For many people the impression they could get after reading the second half of this passage, might be ‘fear’. The words in verse forty-one, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41), are truly dreadful. Fear certainly becomes one of the motivators. However, as a picture of hell, is the purpose of this passage a motivational spur for good deeds through fear?
As far as approaching the first part of the message of this Gospel reading, I would like for us to keep several facts before us. First, this passage does not stand on its own. This passage was written in continuation from chapter twenty-four with the narrative on the end times, and in continuation from such parables as: ‘The Parable of the Faithful Servant and the Wicked Servant’, ‘The Parable of the Ten Virgins’, and ‘The Parable of The Talents’.
In the narrative regarding the end times, Matthew recorded the following words of the Lord: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matt 24:36). This means that in this story concerning the end times it does not place great concern on the question of, ‘When will the end be?’. Also, even though it is a depiction of the end, it is deliberate that not many words are spent on it. Even in today’s passage of scripture, only the minimum is spoken. That is very clear, for example, when compared to The Book of Revelation by John. In other words, it means that a great concern is intentionally not placed on this matter of, ‘What is to take place?’
Second, one must consider where is the concern of this series of narratives placed? It is not on the events at the end times, but on ‘the now’. The issue is about ‘How we should live in the here and now?’. Therefore, the phrase is repeated, ‘Please, therefore, wake up!’, ‘be ready!’, ‘be watchful!’ (Matt 24:42, 25:13). Now is the time we should awaken. And so we realise in this tone that the subject has to do with ‘the now’, even in the series of parables read from chapters twenty-four and twenty-five.
In short, as we read this if we only think, ‘When is the final judgment?’ or ‘Will I enter into the kingdom of God or go into the fires of hell?’, it means that we have never read this passage in its true sense. If we are ultimately only concerned about – ‘the judgment in order to escape the flames of hell and enter the kingdom of God’ or ‘to pile up the good deeds and love for our neighbours as if for insurance’, it means that we have not absorbed the true sense of this passage. If our good deeds and works of love are like that, then when you think about it, it is no more than using other people as a footstool for one’s salvation. The original intention of this passage was not supposed to make that type of exhortation for sacrificial ‘works’ or cheap ‘merits’.
The second part of the message of this Gospel is the significance behind the ambiguous character of the Lord’s words. We note in passing that in Matt 16:27 He spoke of coming in His Father’s glory, while in this passage He speaks of His own glory. The glory of His Father is His glory also, for He has all the authority of the Father. The image here is of a victorious King setting up his throne immediately after a battle, ready to reward His supporters and partisans and punish those who opposed Him. At length, the King speaks and renders judgement.
It is not stated who the phrase, ‘one of the least of these’ (Matt 25:40, 45) points to in the Lord’s response. One might consider that it aims at all who need some assistance. This phrase is pointing to the person who is oppressed and forsaken by humankind.
In order to unlock the phrase mentioned in Matt 25:40, let us look at the parallel statement in Matthew chapter ten and verse forty-two: “And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward”. In light of this, the ‘least person or smallest person’, means a Christian (cf. Matt 10:40-42). It describes the Christian sent by the Lord to preach. Therefore we could say that this Gospel in this situation states that those who welcome Christians are welcoming Christ. So, by interpreting the above phrase in this context it could be said that, the entire world will be judged by how they treated those sent by Christ to pass on the Gospel. For example, the words, “I was a stranger and you took Me in”, “I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matt 25:35-36), make us think about the image of the missionary local churches which are assembled in the midst of difficulties and which endure constant hardships, unnoticed by the world.
However, we cannot be sure to whom the phrase, ‘one of the least of these’ (Matt 25:40, 45) points to. When the scriptures are ambiguous like this, it is important to go to the effort to keep it that way. It is not always necessary to rigorously stipulate a relationship with ourselves and ‘one of the least of these’. We should rather, keep this phrase open to include all the different types of human interactions that exist. We can place ourselves in either of the two flocks, one on the left or one on the right before the Lord. That is, amidst the goats to be judged, or the sheep. What are the first words we hear? Please look from verse thirty-four to verse forty.
