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Matthew 25: 31-46

I propose a biblical analysis with the following steps: a study of each Greek word of the evangelical text, followed by an analysis of the structure of the narrative and its context, to which is added a comparison of parallel or similar passages. At the end of this analysis and as a conclusion, I propose to summarize what the evangelist meant, and I end up with some suggestions on how this Gospel could shed light on our current situation.


 


  1. Translation of the Greek text (28th edition of Kurt Aland)

    Greek textTransliterated Greek textLiteral translationTranslation in current language
    31 Ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι μετʼ αὐτοῦ, τότε καθίσει ἐπὶ θρόνου δόξης αὐτοῦ• 31 Hotan de elthē ho huios tou anthrōpou en tē doxē autou kai pantes hoi angeloi metʼ autou, tote kathisei epi thronou doxēs autou•31 But when would come the son of the man in the glory of him and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon throne of glory of him.31 "When the new Adam appears accompanied by his messengers, then he will sit with the extraordinary quality of his being.
    32 καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺς ἀπʼ ἀλλήλων, ὥσπερ ὁ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων,32 kai synachthēsontai emprosthen autou panta ta ethnē, kai aphorisei autous apʼ allēlōn, hōsper ho poimēn aphorizei ta probata apo tōn eriphōn,32 And will be gathered before him all the nations, and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the ewe from the billy goats. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations. Then he will separate people from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
    33 καὶ στήσει τὰ μὲν πρόβατα ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ, τὰ δὲ ἐρίφια ἐξ εὐωνύμων.33 kai stēsei ta men probata ek dexiōn autou, ta de eriphia ex euōnymōn.33 And he will set indeed the ewe out of (the) right of him, but the billy goats out of (the) left. 33 On the one hand, there will be the sheep on his right, and on the other hand, the goats on his left.
    34 τότε ἐρεῖ ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῖς ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ• δεῦτε οἱ εὐλογημένοι τοῦ πατρός μου, κληρονομήσατε τὴν ἡτοιμασμένην ὑμῖν βασιλείαν ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου.34 tote erei ho basileus tois ek dexiōn autou• deute hoi eulogēmenoi tou patros mou, klēronomēsate tēn hētoimasmenēn hymin basileian apo katabolēs kosmou.34 Then he will say the King to those from (the) right of him, Come the having been blessed of the Father of me, inherit the having been prepared for you (the) kingdom from foundation of (the) world. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come! You, whom my Father has never ceased to value, inherit the domain which has been yours since the foundation of the world.
    35 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ ἐποτίσατέ με, ξένος ἤμην καὶ συνηγάγετέ με,35 epeinasa gar kai edōkate moi phagein, edipsēsa kai epotisate me, xenos ēmēn kai synēgagete me,35 For I hungered and you gave me to eat, I thirsted and you gave to drink me; stranger I was and you brought together me; 35 For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
    36 γυμνὸς καὶ περιεβάλετέ με, ἠσθένησα καὶ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με, ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην καὶ ἤλθατε πρός με.36 gymnos kai periebalete me, ēsthenēsa kai epeskepsasthe me, en phylakē ēmēn kai ēlthate pros me.36 naked and you clothed me, I was weak and you visited me, in prison I was and you came towards me. 36 naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me'.
    37 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται αὐτῷ οἱ δίκαιοι λέγοντες• κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα καὶ ἐθρέψαμεν, ἢ διψῶντα καὶ ἐποτίσαμεν;37 tote apokrithēsontai autō hoi dikaioi legontes• kyrie, pote se eidomen peinōnta kai ethrepsamen, ē dipsōnta kai epotisamen?37 Then I will answer him the righteous saying, Lord, when you we saw hungering and feed (you), or thirsting and we gave drink (to you)? 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you to drink?
