My Dear People,
We have come to the end of another Liturgical year. The Last Sunday is dedicated to Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Jesus will judge nations, and he gives us an example in the Gospel of Matthew. The vision of the great judgment is the prophetic climax of the eschatological discourse. The preceding parables have steadily built up to this event by urging disciples to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man. Now we see what will happen when he arrives. The Lord Jesus will “repay everyone according to his conduct.” (16:27).
The opening verse sets the scene. It is the return of the Son of Man surrounded by heavenly angels and seated majestically on his glorious throne. Christian tradition interprets this as a vision of the last judgement, when the thoughts, words and deeds of the entire human race are weighed in the balance by Jesus the judge.
The Son of Man’s first action is to assume the role of a shepherd who divides the sheep of his flock from the goats. It is often pointed out that Middle Eastern herdsmen normally allow their animals to graze together and that sheep and goats tend to be valued equally. This makes it difficult to say for sure why the judgment is depicted as a separation of sheep from goats. Nevertheless, it is clear from the outset that the sheep represent the saints, for they are placed at the Lord’s right, which in ancient cultures represented the good, fortunate, or honorable place (see 1Kings 2:19; Ps 110:1), while the left represented the bad, unfortunate, or dishonorable.
The verdict of the king is that those on the right are blessed by the Lord and are the beneficiaries of his kingdom. These have shown themselves to be children of the Father and thus heirs of his heavenly estate (5:9, 44-45). Ever since the foundation of the world, this plan of salvation was in place in the grand design of the Almighty.
The reason for all this is then revealed. Whatever else can be said of the righteous, they have led lives of generosity and compassion toward others. They supplied basic human needs to the hungry and thirsty of the world. They took in a stranger, clothed the naked, sat at the bedside of the ill, and helped comfort those in prison. Serving their fellow human beings through acts of kindness and mercy has secured their heavenly inheritance. The sheep are surprised to learn, however, that in caring for the needy they have cared for the Lord himself.
Jesus responds to their amazement with the declaration: whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. Biblical scholars debate the precise meaning of this statement. The question is twofold (1) Do the “least brothers” represent Christian disciples of the poor in general? (2) Does the judgment concern only Gentile nonbelievers or all humanity, Christians included?
It seems likely that the least brothers refers to Christians, perhaps to those missionaries who faced numerous hardships for their efforts to evangelize the world. The reason is that these words of Jesus recall earlier descriptions of the disciples of Matthew (10:42’ 12:49-50; 18:6). Likewise, “all the nations” assembled for judgment appear to represent all the non-believing Gentiles of the world who are called to account for their treatment of Jesus’ followers. Certainly, the Greek term for “nations” often means “Gentiles” or “pagans,” in Matthew.
Then follows the sentencing of those on the left. Unlike the righteous, who are welcomed into the embrace of the Father and his kingdom (v. 34), the unrighteous are told, Depart from me. They are banished from the Lord’s presence. Their final destiny is the fire of damnation, the same place of torment that is ready to receive the spirits of rebellion, known as the devil and his angels. The book of Revelation depicts this place of unceasing agony as a “pool of fire and sulfur” (Rev. 20:10).
The principal crimes of the wicked are sins of omission (see James 4:17). It was their unwillingness to serve the Lord through a life of service toward others that earns them this awful punishment. They declined opportunities to show kindness to the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and the person in prison. Of course, they are no less surprised than the righteous to learn that Jesus was present in the lives of the destitute and lonely, waiting for someone to show them the love of God. But in this case, no such love was shown. The opportunities to help were abundant, but the decision to help was withheld.
The final verse brings us to the final separation of saints and sinners. This has been envisioned in the Old Testament (Dan 12:2), and earlier we saw indications of the same thing in the kingdom parables (see13:40-43, 47-50). Now the event is placed before our eyes.
The most important word in this verse—at once dreadful and delightful—is the adjective eternal. The Greek term tells us that the two states of the afterlife are perpetual, of unending duration. Ultimately, the road of human life divides into two, one half splitting off toward a punishment that never ceases and the other toward an undying life with the Lord in the kingdom.
Yours in Christ
Fr. Vincent Clemente