servant (Philippians 2:5-11). Conceived by an unmarried woman, he was born in a stable and cradled in a manger. As a man, he had no place to lay his head (8:20). There was purpose in these humble beginnings—that he might dwell among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14) and draw us to himself (John 12:32). In his second coming, however, the time for wooing and winning will be past, so no further purpose would be served by humble circumstances. Jesus, therefore, will come in all of his glory—with all of his angels—sitting on a throne—with all the nations assembled before him.
This passage includes several Christological titles (titles having to do with Jesus as the Christ or the Messiah—the anointed one—the one sent by God to redeem his people):
• Son of Man (v. 31)
• Shepherd (v. 32)
• King (v. 34, 40)
• Lord (vv. 37, 44).
Furthermore, Jesus sits on a throne (v. 31)—identifies God as his Father (v. 34)—and pronounces judgment on the world. The humanitarian emphasis—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and prisoners—grows out of the disciple’s commitment to Christ, the Lord of Lord and King of Kings. Lacking that Christological underpinning, humanitarian efforts often degenerate into mere do-goodism, which has as much potential for ill as for good.
“Before him all the nations (Greek: panta ta ethne) will be gathered” (v. 32a). Who does Jesus mean by panta ta ethne? Scholars are divided. In the New Testament, ethne is often used to speak of Gentiles, so it is possible that Jesus is describing a separate judgment for Gentiles, who will be judged on the basis of acts of mercy to “the least of these” (Senior, 285). This would answer the question, What about those who never heard of Jesus? It also dovetails with comments that Paul makes about Gentiles in Romans 2:12-15.
However, the word ethne is also used to mean people in general (21:43; 24:7, 9, 14), and Paul uses it to refer to Gentile Christians (Romans 11:13; 15:27; 16:4; Galatians 2:12; Ephesians 3:1). Also, in this Judgment of Nations discourse, Jesus speaks of all people, Jews and Gentiles, Christians and non-Christians, gathered before Christ. If Jesus intended to describe a separate Gentile judgment, he surely would have made that clear. For our purposes, we will assume that “all the nations” means all people.
“and he (the Son of Man) will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (v. 32—see Ezekiel also 34:17). While sheep and goats might look much the same to us, a shepherd would know the difference. The wool of sheep is valuable, so shepherds prize sheep above goats.
The word “shepherd” is often used in scripture for God and Jesus, and the word “sheep” is a frequent metaphor for the people of God.
“He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left” (v. 33). Earlier, the mother of James and John asked Jesus to place her sons at his right and left hands in his kingdom (20:20-23). In that context the right hand was the favored position and the left hand was the next favored position. However, in the judgment context of 25:31-46, the left hand is not a place of favor but of disfavor.
MATTHEW 25:34-40. YOU DID IT TO ME
34“Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. 36 I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’
37“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? 38When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’
40“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers (Greek: adelphon mou—my brothers), you did it to me.'”
“Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father” (v. 34a). The shepherd (v. 32) has become King (v. 34), just as the shepherd-boy David (from whom Jesus is descended) became king. The King conveys the Father’s blessing to those who have given him succor in the form of six works of mercy: Food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, and visitation.
Jesus didn’t invent the idea of service to the needy. Torah law required landowners to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that widows and orphans might obtain food by gleaning (Leviticus 19:9-10). It required employers to pay workers daily, because workers depend on daily wages for daily bread (Deuteronomy 24:15). It says, “You shall not take advantage of any widow or fatherless child” (Exodus 22:22).
The prophets continued that emphasis. Amos denounced those “who “oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (Amos 4:1). Isaiah said that, to please God, fasting needs to include distributing bread to the hungry, bringing the poor home for dinner, and clothing the naked (Isaiah 58:6-7).
The king invites these merciful people to “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34b). An inheritance is a bequest conveyed by a last will and testament—an unearned gift. God prepared the kingdom as a gift from the foundation of the world—from the very beginning.
