In one of my classes this quarter we’re doing several “interpretative assignments,” which are designed to be observations and questions relating to the text in a less refined form, rather than a complete paper relying on secondary sources. While it’s a little rough, and my ideas may or may not be “right,” I thought I’d post the first assignment, to at least keep this blog alive. ;o)
Matthew 25:31-46 recounts a story told by Jesus, but unlike most of his stories—including many other stories used in Matthew to illustrate the kingdom of God—this one does not appear to be a parable. It is, rather, one of those rare stories in which Jesus seems to talk straightforwardly to his disciples about something. Jesus, of course, has already spoken extensively about the kingdom outside of parables; however, most of these comments have been simple declarations about the kingdom. When Matthew’s Jesus begins to use stories to describe the kingdom in greater detail, the usual formula has been “the kingdom of heaven is like” (Matt 13:24, 31, 33, 45, 47; 20:1) or “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to” (Matt 18:23; 22:2). Occasionally we also see “the kingdom of heaven will be like this” (Matt 25:1) or other constructions, such as the parable of the sower (Matt 13:18-23). However, all of these stories remain parables. As a story explaining the kingdom, this example appears unique in Matthew. Additionally, it is interesting to note that this is the penultimate mention of the kingdom before Jesus’s death. (The last before the crucifixion—and the last in the Gospel—is a brief mention during the Last Supper in Matt 26:29.)
Like Jesus’s parables about weeds (Matt 13:24-30), the fishing net (13:47-50), the ten virgins (Matt 25:1-13), and the talents (Matt 25:14-30), the story about the “sheep” and the “goats” in Matt 25:31-46 is about contrasts and judgment. Group A, is blessed and inherits the kingdom, while Group B is accursed and sent to an eternal fire; the former receives eternal life while the latter receives eternal punishment (Matt 25:34, 41, 46). The basis of the judgment is action—specifically caring for those in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. While Middle Eastern hospitality might encourage kindness to the stranger—at least the stranger of similar or higher social status—concern for these other individuals all would be in opposition to Roman social norms. Additionally, for the vast majority of the population, which was at or just above or below subsistence level, most of these actions would be difficult. How does one care for the hungry, when there’s too little food, already? How does one make time to visit the prisoner when mere survival requires so much work? These expectations set a high standard: righteousness, to this king, requires both intentionality and sacrifice.
It also must be noted that these expectations seem to echo the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5: While this passage focuses on treatment of those of lower status, the Sermon on the Mount itself seems to elevate those of lower status. Apparently it is both those that are lowly themselves and those that stoop down to love those of lower status—despite how it might affect their own stature in the community—that inherit the kingdom. Significantly, the king himself identifies the needy as his own brothers and sisters (Matt 25:40), making the outcast suddenly a member of the royal family. It’s not just that we should remember Jesus when we look in the eyes of the poor, but rather that Jesus has declared that even the poorest individual deserves the respect and care we’d give to someone of even the highest social status.
This judgment occurs “[w]hen the Son of Man comes in his glory” and is seated on his throne. The “Son of Man” is a reference to Daniel 7:13-14 and 8:, which has appears many other times in Matthew. From several of those references, it is clear that Jesus uses the term in a self-referential manner (Matt 20:18 and 26:2, as well as many others, leave little to the imagination). It is interesting that despite all that we often speak about “God’s kingdom,” this passage shows a clear distinction between the Son of Man, who sits on the throne making judgments, and the Father who has blessed the righteous that inherit it (Matt 25:31, 35).
Lastly, it is significant to note some of the specific contrasts that can be made between the righteous and unrighteous in this passage beyond their actions and destinies. The way Matthew phrases the response of the righteous somewhat differently than the response of the unrighteous. While the king says nearly the same thing to each party—one positive, one negative—the righteous respond, asking when they have done any of these things (Matt 25:37-39). The king seems to think they have done them all. On the other hand, the unrighteous seem to ask, “When have we missed doing even one of these things (Matt 25:44). In this way, the way Matthew has portrayed the conversation between these two parties and the king implies that the righteous exude humility, while the unrighteous are quite self-righteous. Another notable difference between these parties is what appears to be God’s intentions for them from the beginning. The Son of Man says that the righteous have been set up to inherit the kingdom from the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34), but the unrighteous are receiving a sentence that was not necessarily intended for them from the beginning. It is, instead, the punishment created for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41), which raises important questions about God’s will, human freedom, and similar topics.