Background and Context- This passage from Matthew is particularly dense with OT references, uses language that has already appeared in earlier Matthean verses (thus already having an contextual meaning), and because of its eschatological setting, invites comparison with other sacred writers, especially, St. Paul. Hence a bit more “context” is needed, or better said, background.
Who is being judged? Our first impression is that this is a general judgment on all humanity. But coming at the end of Matthew’s gospel, one in which the meaning of discipleship was been an important message, we might be tempted to think that this judgment is one upon Christians and not necessarily a general judgment. Who are “all the nations” and who are “the least”? The usual interpretation understands “all the nations” as including all humanity, and “the least” as including people in distress of some kind. Therefore, at the final judgment all humanity is to be judged according to acts of kindness done to poor and suffering people.
But is this what Matthew and his community understood by the story? In Matthew’s Gospel, “nations” and “all the nations” usually refer to people other than Israel (see 4:15; 6:32; 10:5, 18; 12:18, 21; 20:19, 25; 21:43; 24:7, 9, 14; 28:19). In several passages (see 10:40–42; 18:6, 14), the “least brothers” seem to be Christians. If these terms have the same meaning in our gospel passage that they have elsewhere in the Gospel, “all the nations” are the Gentiles who have not explicitly accepted either Judaism or Christianity, and (in a strict interpretation) “the least” are Christians with whom the Gentiles have had some contact. According to this interpretation, the Gentiles will be judged according to acts of kindness done to Christians (see 10:40–42).
Can both be correct understandings? Certainly, but take note of the implications of Gentile (i.e., non-believers) being judged according to the acts of kindness done to Christians; and perhaps to non-Christians?
Either way, the theme of readiness comes to its climax in a vision of the judgment when, in fulfillment of the vision of Dan 7:13–14, the Son of Man is enthroned as judge over “all the nations,” and the great division will take place between those who are ready and those who are not ready. Where readiness was the primary theme, now we find a more explicit statement of the criterion of judgment, in the way people have treated “the least brothers of mine.”
How are they being judged? This passage has traditionally been an embarrassment especially to Protestant readers because it appears to say that one’s final destiny—and nothing could be much more final than “eternal punishment” or “eternal life,” v. 46—depends on acts of good works, a most un-Pauline theology and one which sounds uncomfortably like Pelagianism. Some point out that the righteous don’t earn the kingdom, but they inherit it (v. 34) and that an inheritance is determined by the giver, not the receiver. The verb “to inherit” (kleronomeo) is used only three times in Matthew, with three different objects:
- The meek inherit the earth (5:5)
- Those who have left everything will inherit eternal life (19:29)
- The righteous inherit the kingdom (25:34)
While this addresses strict Pelagianism (pure works-righteousness) it does not address the Matthean emphasis on doing the will of God as the characteristic of God’s people. Some interpreters point out that this is Matthew and not Paul. Just as the preceding parables have told us that the master on his return will praise the slave who has been getting on with the job (24:46) and who has achieved good results (25:21, 23), this too is a call to good works which will be rewarded. The “For” which begins vv. 35 and 42 at least states that these acts of kindness are the evidence that the reward or punishment is deserved; but it may equally be read as stating the actual basis, or at least part of the basis, for the judgment given. That, and one only has to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans to see that Paul also calls for judgment according to works and the good that one does (Rom 2:6-7). St. Paul is no Pelagian, but he surely has something in mind.
But there is one feature of this scene that has led probably the majority of recent interpreters to a different conclusion. The recipients of the acts of kindness are Jesus’ “least brothers,” and what is done to them is done to Him (v. 40). So, is the final judgment concerned not with response to human need in general, but to the need of disciples in particular, and thus indirectly with how people have responded to Jesus himself in the person of the least of my brothers? Has their response to disciples in need been their way of “acknowledging Jesus,” which was presented as the basis of judgment in 10:32–33? That interpretation has a firm foundation in the earlier language of this gospel, which has spoken of true disciples as Jesus’ brothers and sisters (12:46–50; cf. 28:10) and has used the phrase “these little ones” to denote members of the disciple community (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14—note in particular 18:6, “these little ones who believe in me”). In 18:5 we have been told that to welcome one such child in Jesus’ name is to welcome him, and that child becomes the basis for the phrase “these little ones” in the following verses.
Anonymous Christians? It is probably right to read “least brothers” as a description of disciples. But to draw that conclusion does not establish that the “sheep” are commended because their treatment of disciples reveals their positive attitude to Jesus himself. For the striking feature of this judgment scene is that both sheep and goats claim that they did not know that their actions were directed toward Jesus. Each is as surprised as the other to find their actions interpreted in that light. They have helped, or failed to help, not a Jesus recognized in his representatives, but a Jesus incognito. As far as they were concerned, it was simply an act of kindness to a fellow human being in need, not an expression of their attitude to Jesus. They seem closer to what some modern theologians call “anonymous Christians” than to openly declared supporters of Jesus himself.
So it does not seem to be possible to read this passage as expressing a “Pauline” doctrine of salvation through explicit faith in Jesus. A systematic theologian can devise a scheme whereby justification by grace through faith and judgment according to works are together parts of a greater whole, but Matthew is not writing systematic theology, and the present passage brings to its fullest expression his conviction that when the Son of Man comes he will “repay every person according to what they have done.” (16:27) This is the ultimate outworking of the Matthean motif of reward for those who have lived according to the will of God. And that will is here spelled out in terms of the way people have responded to the human needs of “least brothers.”
Sovereignty. The debate about the criterion of judgment, however, theologically important as it is, should not be allowed to distract the reader from what is surely the main thrust of this passage as the climax of the discourse on judgment: its portrayal of the ultimate sovereignty of the Son of Man as the universal judge. This theme has been developed in Matthew especially through the imagery of Dan 7:13–14, and that passage provides the language in which the scene is set in v. 31. The sovereign authority displayed in the judgment on the temple (24:30) now finds its eschatological counterpart in the judgment of all nations (v. 32). The focus on Jesus’ parousia in the preceding part of the discourse from 24:36 to 25:30 encourages the reader to associate this final judgment also with the parousia, as part of the same complex of eschatological motifs, but the scene itself is apparently set, like that of Dan 7:9–14, in the heavenly throne room, to which all people are summoned. There is no indication within this passage of the Son of Man coming to earth, unless that is assumed to be the meaning of the language of Dan 7:13, and we have already seen repeatedly that that is not how the Daniel vision is framed. The word parousia is not used here. The “coming” of v. 31 is no more specifically parousia language than it was in 24:30 and in all the other allusions to Dan 7:13–14; it is the context rather than the wording of this passage which allows the reader to associate this judgment scene with the time of the parousia.