11 May 2013

Matthew 25:31-46

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you at 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.” (vv. 34-36)


The final judgement in today's passage is the climax of Jesus' last discourse in Matthew's Gospel. Whereas parables tend to begin with familiar, earthly situations and move towards the mysterious, this passage begins with the glorious and terrible arrival of the Son of Man and his angels. It then moves to the earthly and ordinary in the ethical tests by which the nations are judged. As such, today's passage is an inversion of the usual parable pattern. It is the last parable before Jesus is arrested.

In today's passage the Christ is identified personally with each hungry or naked person, prisoner or foreigner. The judgement of the Son of Man is very much in line with the ethical thrust of the law and prophets: what God requires is not confession of faith or perfect ritual. God requires the breaking of the yoke of oppression, justice for workers and hospitality to foreigners and the vulnerable (eg Isaiah 58:6-12 where the prophet speaks of a 'true fast' in these terms).

But like every parable this one is not just an allegory for ethical behaviour. It cannot be turned into a generalised humanitarian charter. Nor does it argue that good works alone can save.

It is right to serve the vulnerable not for their own sake, but because in so doing one serves Christ. Readers are taught to identify Jesus with the world's suffering in each hungry, thirsty, naked, foreign, or imprisoned person. This identification cannot help but associate the passion Jesus will suffer with the suffering of the world: Jesus joins the rejected and emerges victorious over the sin of their pain and exclusion.

The climactic judgement in today's passage puts ordinary actions and people at the heart of Jesus' self-sacrifice. The angels and Son of Man descending to earth in their terrible glory are not concerned with temples or palaces any more than the baby Jesus was at his birth. The Son of Man is concerned with sacrificial love and everyday acts of kindness. This self-sacrifice is then become the pattern for Christian living, and dying.

To Ponder

  • How far do you find this parable encouraging? And how far not?
  • With whom do you identify in this parable?
  • How well do you think the Church does in speaking about God's judgement?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

Revd Dr Jennifer Smith is a Methodist minister, and superintendent of the Ealing Trinity Circuit in the London District. Though resident in the UK since 1993, she is a US citizen and continues to observe US political and religious culture with interest.