The text for Sunday, December 30 is Matthew 25:31-46 – a story we often refer to as “the judgment of the nations,” and the main referent of the phrase “the sheep and the goats.” Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is a story in Matthew’s gospel. We might recall that Matthew:

(1) it seems to have been written for a Jewish audience; shows Jesus in the context of the Judaism of his day, as a teacher or rabbi – a wisdom figure; portrays Jesus emphatically and explicitly as the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture;

(2) has a distinctive structure, with narrative portions separated by long sections of teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount). Our text is the concluding conclusion to one of these teaching sections. The theme is last things. Depending on how we divide the text, Jesus’ discourse begins either with a pronouncement of woes on the Pharisees and on Jerusalem (chapter 23), or with the list of signs of the end times (24:4 and following), leading up to the warning to be watchful. The teaching moment ends with three stories that all shed light on what it means to be watchful and what characterizes those who will be admitted to the realm of eternal life and those who will be excluded: the wise and foolish bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the judgment of the nations.

This makes the story of the judgment of the nations the last story Jesus tells before the events of holy week recorded in chapters 26-28.

The setting for the eschatological discourse is the Mount of Olives. Maybe there is some foreshadowing going on here, because this is where Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26:50.

The disciples have come to Jesus “privately” for this teaching (Matthew 24:3), so they are the audience for our text. Except insofar as we are the audience.

The image of the shepherd separating sheep and goats apparently would have been familiar to Jesus’ first-century Judean audience, because it would have been a common practice to pasture sheep and goats together in a mixed flock, and to periodically cull out the little male kids from that flock. That would make the kids – the goats – the ones destined for sale or slaughter, which would make them a ready analog for those citizens of the “nations” who are heading off for eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). [See Ian Paul on “What did Jesus have against goats?”]

When the word nations comes up in the Hebrew Bible, we usually read it as “gentiles,” at least implicitly. Why would we not do the same thing here, in this most Jewish of all the gospels? What else does “the nations” mean in this context? Nevertheless, I’ve read arguments that we ought to think these are all the nations, including Israel. There’s precedent: the nation of Israel seems to be included in the “all peoples, nations and languages” who will serve the “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7:14, who is presumably the model, or one of the models, for the Son of Man in this story. What we decide to think here will probably affect what we think Jesus means by “the least of these, my brethren” in verse 40, and “the least of these” in 45.

Jesus and his audience might have been familiar with the idea of eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels from 1 Enoch 10:13. [See the USCCB’s notes on this text.]

CLOSER READING: The setting for the story is the throne-room of the Son of Man who has come in his glory with all the angels. So we have end times, the Son of Man from Daniel 7, the Lord Sabaoth/Lord of Hosts from various places in Hebrew scripture, and all of this on earth. It’s a daunting and portentous opening to the story.

“All the nations” – we have to consider whether we think this is just “the nations” as opposed to Israel, or all the nations including Israel – will be gathered before him. The Greek verb translated as “gathered” in verse 32 is a common one, but it has special associations for us, because it is the verb that gives us the word “synagogue” (which is, of course, a gathering place). The verb can also mean something like “welcome in as a guest,” which is exactly how it is used in verse 35, 38, & 43. So here’s a word that is significant by virtue of its repetition, and its associations, and its possible irony or at least double meaning in verse 32: are these nations simply being gathered, or are they being welcomed? Or can they, perhaps, hope this is a gathering that will be a welcoming?

The separation in v32 begins with the Son of Man acting like a shepherd separating sheep and goats. We should probably notice a couple of things about this:

(1) if this were actually a case of separating sheep and goats, it would be a very simple and obvious procedure. We, who don’t know a lot about sheep and goats, could probably do it, and not make any mistakes. It would be easier than pulling all the “edge” pieces out of the pile of puzzle pieces when we start making a puzzle. It would be as easy as separating dogs from cats or the white chess pieces from the black ones. [Note (added 12.28.18): apparently I shouldn’t have been so darn sure of myself when I wrote this. According to at least a couple of sources, the sort would have been a lot harder in the 1st century than it is today, and even today it can be hard enough to befuddle people.]

(2) it doesn’t seem to be clear to the people themselves who is who. The clarity is on the side of the Son of Man, to whom the criterion for the sorting process seems to be starkly obvious.