“for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me” (vv. 35-36). We should regard these six deeds of mercy as illustrative rather than exhaustive. Each meets a specific need of a particular needy person. Where other needs exist, mercies tailored to those needs surely will count as highly as these six. A kind word or listening ear can help a person in despair. Assistance with a flat tire can redeem the day for a stranded motorist. The possibilities for mercy are boundless, just as human needs are boundless.
Note the very basic nature of these six mercies: Food, drink, hospitality, clothing, nursing care, and visitation. Every person has the potential to provide these kinds of mercies. One need not be wealthy to buy a hamburger and soft drink for a hungry person. One need not be a nurse to help a sick person. One need not be ordained to visit a prisoner in jail. Earlier, Jesus told a rich man to sell all that he had and to give the money to the poor (19:21), but there is no such overarching demand here. The kinds of mercies that Jesus rewards here are within the reach of every person. They do not require great sacrifice on the part of the mercy-giver, but they do alleviate great pain for the mercy-receiver.
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink?'” (v. 37). Note the surprise of the mercy-givers. When the king tells them that they have extended these mercies to him, they cannot imagine when that could have been. While extending mercies to “the least of these” they had no idea that they would be rewarded for their kindness. There was no calculation in their generosity. They gave because they were moved by human need—not by the potential for reward.
The king explains to these astonished mercy-givers that, as they showed mercy to “one of the least of these my brothers (adelphon mou—my brothers), you did it to me” (v. 40). The king does not require that we save the whole world, but rewards those who help even one person. However, the recipient must be a “least of these” sort of person.
“the least of these my brothers” (Greek: adelphon mou—my brothers) (v. 40). Who are these adelphoi—Jesus’ brothers (and sisters)? There are three possibilities:
1. Jesus might intend adelphon mou (my brothers) to mean any person in need.
This is in keeping with the fact that God loves all people and could be expected to reward our generosity to any person in need (see Exodus 22:22-27; Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; Mark 10:21; Luke 16:19-25).
It is also in keeping with Jesus’ inclination to help needy people whoever they are and wherever he encounters them—a leper (8:14), the servant of a Roman centurion (8:5-13), a Gadarene demoniac (8:28-34), and many others. There is an indiscriminate quality to Jesus’ mercies—a prodigal quality. He does not observe the usual boundaries when choosing whom to heal, but instead heals whomever needs healing.
2. Jesus might intend to limit the meaning of adelphon mou (my brothers) to Christians in need.This view is supported by the fact that adelphos (brother) is often used in the New Testament to refer to Christians (12:50; 18:15, 17, 21, 35; 23:8; 28:10; John 21:23; Acts 6:3; 9:30; 11:1; Galatians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Philippians 1:14). The NRSV, in the interest of inclusive language, usually translates adelphos as something other than “brother”—i.e., “members of my family” in this verse—so the Greek is illuminating here. A literal translation would be “my brothers,” which could be expanded to “my brothers and sisters.”
It seems possible then that Jesus intends to limit his blessings to those (including non-Christians) who help needy Christians. When this Gospel was written, late in the first century, Christians were being persecuted, and Matthew’s intent here might be to convey Christ’s blessings (or curses) to those who treat Christians well (or badly).
3. Jesus might intend to further limit the meaning of adelphon mou to Christians involved in proclaiming the Gospel—i.e., pastors, evangelists, missionaries, Christian youth workers, Sunday school teachers, lay witnesses—and a host of others. This is very much in keeping with Jesus’ instructions to the twelve when he sent them on a mission to proclaim the Gospel, saying:
• “Don’t take any gold, nor silver, nor brass in your money belts. Take no bag for your journey, neither two coats, nor shoes, nor staff: for the laborer is worthy of his food”(10:9-10).
• “Whoever doesn’t receive you, nor hear your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust from your feet. Most certainly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city” (10:14-15).
• “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward” (10:40-42).
This is in keeping with the Jewish concept of shaliah, which regards the king’s emissary as if he were the king. Any kindness or insult afforded the king’s emissary is counted as a kindness or insult rendered to the king. This principle is still practiced today. Governments consider an affront to an ambassador as an affront to the nation. On a more personal level, parents consider a gift to a child as a gift to the parent.