When the King said to those on the right: “Come, you blessed of My Father” (Matt 25:34), they make a kind of doubtful face. None of them present thought that inheriting the kingdom of God was a reward they deserved to receive. The king explained it to them, but the explanation of the king made them more confused. They answered, ‘When did we see You a stranger, or thirsty?’ (Matt 25:38). What was left behind in their memory was something very small as far as they remembered. It may not have even been left in their memory. They could not remember having accomplished a great work for God and for all to see. They could not remember having helped someone to change his or her life; unless they were a great missionary, or a saint whose life was celebrated and exalted into eternity. But, in the eyes of the Lord, what they did could have been that they only offered a cup of water to a thirsting person out of loving concern. This act of mercy and love is sufficient to the Lord.
The Lord puts His attention on this kind act and says that: “as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40). This comment emphasises that what people see and what the Lord sees, are different. What is a small thing in the eyes of humankind is not small at all, in the Lord’s regard. We don’t need to demean the smallness of the things we do, because the Lord, no matter how small the actions, treats it as an act done unto Him. This is definitely an important encouragement for us.
When the King said to those on the left: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting 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…” (Matt 25:41-43), they also answered: “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger … and did not minister to You?” (Matt 25:44; cf.Matt 25:38). Then the Lord answered: “…as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (Matt 25:45).
As you can see, when the Lord called those on the left ‘cursed’, they also made a doubting face like those on the right. None of them even thought that they would be sentenced into the eternal fire. The Lord explained it to them, but they could not understand what He said. So they asked, ‘When did we do anything so awful?’ What was left behind in their memory was very small as far as they remembered. No, it probably didn’t even remain in their memory at all. They never worked at stealing. They surely never committed the sin of adultery. What they did was probably a minor mistreatment towards another person. They probably only neglected to offer a cup of water to a thirsty person.
However, the Lord put His attention on the little things in life. He even said, ‘You didn’t help Me!’ (Matt 25:45). This highlights that the circumstances the Lord sees are different to the circumstances humanity sees. If we look at it from the Lord’s perspective, neglecting the little things in life are comparable to deeds performed by Satan and his helpers. But, who would ever be able to notice such a charge against him or her?
These words crush us. At times, these words smash us to pieces when we love the Lord but are conceited thinking that we have accomplished something for the Lord. We are made to learn our lesson that we deserved hell, by confessing: ‘I myself treated you coldly’. So, we have no alternative but to ask for the Lord’s mercy, ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner’.
The Lord is standing to the side and He says pointing to me, “… inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matt 25:40). What does the Lord say? He calls us ‘My brothers’. The Lord puts Himself in the same class as us. The Lord rejoices over the deed of love we received as done to Him even if we had received a cup of water. This indicates that the Lord and we are one in joy!
However, as long as we live in this world we will repeatedly experience its coldness from the people in it. We have been slighted, we have been unloved, and we have received harsh treatment by those more powerful than us. But, with regard to these terrible experiences we hear the following words by Jesus: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (Matt 25:45). When we are oppressed the Lord does not rejoice. Rather, He empathises with us, and so the Lord is sad, in pain, and angry that we have experienced those things. But at those times, the sadness, hurt, and anger we had in us are absorbed into the Lord’s anger at our maltreatment. And so there’s no need for us to be sad or angry anymore, because we know through the Lord’s statement that He really cares for us.
Well then, today’s passage is situated just before the passion narratives of the Lord. Just after this, the Lord will say to his disciples that: “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified”(Matt 26:2). The Lord went to the cross in order to make Himself one with ‘the least of persons’. On the cross the Lord became one with the poor, the lowly, the oppressed, those rejected by others, and above all else, with all of us who are unable in the midst of our sins to cry out, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us’.
Looking to the side of the Lord, the one who rejoices that the Lord calls him or her ‘one of the least of persons who is my brother’, should also see others as ‘one of the least’ at the side of the Lord as well. When we look at other people as being loved by the Lord, we realise that the genuine love we offer to the other person, is a love offered to the Lord. In this manner, then, there are no achievements or ‘merits’ to bring out before God; there is no insurance for entering into the kingdom of God. The work of love, in any form whatsoever begins with treating each person as our brother and sister, with reverence and watchfulness.
Even if it is small, it will never be despised or taken light heartedly in the eyes of the Lord, since the Lord identified Himself with us as a true friend when He said: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (Matt 25:45). Let us not expect a different set of criteria for the Judgement. The focus of the Judgement and our salvation has to do with being merciful to the helpless of the earth, and loving all people and all creation. As Christ has repeatedly taught, what God demands in the Law is mercy, not sacrifice (Matt 9: 13; 12:7).