‘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.’
Translation: But when the son of man may come 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 together in front of him, and he will separate them from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep out of his right hand, and the goats out of his left. Then, the king will say to those out of his right hand, "Come, the ones being praised by my father. Inherit the kingdom made ready for you from the throwing down of the universe, for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was suffering thirst and you gave me drink, a stranger to you and you gathered me in, without clothing and you clothed me, without strength and you looked after me, in prison and you came to me."
Then the just will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed (you), or suffering from thirst and gave you drink? When did we see you a stranger and gathered you in, unclad and we clothed you? And when did we see you without strength or in prison and we came to you? And the king will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, just as you did to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
Then he will say to those out of his left hand, "You cursed ones, go away from me into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you did not give me to eat, I was suffering from thirst and you did not give me to drink, I was a stranger and you did not gather me together, unclad and you did not throw clothing around me, without strength and in prison and you did not look after me."
Then, they will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or unclad, or weak, or in prison, and did not serve you?" Then he will answer them saying, "Truly, I say to you, just as you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the just into eternal life."
Background and situation: This parable is the climax of Jesus' teaching ministry in Matthew's gospel. It is the end-piece, and a fitting one, of a teaching which began with the beatitudes in chapter 5. There, Jesus began by pronouncing blessing on the despised and bereft, and now closes by announcing his presence in them. Matthew's passion account begins immediately following this text.
Matthew has been dealing with the problem of delay at least since 24:36, and, arguably, even before that. In the parable of the wise and foolish slave (24:45-51), the foolish slave uses the delay of the master to take advantage by abusing others and getting drunk. In the parable of the ten virgins (25:1-13), the foolish virgins are foolish because they didn't prepare for the delay of the bridegroom. In the parable of the talents (25:14-30), the story begins with "as a man went away."
In the parable of the sheep and goats, the king still has not yet arrived, but we are nonetheless given something of a vision of what will happen when he does. He will arrive accompanied by angels, and will be seen "in his glory" and "on the throne of his glory." These are strong eschatological images.
"Son of humanity": The opening of the story proclaims the coming of "the son of man." The use of the title "son of man" is a connection to the vision of Daniel 7:13: "As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being ('son of man') coming with the clouds of heaven." (The Greek uios tou anthropou should be translated as "son of humanity.")
This "one like a human being" will arrive in full authority: "To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed." (Dan 7:14)
In Daniel, the "son of humanity" reigns over "all nations, peoples, and languages." In Matthew, "all the nations are gathered together in front of him." Matthew's formulation is just as broad as Daniel's, but presents the "son of humanity" less as a traditional monarch and more as a unitive force. In Matthew, all these nations are "gathered together" in his presence.
Parable of the sheep and the goats: This is what Fr. Robert Capon calls a "parable of judgment." Notice that this judgment has nothing to do with "proper thoughts." (The judgment is not made on the basis of theological views.) Nor is it anything to do with "accepting Jesus as my personal savior," an expression found nowhere in the Bible. Nor is it anything related to personal piety, which is curiously prone to idolatry.
The judgment is solely on "the way" (hodos) of discipleship articulated throughout Matthew's gospel, a way marked by the equality of all, open table fellowship, and non-heirarchical living, which is, in turn, a way of living which quite naturally will result in treating all people with dignity, especially the poor.
The one who is great in the kingdom is the servant of all, said Jesus (20: 26-28). Jesus himself leads the way as a servant of the poor. By chapter 25, his identification with the poor is so complete that he is now one of them.
This is why both the sheep and goats say that they were unaware of Jesus' presence in the bereft. The sheep are unaware because, following the way of Jesus, they were not interested in getting something for themselves. They helped the poor for no other reason than to help.
The goats are unaware because they were not educated in "the way." They would happily have helped the poor if they had known Jesus was with them, which they would have known if they'd been paying attention to all the things Jesus has already said and done.
If one is interested in the question of when Jesus is coming, the answer is that Jesus never left, has been here all along, and is present right now in the little, the least, the lone, and the lost.
In liberation theology circles, this is called the "preferential option for the poor," which is supposed to be controversial, but, for the life of me, I can't figure out why. All four gospels state very clearly, in many different ways, that Christ is a friend of the poor, identifies with them, is found with them. It's not for nothing that Jesus was born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family from a hick little town.
We are all goats. We have all been judged and found wanting. Yes, we're all saved by grace, but before we jump too quickly to salvation, we must pass through judgment. Nobody gets off the hook. All of us have participated in the culture and system that walks all over those at the bottom. We are all guilty, and we are all judged.
The one who judges us, however, is also the one who loves us the most, and his judgment is not for the purpose of getting even with us, but is, rather, a judgment in the service of life. All our failures--our "goatness"--will be stripped away. We will truly, and at last, be the people Christ has made us.
The resurrection--the king in "all his glory"--is the culmination of the life and ministry of Jesus. It is God's "yes" to the way of Jesus. The "way" articulated in the sermon on the mount and through all the parables and stories of Jesus, including this final one, is, in the resurrection of Jesus, given the stamp of approval by God. The resurrection means that God vindicates the way of Jesus. This, says God, is what I had in mind all along.
Image: Christ the Pantokrator, Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Denver, Colorado.