Perhaps the image of concentric circles will help us here:
• The outer circle includes the poor and needy of the world.
• The middle circle includes needy Christians in general and persecuted Christians in particular.
• The inner circle includes Christians directly involved in proclaiming the Gospel and dependent on the support of those whom they serve.
While it seems likely that Jesus will bless those who help people in any of the three circles, the certainty of blessing increases the closer we move to the center of the circles.
Advancing the image of concentric circles even further, Jesus, at various times in his life, had need of all six of the listed mercies. Perhaps we should place him at the center of our circles, not as a fourth circle, but as the pivot point around which the circles are drawn. We cannot directly meet his needs, but can do so indirectly by meeting the needs of his surrogates—the ones whom he loves—his brothers and sisters—his adelphoi.
While Christians today understand that we should, in the name of Christ, show mercy to needy people without regard to creed, we have not sufficiently emphasized showing mercy to Christian adelphoi—our Christian brothers and sisters. This is a serious deficiency in the light of the persecution of Christians around the world. Millions of Christians are suffering persecution today in China, Egypt, India, and a host of Muslim nations. We have a responsibility to mobilize opinion to stop the persecution of Christ’s brothers and sisters (v. 40).
But we are more easily moved to action by homeless people on our city streets than by Christian adelphoi in foreign jails, because homeless people are visible to us and the prisoners are invisible. We Christian leaders have a responsibility to make persecuted adelphoi visible to our congregations. We also have a responsibility to emphasize solid support (prayer support, financial support, and personal support) of those who have left hearth and home to proclaim the Gospel to all nations (28:19).
This text should also serve as a warning to squabbling Christians who sometimes treat each other badly. If Christ blesses those who show mercy to his adelphoi (Christian brothers and sisters) and withholds blessings from those who fail to do so, we should advise church members to treat each other with unfailing respect.
Furthermore, this text should serve as a warning to those who deliberately undermine the work of Christian adelphoi who are engaged in proclaiming the Gospel. G. Lloyd Rediger wrote a book entitled Clergy Killers, where he talks about church members who maliciously sabotage their pastor. Such people, he says, are likely to suffer from “personality disorders (paranoid, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and even passive aggressive)”—but Rediger moves to theological language and calls them evil. He finds that clergy killers have wounded many clergy and that the effect has been to cripple congregations and denominations. I have witnessed clergy killers in action, and believe that Rediger makes an important point. This is not to say that clergy should not be held accountable for the effectiveness of their work, because that is appropriate.
However, whispering campaigns, anonymous complaints, false charges, and sabotage are inappropriate. Congregational leaders need to be sensitive to the difference—and to take measures to stop those who engage in these behaviors. However, church members are usually reluctant to do that, so they give the bad actors free reign.
Those of us who believe that the New Testament teaches salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ are troubled by the fact that Jesus says nothing of faith here. The people at the king’s right hand “inherit the Kingdom”—salvation—because of small mercies shown to “the least of these adelphon mou.” Is Jesus creating a loophole that allows people to earn their own salvation through deeds of mercy? Can a person who rejects Christ win salvation by feeding the hungry?
In Romans 2:12-15, Paul speaks of an exception for Gentiles (people who have not had the benefit of Godly instruction) who “do instinctively what the law requires,” demonstrating “that what the law requires is written on their hearts.” He explains: “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” This, however, addresses only situations where people who do not know of Christ. It falls short of excusing people who deliberately reject Christ, however meritorious their deeds.
Christ, of course, is free to save anyone whom he desires—even a thief on a cross. However, the thief pled, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), which sounds very much like a confession of faith. We should not encourage people to believe that their generous works (in lieu of faith) will save them.
