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Matthew 25:31-46

Lesson Focus Those who will find themselves invited into God’s eternal kingdom are those who have properly expressed their love for God through their love and care for their neighbor, especially “the least of these.”

Learning Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Recognize the importance of expressing love for God through practical care for the vulnerable, understanding the criteria for inclusion in God's eternal kingdom from Matthew 25:31-46.

  2. Identify Jesus as the ultimate authority in the final judgment, reflecting on the significance of service to the marginalized as service to Christ himself.

  3. Grasp the deeper significance of the parable, understanding the interconnectedness of faith, morality, and compassionate action towards the marginalized in preparation for the kingdom's arrival.

Catching up on the Story Over the last few weeks, we have been heading toward some kind of statement from Jesus concerning final things. The coming of ‘The Son of Man’ has been highlighted in the previous three parables. The theme that runs through each of these preceding parables is preparedness for when the Messiah fully and finally comes. Each parable highlighted, in a different way, what it means for those who belong to the Kingdom to be ready for the master's return.

This week’s passage forms the end of Jesus’ sermon on preparedness for the end of the world. This passage also moves away from parables as the dominant literary form. While this week’s passage has often been referred to as a parable, it is not. We have a depiction of the last judgment taught by and featuring none other than Jesus himself.

The Text Notice the beginning of the passage. It starts not with a formulaic saying about comparing the kingdom of heaven to this or to that but with a solid and referential “when.” This “when” also connects today’s passage with the preceding three parables about preparedness. When the master arrives from being away (25:45-51), the groom arrives at the wedding (25:1-13), and when the master comes to check on what we have done with the money we have been given to invest (25:14-30), that will be the time when the Son of Man will come in glory to sit on his throne of glory.

Throughout Matthew, Jesus has referred to himself as “The Son of Man.” In fact, Jesus' words in 25:31 are almost verbatim of 16:27. The role of the Son of Man in this passage, as well as that of the king (v. 34) and Lord (v. 37), is played by Jesus himself. The Father will gather all nations to Jesus for the final judgment. At this point, we cannot forget that Jesus and the Father are one. The glory that Jesus displays is the glory of the Father. The judgment that Jesus issues is the judgment of the Father. Jesus will continue to exercise his role as a servant even while the Father glorifies him for his obedience (see Phil. 2:6-1).

All nations will be gathered together on this last day of judgment. The resurrection of the dead will not just include those who have believed but will include those who, by word or deed done or undone, have rejected Christ. Absolutely everyone will be there, an image that defies our imagination as we attempt to visualize all those who have lived, past and present, standing before Jesus on his throne.

Sorting and separating the resurrected will begin immediately. Jesus, who is sitting on his glorious throne, will place the goats on his left-hand side while the sheep will be placed on his right side. The phrase “all nations” might lead us to believe that the separation that is taking place is between nations. Certainly, for some in Israel, this might have been what was expected. Rather, as the passage unfolds, we will see that the separation is more likely individual in nature.

Jesus tells us that the resurrected will be separated as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. There are a few reasons why a shepherd might separate sheep and goats. First, goats might have been separated from the flock at night because of their inability to handle colder temperatures. Or, they might have been separated because of the different nature of hair and wool. Goat hair can be used to make textiles in the same way as sheep wool can. The story does not stand on the reason sheep and goats might be separated, only that they are.

The sheep, Jesus tells us, will be placed on his right-hand side. The right hand was considered the hand of power and prestige. To sit at one’s right side at a banquet was a place of honor. Thus, the sheep are brought to Jesus’ right-hand side as a way of indicating their place of honor and reward at the final judgment. While normally, the left-hand side was still a place of honor, as the story continues, it becomes clear that the left-hand side for the goats is worse than just second best.

As quickly as the imagery of the sheep and goats appears, it is gone. The Son of Man will no longer be a shepherd but a judge and king. In verse 34, the king is one and the same as Jesus. He will now address those he has separated, starting with those on his right. Jesus invites those on his right to come and inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for them from the foundation of the world.

Jesus begins by inviting those on his right to enter the kingdom prepared for them since the beginning of time. Clearly, God has had a plan for his creation from the very beginning. This is not predestination, as our Calvinist friends would understand it. God’s intention, even before the fall of humanity, was that his creation would live with him in unbroken, unmediated fellowship. It has always been God’s plan that all of us end up with God fully and finally. Those on Jesus’ right are invited into the kingdom of heaven to take up residence because they have faithfully prepared themselves. In short, they have responded rightly. As the parable of the Wedding Guest (22:1-11) teaches us, we are all invited, but not all get to stay because of their lack of preparedness.

Jesus then explains to the resurrected on his right why they get to inherit the kingdom. They inherit the kingdom because when Jesus was hungry, they gave him food; when he was thirsty, they gave him water; when he was a stranger in a strange place, they offered him hospitality. Additionally, they gave Jesus clothing when he was naked and visited him when he was sick and in prison.

As Jesus calls them, the righteous are flabbergasted at Jesus’ words. They wonder out loud when they did those things for Jesus. Jesus responds with a statement that should give us pause when we take time to consider it fully. In doing these things for the least of Jesus’ brothers or sisters, those deeds were done for Jesus!

The language here in chapter 25 is similar to Jesus’ discussion of the lost sheep in Matthew 18. At the beginning of that chapter, Jesus is asked who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by saying that unless you become like a child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. We often assume that this means that we must have child-like faith. That’s not what Jesus is getting at here. Rather, Jesus uses the image of a child to illustrate those who are lowly and least in society. Indeed, children were not valued in the same way as we value children today. They were little more than property. True greatness, Jesus insists, belongs to the least of these in society. The shepherd's call is to go after the least of those who wander off from the flock. We often understand the parable of the lost sheep to be about salvation in a spiritual sense. And while it should spur us on to evangelize those who need to hear the good news about Jesus, it has concrete physical forms of spreading God’s good news in mind as well.

