- Main Text: Matthew 25:31-46
- Accompanying text: Psalm 98:7-9
What this passage means to us
“This is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear — that God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. The judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given” .
It is unique to Matthew and is one of the parables relating to judgment. It is different from the others in that Jesus does not use a fictitious storyline to illustrate his points, but rather he projects possible future scenarios based on what the believer does or does not do in the present. The kingdom is now, and we are its citizens now. Through the cross believers are judged to be recipients of grace now. Peter, who had listened to the parable, would write later, “it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17).
Some have interpreted what Jesus describes as being salvation by works. To do so takes the passage both out of Matthew’s context and out of the wider context of the gospel of grace. Salvation is a divine gift, not a divine reward for things we have done, just like the wedding invitation was the King’s gift in the parable of the Wedding Banquet. The main point is to stress our acceptance of grace through how we express Jesus within us to others. In Matthew 10:40 Jesus had already revealed the idea of how, when people would welcome the disciples, they would in fact be welcoming him and God, the Father. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”, he said. In the Last Judgment parable Jesus expands this more and explains that any action for or against a potential child of God is an action for or against himself. For example, do you treat your partner, your children and grandchildren, your parents and grandparents, your siblings, your work colleagues and friends, the beggar on the street, the most undesirable person you know, someone of a different race, colour or faith persuasion as if he or she is Jesus, made in the image of God, a child of God? Do you see past their faults and their circumstances, and thus value their potential in Christ?
The all-encompassing Lordship of Christ over humanity is emphasized in a very simple yet most profound way when it is said that every good or bad deed done to another person is a deed done to Christ. If we hurt someone, we hurt Jesus and go against all that Jesus is. If we show compassion to someone, it is showing compassion to Jesus. “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus” .
But, how do we do this? Matthew doesn’t explain the how. Is it that the more we practice such good things, the more we become someone who does them without thinking? It doesn’t come naturally: it comes supernaturally. Listen to the voice of the spirit of Jesus within you. Pray for it to be so. Let the Spirit prompt you to see others as Jesus. The more often we do so, the more it will become a spontaneous spiritual response that leads to positive action, and thus we are and will be found “so doing”. Matthew’s parables concerning the kingdom of God stress the need for watching, but a watching that flows from not knowing definitively. More important than knowing is for us to watch for opportunities to serve, but, what if we see a chance to help, and we choose not to do it? “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). If a believer knowingly and stubbornly persists in refusing to engage in Christ’s helping others through him or her, the outcome is clear: Jesus “will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (Matthew 25:43). Such a person is like one of the unwise virgins or like the man who refused to wear the wedding garment.
There is much more to note. At the end of the age Jesus takes centre stage; the sheep and the goats both begin by being in a state of grace; the sheep are called the beloved of the Father, a phrase hinting at that special relationship of being an adopted child of God; we inherit the kingdom through the Son who alone has the right of inheritance; we don’t separate the sheep and the goats any more than we separate the wheat and the tares: and, above all perhaps, “When we learn the generosity which without calculation helps others in the simplest things, we too will know the joy of helping Jesus Christ himself” .
Context and Story-line
After this the religious leaders “schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him” (Matthew 26:4), but could they get some inside help? At Bethany a woman took very expensive perfume, which she poured on the head of Jesus. “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. ‘Why this waste?’ they asked. ‘This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.’” This was a prophetic act on the woman’s part. Jesus said, “‘Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me…When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial’” (Matthew 26:7-13). Peter and Matthew were there, of course, as was Judas. Here was someone ministering to Jesus in a time of need. Jesus had been explaining to the disciples that, when they ministered to others, they were actually ministering to him. Had it all gone over their heads? Judas was not happy. He wanted to take some of the group’s money, but also, did he think that Jesus had gone too far in letting the woman do what she did? Instead of looking out for a chance to help others in the way that Christ has just expounded so clearly, “From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over” (Matthew 26:14).
- 1 Corinthians 13
- Ephesians 1:15-23
- Ezekiel 34
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- William Barclay, Insights: Parables (Edinburgh, UK: St Andrew Press, 2010). 68.
- Attributed to Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known as “Mother Theresa” – see https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/550940-i-see-jesus-in-every-human-being-i-say-to
- William Barclay, Insights: Parables (Edinburgh, UK: St Andrew Press, 2010). 70.