Matthew 25:31-46 – Feast of the Final Judgment
AN UNNERVING PARABLE
The Gospel reading for the feast of the final judgment—the parable of the sheep and goats—is an unnerving passage, and it’s meant to be. It rattled Jesus’ opponents, surprised his disciples, and ought to deeply unsettle us.
Christ’s words here are surprising, containing deep mysteries—mysteries we ought not to ponder without the help and wisdom of the saints. Teachers such as St. Macrina the younger, her brother Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocians, St. Isaac of Syria, and St. Maximus the Confessor are trustworthy guides to such hard sayings. And yet, their guidance is not meant to resolve the sense of unsettling we hear in Christ’s sober warning.
IMMEDIATE CONTEXT—THREE PARABLES
The parable of the sheep and goats is the third of three parables in Matthew 25. We have the parable of the ten virgins—five wise and five foolish. We have the parable of the three stewards—one who buries his talents in the ground. And then we have the parable of the sheep and goats. And these three together interpret each other.
The parable of the ten virgins reminds us of our need for oil and uses the word for oil that sounds just like the word of mercy—the oil of mercy we’re meant to obtain and distribute and become.
In the parable of the talents, these talents are not merely our abilities or the skills we enjoy developing and using. The talents speak of the gift of indwelling grace—the grace of the Holy Spirit we’re meant to share and invest in the restoration of our world.
And in the parable of the sheep and goats, our Lord Jesus Christ makes these symbols—the oil and the talents—overt by saying what they look like in real life: feeding the hungry, quenching their thirst, clothing the naked, treating the sick, visiting the incarcerated, and hosting the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee.
“JUDGMENT FOR THOSE WHO ARE WRONGED”
In other words, the final judgment is framed not only as a judgment of sheep and goats—it is also a judgment for… a judgment on behalf of those who’ve been marginalized, neglected, and downtrodden. In one of the Psalms (103) we sing every week in the Eastern Churches, we hear that “God executes judgment for those who’ve been wronged.”
This is how we enter into the feast of the final judgment. We examine ourselves, or rather, Christ examines us… How have we extended mercy for the disadvantaged, the belittled, and the oppressed? What is our place and purpose in the world as those who bear the grace of the Holy Spirit and steward the oil of Christ’s mercy? Jesus’ parable stands as an exhortation for us to remember those for whom the judgment is coming, to set things right for the wronged, and to participate in Christ’s ministry of “making all things new.”
But this parable is even more surprising and subversive than we might expect—if we peer into it intently rather than averting our gaze in discomfort. As we allow the eyes of the parable to penetrate our hearts, we’ll encounter some unnerving surprises.
THE SURPRISING CRITERIA FOR JUDGMENT
When our Lord Jesus Christ spoke these parables to the temple establishment and to his opponents, he set them on edge—he shattered their categories, and he would love to erode ours. The first of these upsetting realities concerns Christ’s criteria for judgment.
On that final day, Jesus Christ does not say that the Judge—the Son of man and King of glory—will expose and condemn the idolaters, murderers, thieves, and adulterers. He does not rehearse the Ten Commandments or castigate sinners who actively miss the mark and fall into sin.
Instead, every one of these examples seems, at first glance, like a sin of omission—what we did not do for the poor, what we did not do for the hungry and thirsty, what we did not do for the sick and the prisoner, and what we did not do for the alien stranger. By these criteria, you could live an entire life imagining yourself to be righteous, since you never once broke any of the Ten Commandments… and yet on the day of final reckoning, discover we have fallen short by what we have not done. So, one terrible surprise on that day will be that sins of omission are enough to identify us as goats.
SINS HIDDEN IN OMISSION
But maybe this is not such a surprise after all. Perhaps so-called sins of omission are not simply passive negligence at all. Not when we think about the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In fact, is it really only a sin of omission when we’ve not loved our neighbors as ourselves—when we have not treated others as we would have them treat us? Do people really become thirsty through sins of omission? God has supplied enough water in the world for everyone. Are not thirsty people deprived because their springs have been contaminated and their rivers diverted? Water purification systems exist in plenty for the whole world. And yet people drink from wells that have been poisoned or gone dry through sins of active selfishness and willful commission.
Is it really only a sin of omission when children go hungry in this world—when we have plenty of food for all? Are not all famines reflections of distribution issues such as wastefulness, greed, corruption, and the destruction caused by war?
Is it really only a sin of omission when refugees are created by the injustice, violence, and poverty in their homelands, and not welcomed into nations that have plenty of space and resources and even need the gifts they would bring us?
Is it really only a sin of omission when the sick are neglected and cannot access or afford essential healthcare—when medical treatment is prioritized for the privileged?
Is it really only a sin of omission when prisoners are scapegoated, incarcerated, and maltreated in for-profit punitive facilities—and the demographics show clear evidence of classism and racism?
When we withhold what is good from our neighbors, that is not an omission. That is a wrong. And when “he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” the justice of God will be an intervention that rights those wrongs forever. Terrifying but utterly necessary.
