The Final Judgement

Last Ord Year A

Matthew 25: 31 46


This reading is not a parable but as J Meier informs us is rather an unveiling of the truth behind chapters 24 and 25: the end time. Remember these chapters contain the teaching about:

  • The destruction of Jerusalem
  • The parable of the ten Bridesmaids
  • The parable of the talents

Meier also helps us focus on the central point: what is the criterion of judgement? In our reading the key idea to keep in mind is: what does it mean to be watchful, ready, and faithful?

Read The Gospel Story by R Cox for an overview of this text.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 31 33

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

These verses open a vast scene before us. They reflect early Judaic concepts. Some rabbinic notes will help us appreciate what our Lord is alluding to:

"Those on the right hand are the just, who study the Law, which is at the right hand of God (Dt 33: 2); those on the left are the wicked, who study riches (Prov 3: 16)." "In those on the right hand righteousness, in those on the left hand guilt, preponderates."

Verse 34

Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world".

Jesus is called King, and welcomes the blessed into his kingdom. He is not talking about just an entry, but about inheritance of the kingdom of God.

Some, here, emphasise being given charge of the kingdom. Others highlight more the privilege and blessing of being citizens of the kingdom. But on what grounds can we receive our inheritance?

Verse 35 and 36

For 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.

What does this mean? Is that all we have to do to receive a full share in the Kingdom of God? For the moment, let's keep with the text before us and read from the "Commentary of the Holy Bible" (Editor: J Dummelow).

Faith in Christ being presumed (for the persons judged are professing Christians), the Judgment proceeds according to works, by which a living is distinguished from a dead faith (Jas 2: 14 26) The absolute Lordship of Christ over the human race is expressed in a very simple yet most emphatic way when it is said that every good deed done to a fellow-creature is a good deed done to Christ, and that at the Last Day all men will be judged according to their attitude to Him.

The rabbis also have some great sayings on charity that deserve to be remembered. 'Whoever exercises hospitality willingly, to him belongs Paradise.'
'To entertain a traveller is a greater thing than to receive a manifestation of the Divine Majesty.' 'Whoever gives a crust to a just person, is as if he had observed the five books of the Law. 'Whoever visits the sick, shall be free from the judgment of Gehenna.' 'Imitate the deeds of God. God clothes the naked (Gn 3: 21); do thou also clothe the naked. God visits the sick (Gn 18: 1), do thou also visit the sick. He consoles mourners (Gn 25: 11), do thou also console mourners.'

A helpful thought to keep in mind is that our Lord himself experienced all six of these deprivations.

Verses 37 39

Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?

When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

We are reminded by John Meier that the elect know they have performed the traditional acts of Mercy, and know that this is pleasing to God. What astounds them is that the King claims they have done all this to him. They therefore enquire as to what he means when he says they have done such things to him. Before we read the King's answer, we should note how our Lord, in telling this story, refers to "the righteous". This is, in fact, the first time in the Greek text they are called "righteous". There is a tendency for some Christians to think of this term as meaning, "the devout, pious, extremely loyal, and morally pure." It does mean these things, but in a secondary way. The word refers primarily to those who do what God wants: to those who obey his will. The righteous, in the Biblical sense of the word, are those who "hear the word of God and keep it"; who constantly listen to him and try their best to put his teaching into practice, i.e. obey. These people treasure the Word of God in their hearts and train themselves to listen to him above all else. These are the righteous who therefore find themselves simply putting into practice daily what echoes in their heart.

Verse 40

The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me".

Herein lies a mystery not even the righteous understand: Jesus has fully identified himself with the poor, the outcast, the oppressed, not just among the fellowship of Christians, but far beyond.

Again, we call on John Meier. In this remarkable passage, Jesus calls all in need his brothers. He therefore rewards deeds of love, wherever performed, for they have been done to him. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Our Lord does not therefore consider them as though done to him, but as being done to him.

He is present in all who suffer any deprivation. We are expected to act accordingly without fanfare or seeking personal gain, and to look upon such actions as normal, everyday behaviour.

Verses 41 43

Then he will say to those on his left "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

For 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, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me".

This is rather alarming. At first reading, the King is here condemning to eternal fire; people who failed to carry out rather minor deeds for him.

Verse 44

They also will answer, lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?

The accused are horrified and believe they are being treated unjustly. "But we never saw you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison. If we had, we would have helped you." They are condemned by their own testimony. The King then adds his final judgement.

Verses 45 and 46

He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me". Then they will go away to eternal punishment but the righteous to eternal life.

The lesson is clear: those who neglect anyone in need of help are failing to do God's will. They are therefore fit company for the devil!

Woe to all sinners, and especially to those who have no pity. It is the man who had no pity who is banished to the fire, for instead of love he put in his heart hatred. This is the sum of all vices, and its chief manifestation is inhumanity'.



Adam Clarke has an interesting sentence: "The man who only sees with eyes of flesh is never likely to discover Christ in the person of a man destitute of the necessities of life".

The converse is also true. Those who see with the eyes of the heart will see human need all about them. They will find it natural to respond without thought of merit or distinction, or any other motive than to provide as best they can for that person. Our Lord, in this passage, has not been talking of doing earth-shattering or heroic deeds for others. These may be required in special circumstances, but he gives priority to our being on the lookout to help one another in the ordinary, everyday experience of life. This is to be the normal gateway into existence on a divine level with our Creator. It is a path within reach of everyone who chooses to take it.

We conclude as we started, with John Meier's question: What does it mean to be watchful, ready, and faithful?

  • To be watchful means to be able to recognise Emmanuel, the Son of Man, in all those in need.
  • To be ready means to be loving towards the Son of Man in those who need help.
  • To be faithful means to translate this love into active service, into concrete acts of mercy.

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