31 But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
37 Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
41 Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
45 And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”
I have made the case that everything from chapter 23 on has been leading up to this, the last teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Unlike the earlier parts of this chapter, this is not a parable. Jesus stops comparing the kingdom to something else and gives us a glimpse of the culmination of his kingdom. We will turn in a few weeks to Luke’s Gospel, where we will see a more consistent focus on this aspect of Jesus’ teaching, which leads some to regard Matthew’s account as more ‘spiritual’ and Luke’s as more ‘practical’ (e.g., the first Beatitude, Matthew: blessed are the poor in spirit, Luke: blessed are the poor). Luke does spread things out more evenly as we will see, but that was not Matthew’s project. As I said when we first began reading his account, Matthew was like the Quentin Tarantino of Gospel writers. Chronology rarely mattered for Matthew, the ordering is done in such a way to enhance the story and bring certain points across very forcefully. This is especially true of this passage, which Matthew gives the place of honor. Tomorrow we will read about Jesus’ arrest; this is the last public teaching Jesus gives in Matthew.
And what a teaching it is. This stands all our atonement theories and salvation by faith not works teachings on their heads. Before we move to defend our pet doctrines and disclaim what Jesus says here, let’s sit with it and let the text disclaim what we think we know. Jesus says very clearly in this passage that his final judgment of all people will be based solely on how they dealt with people who were in need of food, drink, clothes, shelter, care, and visiting. Do we feed the hungry? Do we hydrate the thirsty? Do we clothe the denuded? Do we offer hospitality to strangers? Do we care for the sick? Do we show solidarity with those in prison? Interestingly, the only things involved here are food and clothes. The rest involve presence, allowing strangers to be present with us, giving our presence to the sick and imprisoned. Jesus says there are only two types of people in the world: those who give such care and those who withhold it. The givers (and presumably the receivers, though this is not stated, I assume it since Jesus identifies with these people) enter the kingdom. The withholders are denied entry. No question here of what or who you believed in, what you confessed, what your theological or doctrinal positions were. None of it.
Any single passage can be taken alone and made too much of, but here we have an extended passage dealing with the end-of-the-world judgment, just the sort of apocalyptic discussion the religious leaders and disciples were so eager to have. Jesus told them all no, told them to stop looking for signs, even things that look like signs. Jesus told them to wait, then he told them to work diligently, and now he finally tells them what to work diligently at: caring for those in need, for the disenfranchised, for the poor, for those who are otherwise grist in the mill of human society, for the least of these, for the ones Jesus personally identifies with. If we are to be like the servants who doubled the resources they had been entrusted with, then we will need to work very hard and use all our creativity to care for those in need.
The obsession with the apocalyptic has not subsided, if anything it has grown stronger. Jesus said no to all that, not because he had no vision of the end (as he shows us here) but because he understood that obsession is debilitating, it leads to inaction. It leads churches to focus only on people’s souls and not on their bodies. It leads people to think, “that’s just the way it is, some things will never change” in a variety of contexts where standing up to injustice is hard and requires a commitment to nonviolent resistance. It leads to pastors saying care for the earth doesn’t matter because it is just going to burn anyway. But care for the earth does matter, because when we abuse the earth we cause direct suffering to those who live closest to the earth, some of the same people Jesus identifies with here.
What hopefully becomes apparent to us is that followers of Jesus who take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, who endeavor to become the sort of disciples Matthew’s Gospel calls us to be, are exactly the sort of people who care for those in need as a first priority. Those who regard such as superfluous or a nice side hobby have not yet been adequately formed as disciples of Jesus.
The New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.