“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer 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.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 – NRSV)
1. Over the last millennium, four solemnities have been introduced into Ordinary Time. Because they focus on Jesus Christ, they are called Solemnities of the Lord. They are the feasts of the Trinity, Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart and Christ the King. The last owes its origin to Pope Pius XI. In his Encyclical Letter Quas primus of December 11, 1925, he develops the idea that the most effective weapon against the destructive forces of the age is the acknowledgement of the kingship of Christ.
2. For an understanding of the expression ‘Son of Man’ we must go to Daniel 7:13-14. In a yet to be published manuscript, Frank Moloney writes: “In the Gospels, Jesus regularly points forward to his oncoming death and resurrection in texts that have come to be known as “passion predictions” (see Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34; Matt 16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17–19; 26:2; Luke 9:22, 43b–44; 18:31–33; John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32–33). In every one of these ‘predictions’ of Jesus’ death and resurrection he speaks of himself as ‘the Son of Man’. It is possible that the words reported in Luke 9:44, ‘The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men’ (see also Mark 9:31) might reach back to words Jesus spoke to his disciples. Jesus was aware that his preaching of the coming of God’s reign and the radical manner in which he connected what he was doing with the will of the God of Israel, whom he called ‘Father,’ could lead to a tragic end to his life. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is a certain historical fact. Was he aware that such an end was looming? For instance, his use of the expression ‘the Son of Man’ might have explained to himself and others why he persevered in this dangerous ministry. The risks were great, but why would anyone look forward in hope and faith despite the likelihood of an ignominious death?”
3. The judgment scene here comes after three parables about preparing for the coming of the Son of Man. In those parables, all the participants know that the Son of Man is coming but they fail to “stay awake” (see Matthew 25:13). Daniel J Harrington notes: “If these parables are traced back to Jesus, their audience was Jewish – with some division made between Jews who were prepared for the Son of Man’s coming and Jews who were not prepared.” (The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 358)
4. The story of the judgment scene might then be addressing an extension of the audience to “the Gentiles” who will judged on whether or not they have shown mercy to the Son of Man present in the “one of the least of these who are members of my family”.
Superficially, Matthew’s judgment scene invites a simple reward-punishment interpretation. Michaelangelo’s vivid Sistine Chapel portrayal of this Gospel scene – together with many bad sermons – has given impetus to the simple reward-punishment interpretation. That simple – perhaps simplistic would be a better word – interpretation should be avoided. If we are simplistic here we will fall prey to moralism and the temptation to motivate people – or control people – by fear. Untold damage has been done to too many people following this line of thinking.
We can take this Gospel as a statement primarily for a group of people who were struggling to see how “the Gentiles” could become part of the Kingdom. Their belonging to the Christian community is recognized by their acts of mercy to the followers of Jesus. Such acts are done to the Lord himself.
But the essential message can apply to more than “the Gentiles”. It is easily applicable to anyone who shows mercy to anyone else because in this new dispensation the Son of Man has identified with the whole human family.
This is a radical new and transforming message: Whatever you do to anyone is done to the Lord! Jesus Christ has identified himself with me!
St Paul sums it well when he says, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).
Thomas Merton points us in the right direction when he writes: “But indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany.” [“A Letter on the Contemplative Life” in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master – The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S Cunningham, Paulist Press, 1992, 421-431.]
Our acts of mercy – or compassion, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and so on – are not ours. They are other names for God who is in the world through us.
Meister Eckhart’s advice is sound: “Get out of the way and let God be God in you”. [Meister Eckhart in Raymond Blakeney, translator, Meister Eckhart, Harper Torchbooks, 1941, 127.]
“Do all you do, acting from the core of your soul, without a single ‘Why.’ I tell you, whenever what you do is done for the sake of the Kingdom of God, or for God’s sake, or for eternal blessing, and thus really for ulterior motives, you are wrong. You may pass for a good person but this is not the best. For, truly, if you imagine you are going to get more out of God by means of religious offices and devotions, in sweet retreats and solitary prayers, than you might by the fireplace and in the stable, then you might just as well think you could seize God and wrap a mantle around his head and stick him under the table!” [Meister Eckhart in Raymond Blakeney, translator, Meister Eckhart, Harper Torchbooks, 1941, 127.]