Jesus will not change his mind concerning greatness and the needs of the least of these in his kingdom between the events of Matthew 18 and the end of the world! If we look at this week’s passage in the light of the last few parables, our preparedness is measured by how well we looked after the least of these. Jesus informs the righteous that as they have loved their neighbor, the least of these, they have loved God!

The list itself is not comprehensive, but it is concrete and physical. All of the actions performed by the righteous deal with a person’s sense of wholeness and well-being. Food, clothing, and water are essential to our survival as creatures. So, too, is our need to be accepted and cared for within the context of community. We cannot be fully human unless we participate in a community where there is love and acceptance. Because of this, Jesus highlights hospitality for those who are sick and in prison. Sickness, as it does today, places a person on the margins of society. Those in prison were often in need of physical assistance as well. While the state provided the housing for its prisoners, it was up to the prisoner’s family or friends to provide them with food and water. Not only was isolation a problem for prisoners, but so was starvation and death.

Another important aspect needs to be kept in mind. Jesus’ social world was built around reciprocity, honor, and shame. One might hold a banquet and invite the important persons of the town to be a guest in hopes not only that they would attend but also that the invitation might be reciprocated at a later date. Being invited as a guest to someone’s house was an honor. In the same way, it would have disgraced a house for an invitation to be rejected. To do something for someone who could not possibly return the favor was unheard of. Jesus, by highlighting the service done to the least of these, is highlighting the righteous’ disregard for the system of reciprocity. Furthermore, they are shocked when they receive a reward, an invitation to the kingdom, for the care they have shown for the least of these. In other words, the value of the righteous’ service did not depend on the value of those served.

Jesus then turns from his right to his left. While he had gracious words to speak to the righteous resurrected on his right, he has only words of condemnation for those on his left. Those on the left, as with those on the right, wonder why they are being told to depart into eternal punishment. While the righteous resurrected ones did not realize that their actions had been an expression of their love for God, the ones on the left have failed to realize that they have not properly shown love for God. They have failed to care for the least of these, which is also a failure to care for and love Jesus himself. In the context of the current discourse in Mathew, we are left to wonder if the ones on the left are the religious leaders in Israel. They had placed their faith in keeping the exact letter of the law while neglecting those who matter most to God. See Matthew 23:23-24. Either way, it is not just those who are in religious leadership who fall into the trap of religious legalism while neglecting the least of these.

The judgment that Jesus pronounces on both groups is final. The reward will be eternal citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. The punishment will be eternal as well. Those who have not exercised their love for God through love for their neighbor will be given eternal citizenship in the place that had been prepared for the devil and his angels.

So What? From this passage and the passages that go before it, it might be easy to see an emphasis placed on care for the poor over strict adherence to Christian belief or morality. Indeed, some have, in the history of Christianity, overemphasized care for the poor at the expense of morality and faith. At the same time, however, there have been those who have emphasized morality or even faith at the expense of concrete care for the poor. While Jesus is making a profound case for what it means to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Matthew’s Jesus is not abandoning morality or belief.

Where we get into trouble is when we swing too far one way. The religious leaders in Israel had swung toward strict adherence to the law and so neglected to express their love for God through their love for their neighbor. Jesus is clear that those who do not express their love for God through their love for their neighbor, especially their unimportant and helpless neighbor, will not find a place in God’s eternal kingdom, regardless of how pure they lived.

Of course, the converse is true as well. We cannot only exercise care for the least of these at the expense of acting morally or believing rightly. As we live ethically and morally upright lives, as we affirm proper beliefs, as Jesus and the Apostle Paul will urge us to do, we are actually being shaped and formed (hopefully!) into people who will more readily express our love for God through our love and care for our neighbor.

We, like Jesus’ original hearers, like the community that Matthew has written his gospel for, are waiting for Christ to return to finally and fully usher in God’s kingdom. The questions that lingered for those communities linger for us: will we be prepared for his coming? And what does it look like to be prepared for his coming? Matthew has given us solid answers to those questions. We will be prepared for the coming of Christ and his kingdom if we have used the gifts God has entrusted us with and expressed our love for God through our love and care for our neighbor, especially our vulnerable and unimportant neighbors.

Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Matthew's last three parables have prepared us for the final scene in Jesus’ teaching. Go back and review Matthew 24:45 through 25:30. What are the common themes that run through these parables? How is it that Jesus might be preparing us for this final judgment scene?

  2. Who is the one doing the sorting in this passage? What might this say about Jesus’ status and authority in heaven and earth?

  3. Why do you think the righteous are surprised when Jesus tells them they had provided him with food, water, and clothing when they had done those things for the least of these? How does Jesus’ list of activities help us see what is important to Jesus?

  4. In the list of the ‘least of these,’ which category of people is most neglected in our society? Is there another category you would add to the list of the ‘least of these?’

  5. Reflecting on the historical context, how might the societal perception of status and worth have clashed with Jesus' emphasis on caring for the marginalized? In what ways did his teachings challenge the prevalent hierarchy of importance, and how does this message resonate with present-day societal structures?

  6. Reflecting on Jesus' identification with the marginalized, what implications arise from the notion that serving the vulnerable equates to serving Jesus himself? How does this understanding reshape our perception of Christian service and devotion?

  7. The passage mentions eternal punishment for those who neglect caring for the marginalized. Explore the interpretations of this concept within different theological frameworks. How does this idea align with various perspectives on God's justice and mercy?

  8. How can local communities and churches practically embody the principles highlighted in Matthew 25:31-46? Discuss specific strategies that can be implemented to actively engage in caring for the marginalized and vulnerable in our immediate surroundings.

Works Cited John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).