This Sunday’s Gospel reading celebrates the solemnity of Christ the King (the reign of Christ). This is the last Sunday in the 2011 liturgical calendar, and it is the final Gospel reading from Matthew as well. Next week, we begin a new liturgical year, and we read from a different Gospel – Mark’s.
This reading concludes the public preaching phase of Jesus’ life, and it is the final passage in the Sermon in the Temple. There are three aspects to this reading worth mentioning: the return of Jesus, the separation of the good and bad upon his return, and the measure used by Jesus to separate the goats and the sheep – the bad and the good.
Parousia – παρουσία – is a Greek term that means the coming or arrival. It is used some fifteen times in Matthew and the Epistles, usually in relation to the Second Coming of Christ. For example, in Matthew 24:37-39, the term parousia is used to describe the return of the Son of Man:
As were the days of marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
The Return of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew’s understanding of the Second Coming is, among the four Gospels, quite detailed. Matthew alone uses the term parousia, which is more commonly found in Paul’s letters. In Matthew 24, the parousia is cited in reference to the sudden-ness of the return of Jesus and the imperative that the disciples be prepared. But Matthew elaborates on his theology of the Parousia in chapters 19 and 25.
In chapter 19, Jesus tells us that the twelve Apostles will participate in the Last Judgment. In Mt 25:31-34, Jesus mentions that his return will be accompanied by angels,
Jesus said to his disciples: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,
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.
This passage mirrors the prophecy in Daniel 7:13-14,
I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
In both passages, the “Son of Man” is the one who comes to judge. He is given dominion in Daniel’s passage, and judges the nations in Matthew’s passage. I should note that the study of the “Last Things” (eschatology) requires an examination of the Book of Revelation, as well as the prophets. But this is far beyond the scope of this post. Suffice to say that the Gospel of Matthew has its own clearly defined understanding of what the Second Coming will entail.
The Judgment, the Sheep of the Flock, and the Goat
The scholar R.T. France suggests that the decision to use “goats” and “sheep” as metaphors for those saved or not saved is an irony. France argues that goats and sheep are, in real life, indistinguishable. I don’t agree with this interpretation.
Jesus and his flock are often referred to as “the lamb” or “sheep.” In the New Testament, the people of God are referred to as a flock of sheep (John 10:1-10; Mt 9:36, Mt 10:6, Mt 10:16, Mt 26:31). This is in keeping with the pastoral images of the Old Testament. The prophets Jeremiah (4x) and Ezekiel (14x), in particular, favor the use of “sheep” to refer to the God’s own.
By contrast, neither the disciples of Christ, nor Israel, are ever referred to as “goats.” While sheep are often portrayed as innocent victims, goats are associated with sin-offerings in the Old Testament (e.g. Leviticus 16). According to the imagery and symbolism of the Old Testament, goats are culpable, while sheep are not. Goats have no place in the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus says that he will place the sheep on his right (a position of honor) and the goats on his left, he is suggesting that the separation of a mixed flock is just and perfectly sensible. Just as a shepherd would naturally separate his flock of sheep and goats at the end of the day, so will Jesus.
Salvation and Works of Mercy
R.T. France has noted that this passage, Mt 25:31-46, expounds a salvation theology different than Romans. As he properly notes, “Matthew is not Paul.” While Paul’s Letter to the Romans emphasizes salvation through faith, in this passage, Matthew would seem to connect salvation with works of mercy. Specifically, Matthew enumerates what are known as the “corporal works of mercy”… caring for the poor by feeding and clothing them, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison.
Interestingly, France suggests that Matthew and Paul can be reconciled, since to engage in a work of mercy is to be a disciple of Christ, or to treat another as if the person were Christ. For Catholics and Orthodox, this relationship is obvious. Matthew tells us throughout his Gospel that the Christian must translate his or her faith into the work of discipleship. There is no option… whether the work is “saving” or not, a Christian must manifest his or her faith in an initiative to build up the kingdom of God. What is certainly different in Matthew 25, compared to Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is that Jesus does appear to suggest that the opus of salvation is a function performing works of mercy and charity.
Gospel Mt 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory,
and all the angels with him,
he will sit upon his glorious throne,
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.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
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.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,
ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,
or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,
or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply,
‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did
for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
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.
For I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
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.’
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?’
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.’
And these will go off to eternal punishment,
but the righteous to eternal life.”