Last things – context

judgmentMatthew 25:31-46 – 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, 32 and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on 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 foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ 40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45 He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Context – For the final three Sundays of ordinary time, the gospel readings come from Matthew 25:

  • 32nd Sunday: The Wise and Foolish Maidens (vv. 1-13)
  • 33rd Sunday: The Parable of the Talents (also “of the Three Servants; vv. 14-30)
  • Christ the King: The Judgment of the Nations (vv. 31-46)

It should also be noted that Mt 24:45-51, The Faithful and Unfaithful Servants, which comes immediately before the parable the Wise and Foolish Maidens, carries many of the same themes as do the two subsequent parables. However, it is not used as a Sunday gospel. These are the conclusion of Jesus’ fifth discourse (Mt 24:3-25:46).

Judgment of the Nations. From Mt 24:45 up until Mt 25:30, there is a building sense of readiness, preparation, responsible action, and more that lead to the door step of Matthew’s great judgment scene, often simply described as “separating the sheep and the goats:” “And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And as we all know, you do not want to be a goat.

In the language of scripture scholars, it is an eschatological scene. A description from the word “eschatology” meaning the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. As the intervening parables come after Matthew’s “little apocalypse” we should not be surprised that the sacred author moves to the judgment upon the nations. The Parable of the Talent’s repeated invitation, “Come, share your master’s joy” (vv. 21, 23), points to eternal glory. The language directed at the “wicked and lazy servant” and his ultimate fate described in v. 30 (And throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.) uses the eschatological terms that have become familiar from other judgment sayings and parables (8:12; 22:13; cf. 13:42, 50; 24:51).

Even though the story compares the Son of Man to a shepherd, it probably should not be classed as a parable, since the judgment is presented in a direct and straightforward way. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, he will divide “all the nations” into two groups. Those who have done good deeds for one of “these least brothers of mine” will be blessed, but those who have failed to do these deeds for one of “these least ones” will be condemned.

The Great Surprise. Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran Pastor, writes that he has a love/hate relationship with this gospel:

“I hate it, because it seems to make works the requirement for being blessed by God. There is no mention of faith or justification or forgiveness or the cross — the acts of God that bring us salvation. Rather, the text is all about human actions.”

“I hate it from a family systems approach, because doing such things for others can create co-dependent relationships between the helper and those in need. We have usually answered the question: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ with ‘Yes.’ We are to take care of our needy brothers and sisters. Our text would support this answer. However, if we look at this answer from another perspective, we may want to change our response. Who of us wants to be ‘kept’? We ‘keep’ animals in the zoo or pets in a pen. Such ‘kept’ animals are unable to survive on their own. Sometimes we may ‘keep’ people in a similar bondage. So, we need to struggle with how we can best care for the needy as Jesus’ parable says we should. How can we do it in a way that doesn’t put them or us in bondage?”

“I love it, because these good works are not really works that earn us heaven because the doers of them don’t realize that they have done anything good. Caring for other people is such a part of their (redeemed) nature that the caring acts come naturally, perhaps even unconsciously — like a good tree naturally producing good fruit. It doesn’t have to ‘think’ about producing fruit. They just happen. Their production is part of its nature. In the same way, the ‘goats’ don’t realize that they have done anything wrong. ‘The Great Surprise’ may be a more appropriate title to this text than ‘The Final Judgment.’ Both groups are surprised when they hear about their good deeds (or lack thereof).”

“Most of us have had a similar type of ‘surprise’. Someone comes up to us and says, ‘What you did for me sure helped me a lot.’ or ‘What you said to me had a powerful influence on my life.’ While they are saying this, we are trying to remember what we said or did that was so great. Often we don’t know what good we are doing — and only later discover that we have served Christ in the least of these. On the other hand, if we assume we are doing a great job, we might be surprised to hear about what we haven’t done.”

Pastor Stoffregen makes good points – and since there is no way in which one can completely address this idea – do not think he discounts Christians being quite intentional about their way of going through the world and not being surprised (while at the same time remaining humble.)

He is raising the caution flag that reminds us Christianity has long dealt “works” especially in the heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagianism is a late 4th century heresy that, in its most ardent forms, taught man is capable of saving himself through free will and doing what God asks while avoiding that which is forbidden. This salvation was apart from the grace of God, the merits of Christ, and the attending faith in Jesus. In modern times, semi-pelagianism is more problematic. It is a position that “yes, faith is necessary, but you also have to do works.” If that is understood in the sense that faith is but a necessary precursor, such that salvation is then full dependent upon the works – then one finds themselves outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity as understood by Protestants, Reformers, and Catholics alike. While certainly there is much theological nuance and debate among Christian denominations, most would agree that we are saved by grace. Period. It is from cooperation with that grace that come faith and works.

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