We are left with some ambiguity with regard to what Christ will do in a particular situation but no ambiguity with regard to our duty. We have a responsibility to tell people that Christ will bless those who show mercy to “the least of these adelphon mou— my brothers”—and to encourage them to watch for opportunities to minister (1) to needy people in general—(2) to needy Christians—and (3) to needy Christians engaged in the proclamation of the Gospel.
MATTHEW 25:41-46. YOU DIDN’T DO IT TO ME
41“Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; 43I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44“Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’
45“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ 46These will go away into eternal (Greek: aionion—from aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels'” (v. 41). Just as the king blessed those at his right hand for rendering mercies, so he curses those at his left hand for failing to render mercies. Instead of an invitation to a kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, Jesus consigns these people to “eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41). God designed the kingdom for people, but prepared fire for the devil and his angels. Not all angels are good (see Romans 8:38; Colossians 2:18; 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Revelation 12:7-9). These are angels who have allied themselves with the devil.
Jesus says that God prepared the kingdom at the beginning of creation—“from the foundation of the world” (v. 34)—because God’s purpose from the beginning was salvation. Jesus does not say that the“eternal fire” was created “from the foundation of the world”. Presumably eternal fire was not part of God’s original design but was created later in response to sin and rebellion.
Jesus gives a clear answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), and that answer is a resounding YES!!! The person who helps those in need—and particularly those who help Christian brothers and sisters—will inherit the kingdom. The person who fails to do so will be consigned to fiery punishment. It is as if there will be a single question on the final exam, and that one question will be, “Did you obey the Great Commandment?” “Did you love God and neighbor?” (22:34-40) All eternity depends on the answer (v. 46).
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41b). Fire and brimstone isn’t popular preaching these days, but the fire and brimstone of this judgment scene is no aberration. The immediate context (24:45 ff.) includes three parables of judgment that include images of people being cut into pieces (24:51), locked out (25:10-12), and cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:30). The wider context (chapters 21-25) is full of Jesus’ teachings about judgment.
We are tempted to preach the first part of this text (“Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom”) and to leave the second part (“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire”) untouched. To do so would be irresponsible, because we must warn people of impending danger even as we convey promises of a blessed future. Half-truth is no truth! The Gospel includes both judgment and grace. Judgment necessitates grace. It is only because of the real possibility of punishment that we need grace.
We are also tempted to emphasize the humanitarian aspect of this text and to ignore the judgmental aspect in the hope that people will be more receptive to a positive message than to a negative one. However, “wherever one of these two doctrines—love or judgment—diminishes, the other is diminished” as well (Bruner, 927).
“for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me” (vv. 42-43). These are sins of omission rather than sins of commission. The Son of Man is not condemning them for the sins that come immediately to mind when we hear the word “sin” (such as breaches of the Ten Commandments), but rather for failing to do the acts of kindness that they could have done. The ancient prayer asks forgiveness “for what we have done and what we have failed to do.”
In these verses, Jesus warns us that failure to do good things is as damning as doing bad things. We are reminded of the five foolish bridesmaids who failed to take oil for their lamps, and were therefore denied entry to the wedding party (25:1-12) and the one-talent man who failed to use his treasure for his master’s benefit, and who was cast into the outer darkness (25:24-27). If actions have consequences, so do inactions.
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me'” (v. 45). To appreciate what Jesus is saying here, we have only to think of a father or mother responding to someone who could have saved their child but failed to do so. How would they feel about a teacher who failed to help their child? How would they feel about the police officer who drove by without stopping when their child was in serious peril? How would they feel about a physician who refused to treat their child because of insurance problems?
“These will go away into eternal (Greek: aionion—from aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46). The Greek word aionios means eternal—everlasting—freed from the constraints of time.
There are no gradations of reward or punishment here—it is “in” or “out.” The sharpness of the division is sobering.
This is the last of Jesus’ public teaching in this Gospel, so it would seem that it is the thought that Matthew most wants us to remember.
Christ, in this text and elsewhere, tells us the rules by which the kingdom of God is governed—rules very different from those to which we are accustomed. He tells us that the person who lives by kingdom rules will benefit mightily by that choice.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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