Text: Matthew 25:31-46
This is a very well-known passage – most of us are familiar with the so-called parable of the sheep and the goats. It occupies a strategic position in Matthew’s gospel – it comes at the end of lengthy block of teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples privately, just a couple of days before his crucifixion, and it is in fact the very last piece of formal teaching recorded in this Gospel. It’s a very powerful passage – our Lord speaks in no uncertain terms of final judgement and eternal life and eternal punishment. But it’s also very easy to misread this passage, and to put our own spin on it, according to what we might have preferred or expected Jesus to have said.
Let’s pay particularly close attention to what the text actually says.
v31 – “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.”
This title – ‘the Son of Man’ – is found 28 times in Matthew’s Gospel alone, and on each occasion it is used by the Lord to refer to himself. In fact, it’s his favourite self-designation. There are distinct echoes here of Dan 7, where one like a son of man is ‘given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worship him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’
And, look, this Son of Man will come with all the insignia of divine majesty. He will come in his glory, and all the angels with him. Even though he is about to go to his death, 26:1f. Within two short days he will go in humiliation and hang on his cross, yet he can speak of a time when he will return in glory and sit on his throne.
v32 – “All the nations will be gathered before him” – All the people who have ever lived will be gathered. All the great ones will be there. All the small and seemingly insignificant ones will be there. You and I will be there. Whether we realise it or not, we are all moving towards a final overwhelming encounter with the Son of Man. ‘We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.’ We have a date with destiny.
v32f – “…and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” – In Palestine the sheep and the goats were often kept together, in mixed flocks. Moreover, the sheep were not always the all-white brand that we are used to. The sheep and the goats looked very similar. But the shepherd would know which was which. And this Shepherd will separate them and “will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” There will be not 1 or 3 or 4 or 5, but 2 groups.
v34 – Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father;’. What a wonderful welcome that will be! And they will take their inheritance, the kindom prepared for them since the creation of the world.
v41 But those on the King’s right – the goats – will hear the words, “Depart from me, you who are cursed”. What a terrible banishment that will be! And they will be sent into the eternal fire that was prepared for them(?) – No! – that was prepared for the devil and his angels. They are going to a fate that was never meant to be theirs. They are going to a place that is unfit for human habitation.
And so, v46, They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
But what is the criterion of judgement? On what basis is this division made?
v35f – The king explains to those on his right, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
v42f – The king says to those on his left, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in…”
But they are all mystified. “We have no recollection of this. We never had any opportunity to minister to you personally.” The Lord replies to those on his right, v40, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me”. And he replies to those on his left, v45, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
It is at this point that many readers would dearly like to amend the text. Evangelicals squirm in their seats trying to come up with ways of explaining away a text that seems to teach salvation by works. They wanted the King to say to those on his right: “Come, you are blessed by my Father because you have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour.” Now, I would not say a word against the vital importance of personal faith in Jesus Christ. But that’s not what it says here.
Liberals, too, have their own New Improved Version of this passage.. Ignoring the stuff about final judgement and eternal punishment, they glance at v40 and say gleefully, “This is what we’ve been saying all along. The one thing that counts in the end is compassion for the poor and needy. Care for the sick, the impoverished, and the destitute, and God will accept you, no matter what religion you follow, or, indeed, no matter whether you follow any religion at all.
Again, I would not say a single word against care for the destitute. There is ample teaching throughout Scripture on the need to help the poor of the world. Read Amos and Micah in the OT, and Luke and James in the NT. Look no further at the words and actions of Jesus himself. But, again, that’s not what he’s talking about in this passage.
Look once more at v40 – “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Who are Jesus’ ‘brothers’? In Matthew’s Gospel, this kind of language is only ever used of his disciples. Mt 12:48ff – ‘”Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”‘
So, then, it’s all about how the nations treat the disciples of Jesus Christ.
Our Lord’s followers were shortly to be sent on a mission. “Go and make disciples of all nations”, Mt 28:19. In carrying out that great commission, they would meet many hardships. Jesus has just said, Mt 24:9 – “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” And the experience of the early church bears this out, 1 Cor 4:11 – ‘To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.’
But Jesus had also promised those he sent to the nations, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” And as he goes with them he will regard kindnesses done to them as kindnesses done to himself, and lack of kindness to them as lack of kindess to himself. The message of our passage today, then, is the same as that of Mt 10:40-42 – “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me…and if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”
So the criterion of judgement laid down by this particular passage is not kindness to the needy in general (important though that is), but what kind of response the nations will give to the messengers and ministers and missionaries of Jesus Christ.
If the nations are to be judged with reference to the way they treat Christ’s disciples, how much more should Christ’s brothers and sisters serve one another as if we were serving Christ – as indeed we are?
What a wonderful bond of solidarity between our Saviour and his followers! ‘Christ espouses his people’s cause, and interests himself in their interests, and reckons himself received, and loved, and owned in them. If Christ himself were among us in poverty, how readily would we relieve him? In prison, how frequently would we visit him? Wherever poor saints and poor ministers are, there Christ is ready to receive our kindnesses in them, and they shall be put to his account.’
One of the peculiarities of this passage is that Christ himself makes no explicit application. There is no ‘Therefore do this’ or ‘do that’. The passage is left to speak for itself. And, with reference to our theme of Christian giving, don’t look at me. I’m not going to tell you what to do.
But I will just say this. This passage teaches one clear key concept about giving – giving as a service to Jesus Christ himself. He counts the needs of his people, his ministers and pastors, his evangelists and missionaries, as his own needs. In meeting the needs of the most insignificant of our brothers and sisters in Christ we are doing even more than entertaining angels unawares: we are doing a personal service the Son of Man, to our wonderful Saviour, to Jesus himself.
So let us learn how to serve
and in our lives enthrone him;
Each others’ needs to prefer
for it is Christ we’re serving.