Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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).
“Like other speeches of Matthean composition, this discourse has internal tensions and tensions with other teachings of Jesus in Matthew. The parousia will both be preceded by clear signs (24:3, 5-33) and come without warning (24:37-44); oaths, including swearing “by heaven,” are presumed to be legitimate, despite earlier teaching to the contrary (23:22 vs 5:34); Jesus himself calls others “fools” (23:17), despite the strict prohibition of 5:22. The Pharisees’ teaching (but not their deeds) is to be accepted (23:1-13), despite 16:11. Some of these tensions may be made more understandable (though not made consistent) by appreciating Matthew’s task of incorporating traditions of various origins in his Gospel. He wanted to preserve both the Q apocalypse (Luke 17:20-36) and the Markan one (13:5-37), even though the former understood the parousia to come without signs and the latter gave explicit signs by which its nearness could be recognized. Each way of conceiving of the last days had value, and Matthew respected both of them as part of his sacred tradition, preserving both as witnesses to the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, despite their inconsistencies. As a teacher of Christian scribal wisdom, Matthew had less respect for logical consistency and more appreciation for imaginative, provocative sayings than many of his modern interpreters. … Exegetical ingenuity should not be strained to make Matthew more consistent than he was interested in being, or in fact was” (M Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 8, Nashville Abingdon Press, 1995, 457).
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).
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 for the care of others – especially the downtrodden – is the very heart of Christian discipleship.
Doorways to hope
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 25:31-46 – we have an account of the last judgment. A scholar notes: “Such judgment-scenes as this frequently occur 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). Matthew’s Gospel emerged about 40-45 years after the death of Jesus. Jerusalem and the Second Temple, had just been destroyed by the Romans. After nearly four years of a Jewish insurgency, the Romans laid siege to the city in an attempt to starve the Jews out. Then, about the Passover of 70CE, they breached the walls of the city and massacred anyone left alive. The current Wailing Wall – part of the original Western Wall of the city – continues as a reminder to the Jews and others, of what was.
There were also serious tensions within the Jewish community at that time. One source of tension concerned the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Was he really the Christ?
Amidst the chaos, anxiety, and sheer terror, Matthew addresses that question. He combines sometimes apparently conflicting details from different sources. This will affect the way we read his Gospel: “As a teacher of Christian scribal wisdom, Matthew had less respect for logical consistency and more appreciation for imaginative, provocative sayings than many of his modern interpreters. … Exegetical ingenuity should not be strained to make Matthew more consistent than he was interested in being, or in fact was” (M Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 8, Nashville Abingdon Press, 1995, 457).
Matthew proclaims the triumph of the kingdom of God. When this kingdom is revealed in its fullness, the “Son of Man” will reign over “all the nations”. Significantly, the key to this kingdom where God reigns is not doctrine or law but care for each other, especially the downtrodden, the hungry, the imprisoned, and the stranger. This is not the proclamation of some kind of utopia where everybody is nice to everybody else. This is God’s kingdom, Gods creation, not ours. The life of this kingdom is the life of God. The caring for each other in this kingdom is the expression par excellence of our participation in God’s very being.
Is it not an intuition, normal to human beings, that we should care for each other? Is it not reasonable that we are held accountable for this? Any of us may at times be guilty of intolerance, prejudice, even hatred or violence. But only the truly pathological will be unwilling or unable to acknowledge there is a violation of our humanity in that, and we are responsible for it. Love and life are of God. Love is our lifeblood. Hatred is death.
Being held to account and judged – by our own conscience or others – is what saves humanity from slipping into the abyss. Judgment and accountability are doorways to hope.