So perhaps the criterion for judgment is no surprise at all. As Micah (6:8) prophesied, long before this parable, “God has shown you, o man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” To fail to render what mercy requires is much more than a sin of ignorance—our surprise on that day will be unfounded. And by preaching this parable, Christ has ensured that.
THE GREAT INVERSION—INDICTING PRESUMPTION
But the parable not only throws into question what kind of sins we commit or what criteria we’re facing at the final judgment. There is also an unnerving surprise concerning who will be in and who will be out. With this message, our Lord challenges my presumption, my pride, and my chronic assumption that I am with the flock of sheep that is welcomed IN—obviously.
Christ challenges the presumption of his opponents (the religious elite) and of his church whenever we come to believe that this parable certainly includes US (the good sheep) and obviously excludes THEM (those rotten goats). In the parable, Christ turns such hubris on its head and shocks those who felt entitled to a front-row seat in the kingdom. After all, “were we not baptized in the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church? Did we not attend worship services week after week? Did we not make our confessions, receive the Eucharist, and keep all the feasts and fasts?” Others will even claim to have prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles in Jesus’ name (Matthew 7:21-23). And Christ will say to some, “I don’t recognize you because you did not recognize me. You failed to see me and meet me and serve me in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, and the stranger.”
As St. John Chrysostom warned, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”
Our impressive religious resumes will mean very little at that moment. On that day, even those who lay claim to their accomplishments as activists may find their works of service riddled with the taint of “saviorism,” their allyship diagnosed as performative, and their ministries marred by condescension and egoism. The love we see in this parable is in no way instrumental. We can’t even turn Matthew 25 into a checklist of self-righteous achievements. No one—NO ONE—will approach their final judgment with audacity.
“NO NEED FOR IRON IN PARADISE”
There are those whose presumption expands even into self-righteous glee at the thought of the final judgment, convinced beyond any doubt of their homecoming as sheep, while eerily (creepily) happy that the wicked Other (never themselves) will be turned away and tormented.
One such man, a young Orthodox cleric, visited Mount Athos. He was expressing his glee about the final judgment of the wicked (his enemies) and the glory of the righteous (meaning himself). He shared this with St. Silouan the Athonite, who, like Christ, challenged his presumption. Silouan replied,
“If you should find out that even one of your brothers is suffering outside the heavenly city, would you not implore the Lord to show him mercy and bring him in? And if you would not, then your heart is made of iron. And there is no need for iron in paradise.”
According to Jesus’ parable, on that day, there will be those who are utterly shocked to be dismissed as goats, and there will be others who will be bewildered when he welcomes them as sheep. They wonder, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty and fed you, or naked and poor and we clothed you, or sick or in prison and visited you?” And our Lord Jesus Christ will say,
“What you did to them—when you ministered to them, when you extended mercy to them, when you showed grace to them—you did it for me, you met me, you served me. I was the marginalized, the downtrodden, the neglected. That was me. You did it for me. Welcome in!”
Surely, we too will be shocked by the sorting of sheep and goats—who are welcomed and who are not. But we know the Orthodox maxim that says, “We know where grace is, but we do not know where grace is not.” Since the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, since the Light of Christ shines on everyone, we probably shouldn’t be amazed or alarmed and certainly not resentful to discover grace exchanged and mercy ministered everywhere in this world, even (or especially) without the “Christian” brand or the church’s blessing. Wherever unselfish love happens, there we find Christ—both in the gift-givers and, as the parable promises, his recipients. I am already regularly surprised to find out where he is and where he isn’t.
So, yes, Jesus composed the parable with the intention of disorienting and disconcerting our sense of pride and presumption, our confidence in ourselves, and in the works that we have done.
AN UNNERVING KINDNESS
Strangely, for many (or even most?), more disconcerting than the chastisement of this judgment is the scandalous hope of the gospel. Instead of worrying over the ominous thought, “We thought we were in, but actually, we’re in trouble,” what if we come in humility and simply pray, “Lord, have mercy.” We may find hints of that mercy in this parable, even for the goats. How so?
When our Lord Jesus Christ dismisses the goats, we read that he sends them to kolasin aionion, probably best translated, “the chastisement of the [coming] age.” If Matthew’s account intended us to hear Jesus threatening retributive punishment, he could and should have used the word for that—timoria. But by using the noun kolasis, a ray of hope shines even on the goats. St. Clement of Alexandria explains that intrinsic to kolasis is the idea of correction and restoration.
This aligns with the theology of Hebrews 12, where the preacher assures us that the judgments of God, unpleasant for a time, are always and only the chastisements of a loving Father, committed to restoring us rather than punishing us. His heart is always and only to lift us up, to raise us to life, rather than destroy anyone. The preacher says “Our God is a consuming fire,” but only consumes what is combustible and only shakes until what is unshakeable remains.
Divine Love, by nature, is life-giving, not death-dealing. Why, then, would we experience the redeeming fire of love as kolasis—or “torment” (also a valid translation)? Because Divine Love and human fear cannot co-exist. And, glory to God, then won’t. As 1 John 4 says, “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with kolasin (torment).”
So the Day of Judgment is a day of hope. Even for the goats. Yes, even for me.
THE CROSS AS PUNCHLINE
Pope Benedict XVI wrote a marvelous trilogy on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his section on the parables, he called his readers always to remember the punchline to every parable is the Passion (death and resurrection) of Christ. Whatever judgments we find in the parables raise difficult questions (especially about God) that Christ decisively answers from that Cross with a prayer—“Father, forgive them,” and a word: tetelestai—“It is finished, accomplished, complete, fulfilled.” He demonstrates—no, he generates—James’ principle that “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
Could such hope be possible? The ancient hymns composed for the feast of the final judgment describe the unquenchable fire of the tormented conscience, but that fire gives way to the consuming fire of God’s love, which purges our hearts of everything that is not of Love’s kind.
What if the tears we shed, the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth he describes, are met with the promise that the Lord Jesus will wipe every tear from every eye?
What if the Judgment seat of Christ has become his Mercy Seat, the Cross on which the Merciful-to-all rendered his final verdict of forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation?
What if the same Lord who shut the doors on the foolish virgins, in his resurrection passes through every locked door and shatters every barred gate, even the gates hades itself?
What if the same Lord who tells the stupid servant, “Depart from me,” gives the final word in his crucifixion as he spreads his arms and says, “Come, take my yoke upon you”?
What if the most disconcerting fact concerning the judgment of sheep and goats is that it is celebrated as a feast, not a fast—a final banquet in preparation for the Lenten fast?
And what if the righteous Judge is also the merciful One who says, “My mercy endures forever; my lovingkindness is everlasting.”
Our Matins hymns proclaim our theology: that there IS an unquenchable fire AND there is One who delivers us from it. Rather than presuming on that hope and slipping back into hubris, instead, we say and pray together, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have Mercy” to the One who has and who will deliver exactly that.
TAKEAWAY – LIVING ICONS
As we complete the feast that is this parable, a final question. How are we meant to respond? Was Jesus offering a terrifying eschatology lesson on the nature of the afterlife? Was this a cathartic indictment of the hypocrisy of the opposition? And what does Matthew intend for his Christian readers a generation or more later?
The best New Testament scholarship today recognizes that the function of the parable is not primarily to inform or condemn or terrify. Rather, we may see Jesus (and Matthew thereafter) shaping or reshaping their faith community with Jesus’ love ethic, rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition and fulfilled in Christ.
That means that even while we accept the inevitable surprise outcomes, we’re also meant to transpose the ethical content of the parable into our way of being as individuals and communities. How do we do this without being “instrumental” (exploiting the poor yet again as a means to attain my reward)? Jesus shows us.
During worship in my faith tradition, Fr. Mircea circulates around the sanctuary and “censes” (waves the incense at) the icons of the saints on our church walls. The icons depict the “cloud of witnesses” who forever live, worship, and enjoy the presence of Jesus. But then Fr. Mircea also comes to me, and with great reverence, censes me, recognizing that I too bear the dignity of being created in the image of the Image (Jesus). He sees Christ in me, and I meet Christ in him—deliberately, and with no other end but that our love for Christ becomes our love for one another.
With that imagery in mind, Jesus’ parable invites us—the royal priesthood—to sense the presence of Christ in everyone we meet, to encounter him beyond our circle of fellowship, and especially in “the least of these, my brethren.”
THE TANGIBLE JESUS
This calling became more tangible a few years ago when Pope Francis embodied Christ’s message at his annual Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. Whereas previous popes had stooped to wash the feet of fellow Catholics, exclusively males, in 2013, Francis kissed the feet of juvenile prisoners, including two girls and two Muslims. In 2016, he washed and kissed the feet of male and female refugees, including Coptic Christians, Muslims, and Hindus—embracing them as fellow children of God. In 2019, he kissed the feet of rival Sudanese leaders, formerly at war, urging their factions to embrace peace.
The world was stunned—some were moved to tears, others revulsed and offended. It’s the sheep and goats again, living their own Matthew 25 moment in real-time. But Francis knew that in serving the poor, the prisoner, and the refugee, and by crossing the barriers of gender, class, and religion, he was mystically kneeling at the feet of Jesus. Thoughts of paradise or perdition melt away in such moments… and those holy encounters are available to me every day, within walking distance from my home. Will I make the most of these opportunities? Will I live today as a sheep or a goat?
Yesterday, I did not. I played the self-absorbed goat. Today, I heard the Shepherd’s call. I saw Jesus in the eyes of a former inmate, a Wiccan friend who knows and follows Jesus. (Is that still hard to swallow?). He bought me coffee, and we shed a few tears over trials I can’t even fathom, and we listened to Jesus, who told him, “Just keep moving forward.”
Was I becoming a sheep for that hour? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that somehow, I know I met Jesus and he even called me his friend. I even knew it in the moment (and was still surprised). Tomorrow? I’m not sure yet. I have too many goat days to stop praying for mercy. But tonight, I can’t stop thinking about Jesus in that man, and maybe that’s how Matthew 25 is saving me.