‘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. 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, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 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; 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, 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.”
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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 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.”
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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.” 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?” 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.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
By Revd Professor Bernard Silverman.
Matthew’s view of judgement seems harsh and uncompromising. But read this passage in bits, first of all up to the end of verse 36. Those who are blessed will inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. But what is required sounds impossible—to have given the king, the Son of Man, food when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, a welcome when he was a stranger, clothing when he was naked, care when he was sick, a visit when he was in prison. How could anyone have done that? No wonder the righteous are perplexed.
But, read on—whenever you did these things for “the least of these my brethren”. Whenever. In other translations: “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed,” or “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me”. Whatever you do to the son of man (a Hebrew phrase probably meaning “an ordinary person, nobody in particular”) you do to the Son of Man. So there’s hope for all of us—so often the most apparently inconsequential thing is what is needed to inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. And if you believe, as I do, that the kingdom is this-worldly, not just on the far side of history, you are at that very moment living your inheritance. I read: “The Son of Man does not demand supernatural feats, but simple, unobtrusive, charity.”
So now to the harsh bit, verses 41 to 45, the negative of what was said before. Those who do not do these things go to eternal punishment, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Is this just a rhetorical device? Perhaps.
However, we all live in that grey zone, where sometimes we do right and sometimes we fall short. Sometimes we do that act of “simple, unobtrusive, charity” and sometimes, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault, we don’t. So which is it to be, “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”, or “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”?
The key words are that little phrase “for you”. The eternal fire is only prepared for the devil and his angels. The kingdom, if only we will accept it, is prepared for all of us. Matthew’s wonderful dramatic picture of judgement is not there to frighten or threaten us; it’s to nudge our inner attitudes and our outer behaviour in the right direction. The ideas of the kingdom are not an add-on to our lives in what is so often a world of darkness, despair, injustice and violence. They are there, for each of us, from the foundation of the world. That is God’s will for us.
This Bible passage (rather like counting systems in elections!) has a theatrical quality that adds to its impact. Underneath it is the idea that every little action, every little attitude, has cosmic and eternal value. I’ve never really understood my own vocation. My own faith drifts at times and I very often feel uncomfortable with and in the institutional church. More seriously, both in the natural world and in the world and society we have made, there may be points of light, but there is great darkness too, as we have just called to mind on Remembrance Sunday, and as we are living through in the pandemic. Bad things happen to good (and not so good) people and there is no trite or simple explanation. But without the idea that every small thing matters, good and evil would be just things that happen, only our own opinion. I pray that is not so.
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