The Son of Man is the king (vv34, 40), who is addressed as Lord by the people (vv37, 44). So, the one in command, the ruler.

The sheep on the ruler’s right hand are blessed by my Father (v34) and the righteous (v37, 46); those on the left are simply accursed (v41). We might expect them to be “unrighteous,” but the text never describes them this way; they are just “these.” Maybe they aren’t particularly unrighteous.

Is these people’s behavior the cause of their blessedness, and their accursedness? Or is it a result? That is, are people who are blessed by the king’s Father thereby made capable of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, and so on? We could reach either conclusion on the basis of this text.

The litany of hungry … thirsty … a stranger … naked … sick … in prison repeats four times, with slight variations, getting more compressed with repetition.

Neither the blessed/righteous nor the accursed recall having interacted with this king in this way (vv37-39, v44). There are a couple of things we could think about this: that they don’t recognize this king/Lord; or that they don’t recognize him as someone they’ve ever specifically seen in a needy posture or interacted with in that condition. I don’t think we can conclude from their calling him “Lord” in vv37 & 44 that they already know him, because if someone shows up with angels, sits on a throne and orders us around, we would probably call that person “Sir” or “Your Highness” even if we’d never seen him before in our lives, and that could be happening here.

There is a lot of discussion about verse 40, and who are the least of these who are members of my family. Possibly because it seems to be a matter of eternal life and death to be clear on their identity. Presumably, if we see one of these least, we want to know it, and we want to take the appropriate righteous action, because we want to be the sheep, not the goats. Assuming we are members of “the nations,” that is.

Because it’s not entirely clear that we should assume that whoever is “my brethren” or “members of my family” are part of this gathering of the nations. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the nations were whoever were not the members of the family?

So on the argument that “the least of these members of my family” refers to Christians, or specifically to Christian missionaries like the disciples who were sent out to preach the gospel in Matthew 10 and are the ones who do the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven in Matthew 12:46-50 and are commissioned in Matthew 28, then this judgment would not seem to apply to Christians, but to apply to other people, making this a story about what is going to happen to people in the future depending on how they treat Jesus’ needy disciples in the present. [This is a popular argument, with a long tradition behind it, and with a lot to recommend it.]

It’s not entirely clear that how the nations treat Jesus’ non-needy disciples is pertinent.

However, it may be that Jesus won’t have any non-needy disciples. Maybe this is a story for the disciples, who are being told that they will be hungry and thirsty and strange and naked and sick and in prison as members of Jesus’ family, but that some people will show them kindness in those trials, although others will ignore them. The fact that Jesus seems to be telling this story to the disciples, privately, might nudge us in the direction of this reading.

What we will inevitably wonder about ourselves in light of this reading if we are not hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick and in prison may trouble us.

If we think “the nations” are the gentiles, and Jesus’ family members are Jews, which some people do, then this becomes a story about how we gentiles will be judged by our treatment of the Jews, making it a fairly discouraging story, at least from a historical standpoint. Since the missionary disciples to whom Jesus was speaking privately were Jewish at that point and hadn’t begun to think about being anything different, this doesn’t seem that far-fetched a reading, either.

Alternatively, we might think “the nations” are simply everyone in the world, including Christians. That is how I learned to read this story in church, although it turns out this way of reading the text is relatively new, from around the middle of the 19th century. This reading makes this a story about how we people [including Christians] will be charitable if we know what’s good for us. Or if we are blessed by God. Which might be the same thing.

Whether on this reading “the nations” includes “the least” seems a little unclear. It seems wrong to think that “the least” would themselves turn out to be among those on Jesus’ left hand. But it seems equally difficult to assume that the hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick and imprisoned are automatically among the righteous. Perhaps they stand outside this particular separation process. Or perhaps the hungry, thirsty, strange, naked, sick and imprisoned are simply the members of Jesus’ family.

Personally, I am more stuck on the fact that whoever these people are before the Son of Man on the throne of glory, they do not know where they belong. Everyone is surprised. Everyone questions the ruling. Whatever they did or didn’t do, they were unaware of its importance to the king in the story, and ultimately of its importance to their own eternal future.

Should we or should we not consider ourselves forewarned?


Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew