Let the Scriptures Speak
The Real Messianic Secret
“Then they will answer and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty
… and not minister to your needs?’” (Matt 25:44)
Is Matthew's scenario of the Last Judgment a parable (“The Sheep and the Goats”)? Or is it a straightforward description of how it will be at the end? To be sure, it has parabolic elements: a verse and a half describe the Son of Man sorting out all the nations as a shepherd separates sheep and goats (the nightly routine of shepherds keeping mixed herds; sheep like to sleep out in the open, whereas goats need shelter at night to keep warm). But the remainder comes across as direct description, which makes the flock/herd simile all the more attention- catching.
The reader of Matthew's Gospel has, after 25 chapters, become well-schooled in metaphors for the sorting out of divine judgment. The comparisons have been rich and many—wheat versus chaff, the fruitful tree versus the sterile one, the builder on rock versus the builder on sand, wheat versus weeds, good fish versus bad fish, those with wedding garments versus those not, the provident servant versus the abusive one, the grooms-maids with enough oil versus those caught short, those who work with talents versus the lone one who refuses to venture … and now those separated like (the more valuable) sheep from (the less valuable) goats.
This simile of a shepherd separating flock and herd is more than another convenient image for sorting. In the context of divine judgment, the image evokes the very passage partially given as this Sunday's first reading, Ezekiel's oracle about the true shepherd (Ez 34:11-31). In that vision, the prophet pictures God personally shepherding the (heretofore poorly shepherded) flock of Israel and also judging between sheep and sheep. Tellingly, Ezekiel shows the Great Shepherd reprimanding those sheep who feed on the good pasture and then tread down the rest of the grass, those who drink of clear water and proceed to foul the water with their feet. “Therefore, thus says the Lord God: Now will I judge between the fat and the lean sheep” (Ez 34:20).
With the evocation of that vivid prophetic tradition, we can expect some talk about concrete human behavior, and we are not disappointed. What follows is one of the most famous recognition scenes in all of world literature. The assembly of all the nations get three surprises. First, the king and judge of all turns out to be … not some wielder of military or media might … but Jesus of Nazareth. The second surprise is that the sole criterion of judgment is how they have treated needy persons—those who are hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, ill, or imprisoned. The final, shocking surprise is that the king has taken such treatment, be it aid or neglect, personally.
Scholars debate about the identity of the assembled ethne (“nations”? “Gentiles”?) and “the least brothers.” A close tracking of Matthew's language convinces some that panta ta ethne means “all the Gentiles” (assuming that Israel, in harmony with some intertestamental Jewish traditions, receives a separate judgment). Then “the least ones,” like the “little ones” in Matthew 18, are taken to refer to the Christian disciples. On this reading, the Gentiles are judged on their treatment of needy Christians (mainly Jewish at Matthew's time)—which would be an assurance to Christians. But it is also a warning that if the Gentiles are to be judged on that basis, all the more shall Christians be judged in that light.
Other scholars, noting that a parallel reference to final judgment at Matthew 16:27 describes the Son of Man repaying each according to his conduct, insist that the phrase panta ta ethne in this Gospel includes the whole of humankind. They also understand “the least of my brothers” extending beyond the Christian community to include all needy persons. Either way, the challenge to Christian disciples is total.
While “nations” cannot be strictly construed in the modern sense of nation-state, the language surely names groups, not individuals only. At a time when our own powerful republic consumes a disproportionate amount of the planet's resources, defaults on its UN dues, and chooses not to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty signed by the majority of nations—might it not be timely to attend to the corporate dimension of the Gospel's language?
Imagine, meditatively, this judgment scene according to statistics from World Almanac 1999 (counting just the living of course): 1.9 billion Christians, 1.1 billion Muslims, 747 million Hindus, 353 million Buddhists, 907 million atheists and nonreligious, 15 million Jews, and a great variety of others. As the scene unfolds, note the surprise oi all as the simple criteria of judgment are revealed. Do you find yourself surprised as well?
**From Saint Louis University