“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
There are some events that change history. Pearl Harbor for the Greatest Generation. Nothing would ever be the same after that.
For me and many around my age it was the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK.
For many now it’s 9/11.
If you live through events like these your world is forever changed.
That’s true with Matthew’s community, too. To really hear this gospel, we need to know the life-changing events that forever changed Matthew’s community. Their “Pearl Harbor” event, their “9/11” event was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Roman forces in 70 AD.
This gospel was most likely written between 80 and 90 AD. All the original eye-witnesses of Jesus’ ministry are long dead. The Apostle Paul has been dead for 20-30 years. Every Christian living at this time was part of the 2nd generation of the church.
Matthew’s community probably was located in Syria. They were mostly Jewish Christians, who may have scattered and relocated in Syria after the Roman invasion of Jerusalem.
In about 66AD or so, Israel got tired of unjust (sinful) taxes they had to pay to Rome, and they revolted. The revolution escalated until Jewish zealots were killing off Roman citizens in Jerusalem.
Rome, of course, retaliated and plundered the temple, taking all the wealth there, claiming it all belonged to Rome anyway.
The plundering of the temple led to an all-out rebellion by the Jews against Rome.
Rome sent in armies from Syria to put it down and restore order, but by then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem had already set up their own autonomous government. Because Jerusalem was so well fortified (with three thick walls surrounding the city) and well defended, Rome sought out rebel strongholds an eradicated them, beginning in Galilee.
This sent Jews from Galilee fleeing to Jerusalem as refugees. Which would have been fine except that the Galilean Jews had formed their own government too, which now clashed with the rebel government in Jerusalem. That internal conflict escalated too.
So in 70AD, (ten or twenty years before Matthew’s gospel was written), Rome attacked Jerusalem directly. After a 7-month siege, they broke through the third wall, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple.
The Jews that weren’t enslaved scattered throughout the region, perhaps with the author of Matthew’s gospel among them. The tensions between he Jews and Rome continued for decades, breaking out into two more wars in the 2nd century.
In any case, this particular community of Jewish people who were disciples of Jesus now lived in Syria with the tension of Roman conquest changing everything. They weren’t native Syrians, they were Israelites. Still living within the boundaries of the Roman Empire, they were still vulnerable.
With all that these Jews had been through in the last 15-20 years, they had to be wondering how God was going to deal with all of it. What does Jesus the Messiah, resurrected 50-60 years ago, have to do with it?
The author of Matthew takes the last couple of chapters in his gospel to address some of that. What will Jesus do to the world at the end of time? This text is part of that speculation.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory . . . all the nations will be gathered before him.” All the nations. Including Rome and all the other Gentile regions. Jesus will be on the throne then and will decide the fate of all these Gentile countries. And the same Jesus who taught the Beatitudes, who preached love for enemies, who revealed God as merciful to all, is the same Jesus who will judge these nations.
God hasn’t forgotten the persecution of these Jewish followers in Mathew’s community. God knows their suffering at the hands of some, and also knows the kindness shown to them by others.
On the day of the Lord, at the end of time, when Jesus is rightfully sitting on the throne of judgment, he will separate nations and peoples according, in part, to how these nations have treated “the least of these who are members of my family.”
Do you hear how that would sound to these people whose family and friends are either enslaved or who have had to flee for their lives? God remembers them, the least and most vulnerable of all people, and looks with favor on the nations that have shown them kindness. These refugees matter to God.
And how consistent that is with everything Jesus taught and did! Those who are powerless matter. Those who are poor and who mourn are blessed. Those who are frightened and vulnerable are lifted up in love. Live in hope, because God sees you and remembers you!
And God will also look with kindness on those who are kind to you. Not because they’ve tried harder (in the parable they don’t even know they’ve done things God finds favorable), but because they are filled with God’s love and simply live that way.
So, this isn’t a gospel text about trying harder to be nice to people. It’s two-fold: Jesus remembers you when you are suffering and frightened and helpless. But also, that God’s love is going to be shown. Because God’s love changes people. Even now when our world feels more chaotic and frightening than ever, God’s love is still changing the world. May Christ’s love continue to change us. May we then be among those who show mercy and compassion to refugees, to the poor, to the vulnerable, to the forgotten.