“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)
Matthew is alone among the Gospel writers in giving a description of the last judgment, though “such judgement-scenes as this occur frequently in Jewish literature of about the time of Christ” (Henry Wansbrough OSB, “St Matthew” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginald C Fuller et al, London: Nelson, 1969, 948).
The background to this “vision” of the final judgement is Dan 7:13–14: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (ESV).
This judgement scene comes after three parables about preparing for the coming of the Son of Man.
Daniel Harrington argues that the focus of this judgement scene is the wider Gentile community rather than the Christian community as such, though it has obvious relevance for the latter. It therefore addresses the question: How are Gentiles to be saved? “The Matthean version of the judgment of the Gentiles (25:31–46) departs from the usual emphasis on the relationship between Matthean Christians and other Jews. It acknowledges the presence of non-Jews who were not Christians and tries to explain how and why such persons can be part of God’s kingdom. How? By acts of mercy to Christians. Why? Because such acts are done to the Son of Man/King (see Matt 10:40–42). This interpretation is sometimes rejected because it leaves Matt 25:31–46 with little relevance for contemporary ethics or homiletics. My response is that the usual or traditional interpretation deals with the wrong problem: the value of good works for the poor and needy at the final judgment. The right problem is: By what criterion can non-Jews and non-Christians enter God’s kingdom? The value of good works is treated in many biblical texts. Matt 25:31–46 is one of the very few texts that deals with the salvation of Gentiles. That makes it a precious resource for dealing with what is a major theological issue in the late twentieth century” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 359-360).
Son of man: “A Semitic expression that typically individualizes a noun for humanity in general by prefacing it with ‘son of’, thus designating a specific human being, a single member of the human species. Its meaning can be as indefinite as ‘someone’ or ‘a certain person’. Used in Dan 7:13–14 to describe a cloud-borne humanlike figure, the expression—or at least the figure so designated in Daniel—became traditional in some forms of Jewish and early Christian speculation which anticipated a transcendent eschatological agent of divine judgment and deliverance. In the NT that agent is almost universally identified with the risen Jesus” (G W E Nickelsburg, “Son of Man” in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 137).
“In this section (of Matthew’s Gospel) ‘Son of Man’ is also found in Mt. 24:27, 37, 39, 44 (all of which refer to his future coming). Angels are associated with the Son of Man earlier in 13:41; 16:27. And the latter of these also has ‘in the glory’ (but continuing ‘of his Father’, not with ‘of him’—giving ‘his glory’—as in 25:31) and a coming. A future coming of the Son of Man is found earlier in 10:23; 16:27 once more; and 25:28” (J Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, FN 211, 1024).
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats: Sheep and goats were commonly kept together. However, at night they were separated because the goats need to be kept warm during the night. The sheep thrive in the open, cooler air. The sheep are also more valuable.
the king: Matthew refers to “the king” twice in this Gospel. It is fair to assume this is in fact a reference to Jesus the Messiah. He has already made this same reference in 1:1, 20; 2:2, 13–14 and will make it again – with irony – in the passion narrative – see 27:11, 29, 37, 42. There will be no hiding this kingship at the end however, “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”.
inherit the kingdom: John the Baptist proclaimed “the kingdom” (Matthew 3:2); the devil shows Jesus the alternate kingdoms of the earth (see Matthew 4:8) and Jesus rejects them – his kingdom is of a different kind, it demands metanoia (see Matthew 4:17); Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming this kingdom (see Matthew 4:23); he promises the kingdom to those who are “poor in spirit” (see Matthew 5:3) and those “who are persecuted” (see Matthew 5:10); the disciples are encouraged to pray, “your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus, through life, death and resurrection, opens the possibility of a new way of being, the way God wants things, where love triumphs over hatred, truth over the lie, generosity over selfishness, good over evil. This is the kingdom and it is possible because of Jesus and only because of Jesus!
for I was hungry and you gave me food: This list of actions, where Jesus is encountered, is repeated four times. It is important! Personal responsibility and accountability is implied here.
Our understanding of today’s Gospel – the so-called Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) – may be more influenced by Michelangelo than Matthew. In 1536, twenty-five years after he completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo began painting the fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar in the same chapel. It took four years and contains the depiction of some 300 individuals, mostly being saved or damned. Jesus looks more like a Greek God than a carpenter from Galilee. The faces of most of the individuals – even the saved – are full of tension and anxiety. Is Michelangelo’s depiction the only or the best possible interpretation of Matthew’s text?
That Matthew has not set out to depict in detail what is going to happen at the Last Judgment, can be concluded from the fact that “like other speeches of Matthean composition, (the eschatological discourse in chapters 24 & 25) has internal tensions and tensions with other teachings of Jesus in Matthew” (“The Gospel of Matthew” by M Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Volume VIII), Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 457). For example, Matthew tells us, on the one hand, that the Parousia (ie the return of Jesus) will be preceded by clear signs (24:3 & 5:33) and, on the other hand it will come without warning (24:37 & 44) (Ibid). The same commentator gives other examples.
So what might Matthew be saying in this text? Firstly, it is a depiction of Jesus as the Christ. He is the anointed of God, he has conquered sin and death. He reigns! Secondly, there is a Greek expression used by Matthew here – panta ta ethnē – which is generally translated as “all the nations”. However, it is clear that, when Matthew uses this expression throughout the Gospel – some thirteen times (see 4:15; 6:32; 10:5, 18; 12:18, 21; 20:19, 25; 21:43; 24:7, 9, 14; 28:19) – he is referring to “the Gentiles” (see Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 356). That is certainly a possible translation here – maybe even the better translation. If we accept this translation, then we may be led to a very different understanding of Matthew’s Last Judgment.
Our typical interpretation of this text focuses on the rewards given by God to those who have cared for the poor and needy. Given the context within which Matthew’s Gospel is written, an alternative interpretation might focus on the question: How do Gentiles – including non-Christians – get into the kingdom? This question has its roots in a debate amongst Jewish teachers of the time. There was already scholarly discussion in the Jewish community of how God might deal with the Gentiles. Matthew’s answer is that it is not theological orthodoxy or even belief in Jesus but loving actions that qualify one for entry into the kingdom. ‘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.’ Matthew, understood in this way, perhaps has more to say to us today than Michelangelo?