    38 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ξένον καὶ συνηγάγομεν, ἢ γυμνὸν καὶ περιεβάλομεν;38 pote de se eidomen xenon kai synēgagomen, ē gymnon kai periebalomen?38 But when you we saw a stranger and brought (you) together, or naked and we clothed (you)? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and dress you?
    39 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ἀσθενοῦντα ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν πρός σε;39 pote de se eidomen asthenounta ē en phylakē kai ēlthomen pros se?39 But when you we saw being weak or in prison and we came towards you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and came to you?'
    40 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς• ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφʼ ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.40 kai apokritheis ho basileus erei autois• amēn legō hymin, ephʼ hoson epoiēsate heni toutōn tōn adelphōn mou tōn elachistōn, emoi epoiēsate.40 And having answered the king will say to them, Truly I say to you, upon as much as you did (it) to one of those the brothers of me the least, to me you did (it). 40 The king will then answer them: 'Truly, I assure you, everything that you did to one of these little ones who are my brothers, you did it to me'.
    41 τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων• πορεύεσθε ἀπʼ ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳ καὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ.41 tote erei kai tois ex euōnymōn• poreuesthe apʼ emou [hoi] katēramenoi eis to pyr to aiōnion to hētoimasmenon tō diabolō kai tois angelois autou.41 Then he will say also to those from left, Go from me [those] having been cursed into the fire the eternal the one having been prepared for the devil and the angels of him. 41 Then he will say to those to his left, 'Go far from me to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the adverse desire and its messengers.
    42 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ οὐκ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ οὐκ ἐποτίσατέ με,42 epeinasa gar kai ouk edōkate moi phagein, edipsēsa kai ouk epotisate me,42 For I hungered and you did not give me to eat, I thirsted and you did not give drink to me, 42 For I was hungry and you did not give me food, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink,
    43 ξένος ἤμην καὶ οὐ συνηγάγετέ με, γυμνὸς καὶ οὐ περιεβάλετέ με, ἀσθενὴς καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με.43 xenos ēmēn kai ou synēgagete me, gymnos kai ou periebalete me, asthenēs kai en phylakē kai ouk epeskepsasthe me.43 a stranger I was and you did not bring together me, naked and you did not clothe me, weak and in prison and you did not visit me. 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, ill and in prison and you did not visit me'.
    44 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται καὶ αὐτοὶ λέγοντες• κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα ἢ διψῶντα ἢ ξένον ἢ γυμνὸν ἢ ἀσθενῆ ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐ διηκονήσαμέν σοι;44 tote apokrithēsontai kai autoi legontes• kyrie, pote se eidomen peinōnta ē dipsōnta ē xenon ē gymnon ē asthenē ē en phylakē kai ou diēkonēsamen soi?44 Then they will answer also themselves saying, Lord, when you we saw hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or weak or in prison and we did not serve you? 44 Then they too will answer: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and we did not help you?'
    45 τότε ἀποκριθήσεται αὐτοῖς λέγων• ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφʼ ὅσον οὐκ ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων, οὐδὲ ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.45 tote apokrithēsetai autois legōn• amēn legō hymin, ephʼ hoson ouk epoiēsate heni toutōn tōn elachistōn, oude emoi epoiēsate.45 Then he will answer them saying, Truly I say to you, upon how much you did not do (it) to one of those the least, neither to me you did (it). 45 Then he will give them this answer: 'Truly, I assure you, everything that you did not do to one of these little ones, to me either you did not do it'.
    46 καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.46 kai apeleusontai houtoi eis kolasin aiōnion, hoi de dikaioi eis zōēn aiōnion.46 And they will go away these into punishment eternal, but the righteous into the life eternal. 46 And they will go for an endless punishment, and the righteous for an endless life".

  1. Analysis of each verse

    v. 31 When the new Adam appears accompanied by his messengers, then he will sit with the extraordinary quality of his being.

    Literally: But when would come the son of the man in the glory of him and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon throne of glory of him.

 
This scene appears to be copied from that of a king's court with his courtiers or officials sitting on his royal throne to exercise his judicial function. Such a depiction of the final judgment is not new to Matthew:
  • 16: 27: "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done"
  • 19: 28: "Jesus said to them, 'Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel'"

Matthew takes up a familiar theological vision of the Jewish world. Indeed, there was a current of thought that believed that God would one day intervene to end human history and exercise judgment to evaluate human conduct, reward those who did good, punish those who did evil. Just look at a few texts:

  • Proverbs 24: 12: "if you say, "Look, we did not know this" - does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds?"
  • Sirach 11: 26: "For it is easy for the Lord on the day of death to reward individuals according to their conduct"
  • Sirach 16: 12-14: "Great as is his mercy, so also is his chastisement; he judges a person according to his or her deeds. The sinner will not escape with plunder, and the patience of the godly will not be frustrated. He makes room for every act of mercy; everyone receives in accordance with his or her deeds"
  • Ezekiel 18: 30: "Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin"
  • Zechariah 14: 5: "Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him"
  • Daniel 12: 2: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt"

It is especially through the apocalyptic current that this idea of a sudden intervention by God became more pronounced. In the texts we have just quoted, we have two representatives of this: the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. The characteristic of this apocalyptic literature is to develop in difficult political and religious situations where, for the one who wants to remain faithful to God, only an exceptional intervention of God can free him. It is in this literature that the expression "son of man" spreads. In itself, it refers only to a human being. It is under this term that the prophet Ezekiel is called. But in the prophet Daniel, in one of his visions, he becomes a mysterious figure who comes on the clouds of heaven and is given empire, honor and kingdom, and whom all peoples, nations and languages are called to serve (see Daniel 7:13-14). This Son of Man seems to represent the faithful people whom God will raise up from his humiliation at the end of time and who will be called to judge all mankind; he becomes in some way the measure of all things, the criterion of evaluation. What the Gospels have handed down to us from Jesus echoes this line of thought, and a certain number of elements of it can be found in the Apocalypse of John, including that of the "Son of Man".

Faced with all that has just been said, the Christian of today may feel a certain uneasiness.

  • Let's start with the idea of the end of the world. Our scientific thinking is very far from that of Judaism, where God intervenes to put an end to human history. By accepting the "big bang" theory, the scientist observes a constant expansion and transformation of the universe, and therefore cannot accept, even if he is a believer, a God who would come to blur the laws that He himself created. Of course, in five billion years, the sun will have burned off all its hydrogen and will begin to become a red giant star by fusing helium to produce carbon and oxygen, will increase enormously in volume to the point of vaporizing the entire earth and returning to its state of galactic gas. But it is easy to imagine that over the next five billion years, man will have developed an unprecedented capacity to circulate in the universe and transform his world. In any case, one thing is certain: man, as an individual, is dying. And it is here that this gospel phrase still has its relevance. For, even if this idea of an end of time and a general judgment is not to be taken literally, the fact remains that each human being is responsible for his or her actions, that he or she will have to live with the consequences of his or her choices and take stock of his or her life.

  • Then there is the image of the God who judges. It took several years to free oneself from the terrible figure of the severe God who judges everything. What has become of the God of love and liberator? Above all, there is the idea of an external intervention that comes to punish, like a father who comes to spank his child because he disobeyed. Isn't it enough to live the consequences of one's actions? We have to admit that we are in front of an image that belongs to a cultural context, and we must first of all try to understand what one is striving to say through the limits of this image.

v. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations. Then he will separate people from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Literally: And will be gathered before him all the nations, and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the ewe from the billy goats.

all the nations
It is the trial of all humanity, Jews and non-Jews alike. It is a way of affirming that no one will escape it. It is also a way of affirming that God's authority extends over the entire universe.

aphorisei (he will separate)
The act of separating is the act of setting certain people apart, and thus evaluating and judging them. The Christian community has taken from Judaism the idea that at the end of time God will exercise his role as judge to separate those who have done good from those who have done evil. We see this in St. Paul.
  • Romans 2: 5-7: "But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one's deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life"

This idea that everyone will be judged according to his or her actions during God's great judgment is accentuated in Matthew, who, in addition to this scene of the Last Judgment, offers us a few others:

  • Matthew 13: 47-50: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"

  • Matthew 13: 40-43: "Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! "

This emphasis on the evaluation of action is not surprising, for Matthew's gospel is addressed to a Jewish-Christian community, and Judaism is above all an orthopraxis, i.e. the important thing is to act according to what is asked, and not an orthodoxy as seen in Catholicism today, i.e. the important thing is correct thinking.

One might ask the question: why do we push off this evaluation of people until the end of time? Matthew's Jesus tells us the story where the owner of a farm asks to delay the separation of the chaff from the wheat until harvest time, i.e. the time when each plant will have reached its maturity, and therefore easily identifiable. The image of the harvest evokes the end of time, and the request to delay the separation of what is good and what is bad alludes to the difficulty of discriminating between what is good and what is bad at this time, and so everything is handed over to God's judgment.

  • Matthew 13: 28-30: "He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. "

v. 33 On the one hand, there will be the sheep on his right, and on the other hand, the goats on his left.

Literally: And he will set indeed the ewe out of (the) right of him, but the billy goats out of (the) left.

 
It is likely that this scene evokes a real event in the lives of people in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The ewe is the female of the sheep, while the billy goat is the male whose female is the nanny goat. Probably both were part of the same pasture on which the shepherd watched over, and there came a time when two different flocks had to be formed for many reasons, first to avoid the conflicts caused by the goat as it reached maturity, and second to proceed with the sale of the parts of the flock. It should be remembered that the billy goat was the animal traditionally offered as a sacrifice for the atonement of sins (see Lev 4:23; Heb 9:12,19; 14:4).

out of (the) right... out of (the) left
In the history of symbolism, the right is associated with the "good" side, the noble side, the position of favor. Is it because the number of right-handed people surpasses the number of left-handed people in the history of mankind, and thus the right becomes the rule from which left-handed people deviate? Regardless, we find many passages in the Bible associating the right with the good side. Here are a few examples:

  • Genesis 48: 14: "But Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands, for Manasseh was the firstborn. "
  • Exodus 15: 6: "Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power - your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy. "
  • Leviticus 7: 32: "And the right thigh from your sacrifices of well-being you shall give to the priest as an offering"
  • 1 Kings 2: 19: "So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king's mother, and she sat on his right"
  • 2 Maccabees 14: 33: "he stretched out his right hand toward the sanctuary, and swore this oath: "If you do not hand Judas over to me as a prisoner, I will level this shrine of God to the ground and tear down the altar, and build here a splendid temple to Dionysus "
  • Psalm 16: 8: "keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved"
  • Psalm 110: 1: "The Lord says to my lord, 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool'"

Why the ewe on the right and the billy goats on the left? On the symbolic level, it is undoubtedly normal to associate the ewe with the right side: this one gives milk, an abundant wool and can engender lambs, and thus has more value than the billy goat whose wool is undoubtedly less important and whose number does not need to be raised in order to ensure the survival of the species. Symbolically, this last point is interesting: the small number of billy goats in the herd suggests that the number of those who receive the judge's reproaches is less than those who receive praise.

v. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come! You, whom my Father has never ceased to value, inherit the domain which has been yours since the foundation of the world.

Literally: Then he will say the King to those from (the) right of him, Come the having been blessed of the Father of me, inherit the having been prepared for you (the) kingdom from foundation of (the) world.

the king
We are surprised to see a change in the characters, as one would expect to find the expression "son of man (or new Adam)" who acts as a judge, and not the word "king" which suddenly appears and is mentioned for the first time in this story. It is as if Matthew was referring to another source, such as the one at the origin of some of his parables where the kingdom of God is mentioned:
  • 18: 23: "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves"
  • 22: 2: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son"

Even though we often talk about the reign of Christ, it is very rare that the title of king is positively attributed to Jesus by believers or disciples or by Jesus himself in the New Testament:

  • John 1: 49: "Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
  • John 18: 37: Pilate asked him, 'So you are a king?" Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice'"
  • Revelation 17: 14: they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful"
  • Revelation 19: 16: "On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, 'King of Kings' and 'Lord of lords'"

Here Jesus is associated with the king because he is the one who exercises judgment as the son of man and because this king speaks of "my Father". The title of king is undoubtedly called by the mention of the kingdom, which is the proper domain of a king.

eulogēmenoi (having been blessed)
The Greek term eulogeō, usually translated as "to bless", means literally: to say good, to praise. Given the context in which Jesus lists a series of actions that he evaluates, I preferred to use value language such as "to value". In the New Testament, "to bless" is often attributed to a gesture of Jesus, and it is rarer to see it as an action of God himself. And in the latter case, it is often to refer to the blessing given by God to Abraham. Otherwise, one hears descriptions of God's favorable interventions.

  • Acts 3: 25: "You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'"
  • Galatians 3: 8-9.14: "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.' For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed... in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."
  • Ephesians 1: 3: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places"
  • Hebrews 6: 7: "Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God"
  • Hebrews 6: 14: "saying, 'I will surely bless you (Abraham) and multiply you'"

klēronomēsate (inherit)
The image of inheritance is indicative of our relationship to the kingdom: it is God's property, and we have access to it only if God is willing to give it to us as an inheritance (see Mt 21:38 and the parable of the homicidal winegrowers who want to take the inheritance by force and are eliminated). For no one can claim the right to this kingdom; it is God's decision. So who are the heirs? The rest of the story will describe these heirs. But for now we can look at a sample of references to the term klēronomeō to see that it has almost exclusively a religious connotation, and is largely related to the kingdom of God.

  • Matthew 5: 5: "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth"
  • Matthew 19: 29: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life"
  • Mark 10: 17: "As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, 'Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?'"
  • Acts 20: 32: "And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified"
  • Acts 26: 18: "to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me"
  • Romans 8: 17: "and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him"
  • 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10: "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God"
  • 1 Corinthians 15: 50: "What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable"
  • Galatians 4: 6-7: "And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God"
  • Ephesians 1: 14 : "this (the Holy Spirit) is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory"
  • James 2: 5 : "Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?"

The first thing we notice from this sample is that there are conditions for inheriting this reality that is called either eternal life or the kingdom of God: this reality is for meek people, people who live what God asks, people who are not unjust, people who accept to suffer as Christ suffered. At the same time, it is a gift that is accessed through faith, through the acceptance of the Holy Spirit, because mortal man cannot inherit immortality. And through this, we become sons of God, we become heirs of our Father. The first element of this inheritance is the Spirit of God himself.

apo katabolēs kosmou (from foundation of (the) world.)
We are faced with the biblical cosmology where creation is presented in a linear way: in the beginning, heaven and earth were created, and there is nothing more to add, and now we are very close to the end, when God makes his Son known. This is how katabolē describes this beginning of the universe, which also corresponds to the beginning of human history. Before the beginning of the world, there is God who knows what he is going to do, who loves his Son, who already chooses him in view of the end times, and who knows in advance who are his sons inheriting this kingdom that he has planned to give them. Let's look at the term katabolē elsewhere in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 13: 35: "This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: 'I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world'" (see Psalm 78: 2)
  • Luke 11: 50: "so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world"
  • John 17: 24: "Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world"
  • Ephesians 1: 4: "just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love"
  • Hebrews 4: 3-4: "For we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, 'As in my anger I swore, 'They shall not enter my rest,'' though his works were finished at the foundation of the world. For in one place it speaks about the seventh day as follows, 'And God rested on the seventh day from all his works'"
  • Hebrews 9: 26: "for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself"
  • 1 Peter 1: 20: "He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake"
  • Revelation 13: 8: "and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered"
  • Revelation 17: 8: "The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to destruction. And the inhabitants of the earth, whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will be amazed when they see the beast, because it was and is not and is to come"

Note that we are not talking about predestination. We simply want to affirm that the Jesus event and the drama experienced by Christians are not accidents of history, but something that God knew and somehow wanted since the beginning of time.

v. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

Literally: For I hungered and you gave me to eat, I thirsted and you gave to drink me; stranger I was and you brought together me

 
We are faced with what constitutes the basic care of the person: food and drink in order to survive, clothing to protect oneself from the cold, support when one is homeless or sick or when one loses one's freedom and source of income in a prison. These words of Matthew's Jesus seem to echo the humanistic ethics of Judaism (see for example Proverbs 25:21 where one is invited to give food and drink even to one's enemy). This ethic is echoed throughout the New Testament.

Ensuring that people have food and drink:

  • Matthew 10: 42: "and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward"
  • Luke 3: 11: "In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise'"
  • Luke 14: 13: "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."
  • Acts 6: 1: "Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food"
  • Romans 12: 20: "No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads"
  • 1 Corinthians 11: 33: "So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another"

Providing hospitality :

  • Matthew 10: 40: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me"
  • Romans 12: 13: "Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers"
  • Colossians 4: 10: "Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, as does Mark the cousin of Barnabas, concerning whom you have received instructions - if he comes to you, welcome him"
  • 1 Peter 4: 9: "Be hospitable to one another without complaining"
  • Hebrews 13: 2: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it"

Clothe those who are naked :

  • Luke 3: 11: "In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise'"
  • Acts 9: 36.39: "Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity... So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them"
  • James 2: 15-16: "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?"

Supporting suffering beings and prisoners :

  • Luke 10: 33-34: "But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him"
  • 2 Timothy 1: 16-18: "May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me - may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus"
  • Hebrews 13: 3: "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured"
  • James 5: 13-14: "Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord"

v. 36 naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me'.

Literally: naked and you clothed me, I was weak and you visited me, in prison I was and you came towards me.

v. 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you to drink?

Literally: Then I will answer him the righteous saying, Lord, when you we saw hungering and feed (you), or thirsting and we gave drink (to you)?

dikaioi (righteous)
It is the first time in the story that those who were placed at the king's right hand and who are "valued" or "blessed" by him are identified. Matthew calls them the righteous. Basically, the adjective "righteous" refers to actions that are in accordance with what is to be done and good judgment, or what is fair. It is therefore a general quality of the authentic and true person, the wise person. But as in the ancient Near East the right action on the moral level is also inspired by religious prescriptions, the righteous being is also a religious being. The righteous being is therefore opposed to the sinner or the unjust being or the being without God or who does not fear God. In Matthew, we have several examples of righteous beings:
  • 1: 19: "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly"
  • 5: 45: "so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous"
  • 9: 13: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners"
  • 10: 41: "Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous"
  • 13: 17: "Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it"
  • 13: 43: "Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
  • 13: 49: "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous"
  • 23: 29: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous"
  • 27: 19: "While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him"

It will have been noticed that the righteous is opposed to the sinner, or the wicked being, or the lawless being, and is presented alongside the prophets as representative of the people of God. Pilate's wife sees Jesus as a righteous man, a term well known in Greco-Roman culture to speak of a being who is innocent and blameless. The term therefore has a universal connotation, and as Matthew in this scene of the final judgment intends to include the entire universe, not just the Jews, then the term righteous is appropriate to refer to righteous beings of whatever origin.

kyrie (Lord)
The root of the Greek word means: strength, power. In classical Greek, the word means "he who is master of, who has authority", i.e. the master, the master of the house, the legal representative, the guardian (see our glossary). Thus, in Greek civilization, the term refers to a whole range of entities: from slave owners to rulers of various kingdoms, through a multitude of gods. But when the Jews made a Greek translation of the Old Testament in the 2nd century BC, called the Septuagint (LXX), to avoid using the proper name Yahweh, which must remain unpronounceable, they opted for the term "lord" to transcribe and replace the tetragrammaton Yhwh. In doing so, they will give a special luster to a rather mundane term, so that Roman emperors will end up using this title. Among the early Christians, because of the influence of the LXX, but also because of the Aramaic expression mārē (master), which is used in Daniel 5:23 to designate God, as well as by Christians of Aramaic origin (see 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20), the term Lord will of course refer to God, but also to Jesus who is now exalted at the right hand of God (see Acts 2:36) and who will be called to judge mankind, and even also the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

Returning to our text in v. 37, "Lord" refers to the king by virtue of his power as judge. But under Matthew's pen it also refers to the risen Jesus, the Son of Man, who is called to judge mankind. And since Matthew insists that every act of compassion towards a human being is above all an action towards Christ, the term Lord refers above all to the risen Jesus.

eidomen (we saw)
In the story, the righteous express their surprise. What is the object of the surprise? It does not concern the acts themselves, those of giving food, drink, clothing, hospitality or comfort. It is about the meaning of these gestures. For the righteous, the meaning of their action was to help particular individuals, whereas Matthew's Jesus gives them a Christian meaning, i.e. in reference to Christ. It should be noted that at no point in the story is there any talk of faith and the righteous are not attached to any religion. But Matthew is keen to give any gesture of compassion a Christian dimension.

v. 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and dress you?

Literally: But when you we saw a stranger and brought (you) together, or named and we clothed (you)?

v. 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and came to you?'

Literally: But when you we saw being weak or in prison and we came towards you?

v. 40 The king will then answer them: 'Truly, I assure you, everything that you did to one of these little ones who are my brothers, you did it to me'.

Literally: And having answered the king will say to them, Truly I say to you, upon as much as you did (it) to one of those the brothers of me the least, to me you did (it).

amēn legō hymin (Truly I say to you)
The word amēn comes from the Hebrew, from the root ’mn, and it designates either a solid thing or a reliable person (see our Glossary). The verb ’aman means to trust or be confident. At the end of a prayer, it proclaims that one makes one's content one's own in confidence, or at the end of a solemn declaration, it affirms its solidity. In the Gospels, it is put in the mouth of Jesus (Mt 30 times, Mk 13 times, Lk 6 times, Jn 25 times) to introduce an important affirmation. It is possible that all of this can be traced back to a use of Jesus himself. By using this expression, the Gospels give the following statement the authority of the risen Jesus. This is what Matthew does here by putting the full weight of Jesus' authority on compassionate gestures. Among Matthew's 30 uses, let's give a few examples:

  • 5: 18: "For amēn I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished"
  • 10: 42: "and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - amēn I tell you, none of these will lose their reward"
  • 11: 11: "Amēn I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he"
  • 17: 20: "He said to them, 'Because of your little faith. For amēn I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you'"
  • 18: 3: "and said, "amēn I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven"
  • 18: 18: "Amēn I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven"
  • 18: 19: "Again, amēn I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven"

adelphōn (brothers)
In the story, Jesus shows his solidarity with the unimportant people by calling them "my brothers". In the New Testament, the term adelphos can have several meanings: the blood brother, the one to whom one becomes socially close, a member of the Christian community. What is the meaning here? Matthew uses the expression "my brothers" very infrequently.
  • 12: 48-50: "But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers (adelphos)?' And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers (adelphos)! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'"
  • 28: 10: "Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers (adelphos) to go to Galilee; there they will see me"

And so, without these few references, one would be led to believe that they would be Jesus' disciples. But the context of the final judgment is that of the whole of humanity, without reference to an explicit following of Jesus. Thus, it is more likely that "my brothers" refers to all those who have expressed their compassion, and thus in their own way demonstrated an attitude worthy of a disciple of Jesus without bearing the label.

elachistōn (the least)
What do we mean by the least or the little ones? Elachistos is the superlative of elachys (small, short, low). It is the lowest in a scale of sizes. It is used several times in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 2: 6: "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least (elachistos) among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel"
  • Matthew 5: 19: "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least (elachistos) of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least (elachistos) in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven"
  • Luke 12: 26: "If then you are not able to do so small a thing (elachistos) as that, why do you worry about the rest?"
  • Luke 16: 10: "Whoever is faithful in a very little (elachistos) is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little (elachistos) is dishonest also in much"
  • Luke 19: 17: "He said to him, 'Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing (elachistos), take charge of ten cities.'"
  • 1 Corinthians 4: 3: "But with me it is a very small thing (elachistos) that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself"
  • 1 Corinthians 6: 2: "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases (elachistos)?"
  • 1 Corinthians 15: 9: "For I am the least (elachistos) of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God"
  • James 3: 4: "Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small (elachistos) rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs"

The word therefore applies to the general realities of life and to things that are unimportant or insignificant, or that are minor. The superlative is a way of affirming that there is nothing that is useless or that should not hold our attention.

v. 41 Then he will say to those to his left, 'Go far from me to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the adverse desire and its messengers.

Literally: Then he will say also to those from left, Go from me [those] having been cursed into the fire the eternal the one having been prepared for the devil and the angels of him.

pyr (fire)
We can say that Matthew is a specialist in fire, because he is the one who speaks the most about it, especially about the Gehenna of fire. Apart from a passage from the letter of Jude (7), he is the only one to mention an "eternal fire". We must first remember that Gehenna refers to a piece of land in Jerusalem that was used as a garbage dump and where a fire was permanently lit to burn the garbage (see Gehenna or Valley of Hinnon, south of the first wall on the Jerusalem map). It is easy to imagine how this dump could have served as an image to describe the final elimination of evil at the end of time. In addition to our verse, let's look at Matthew's other uses:

  • 3: 10-12: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire"
  • 5: 22: "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire"
  • 13: 40-42: "Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"
  • 13: 49-50: "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth"
  • 17: 15: "and said, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water"
  • 18: 8-9: ""If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire"

One will notice the images of an agrarian culture where good and bad plants are separated, and where the bad ones are set on fire, as is still done today. For an authentic being, these images allow one to have a sigh of relief at the hope of an elimination of evil.

diabolō (devil)
The Greek word diabolos is made up of two terms, dia, which means "through", and ballō, which means "throw" or "pitch". It could refer to a stick that could be thrown through the wheel bars of a chariot to stop it. In reference to a person, the noun means: the man slandering, the slandererer, and the verb means: to accuse, to denounce. In the Gospels, the term is not so frequent: the devil plays a role in the account of Jesus' temptations (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:2-12), he is the one who sows the tares (Mt 13:39) or takes away the seed of the Word of God (Lk 8:12), he is the one who takes control of Judas (Jn 6:70; 13:2). He thus designates the adversary of God's plan. Today we would speak of a force that opposes life, but the New Testament likes to personalize things. And so this adversary has, like God, a whole court to support him, messengers or angels. It is as if two armies were facing each other, and several apocalyptic accounts will describe this final confrontation. But the outcome of this battle is known: the opposing force will be destroyed and thrown into this eternal garbage can.

v. 42 For I was hungry and you did not give me food, I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink

Literally: For I hungered and you did not give me to eat, I thirsted and you did not give drink to me,

v. 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, ill and in prison and you did not visit me'.

Literally: a stranger I was and you did not bring together me, naked and you did not clothe me, weak and in prison and you did not visit me.

v. 44 Then they too will answer: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and we did not help you?'

Literally: Then they will answer also themselves saying, Lord, when you we saw hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or weak or in prison and we did not serve you?

v. 45 Then he will give them this answer: 'Really, I assure you, everything that you did not do to one of these little ones, to me either you did not do it'.

Literally: Then he will answer them saying, Truly I say to you, upon how much you did not do (it) to one of those the least, neither to me you did (it).

 
There is little to say about all these verses. We have a repetition of the dialogue that the king had with the righteous, except that it takes the form of reproaches about what should have been done, and was not done. But it is worth noting an important point in moral life: too often, evil is identified with reprehensible actions such as killing or robbing or slandering someone, whereas here evil takes the form of a lack of action.

v. 46 And they will go for an endless punishment, and the righteous for an endless life".

Literally: And they will go away these into punishment eternal, but the righteous into the life eternal.

kolasin aiōnion (punishment eternal)
The verb kolazō (to chastise) means literally: to prune, excise, cut, contain, correct, from which the action of chastising or punishing is derived. It is used very little in the New Testament, and it is Matthew's only use here.
  • Acts 4: 21: "After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish (kolazō) them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened."
  • 2 Peter 2: 9: "then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under to be punished (kolazō) until the day of judgment"
  • 1 John 4: 18: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment (kolasis), and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love"

The only text that has some similarity with Matthew's is 2 Peter with its reference to the day of judgment and its apocalyptic context. We know absolutely nothing about this punishment, except that men will know that they did not act in accordance with what God expected. Peter's 2nd letter refers to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but such a picture does not give details of what awaits the ungodly. Finally, when we look at the term kolasis in the Septuagint, we receive little new information: the term receives the usual meaning of a punishment to correct a behavior (see Wisdom 11:13; 16:1-2; 16:24; 19:4; LXX: Jeremiah 18:20; LXX: Ezekiel 14:3-4; 18:30; 43:11; 44:12; 3 Maccabees 1:3; 7:10; 4 Maccabees 8:9).

Finally, it should be noted that rather than having "endless punishment," one would have expected "endless death," since the expression is contrasted with "endless life. (Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"). We must accept that our story prefers to remain vague, without really specifying what exactly this endless punishment is.

zōēn aiōnion (life eternal)
By the context, we know that it is about a future life, at the time of God's judgment. The synoptic writings (not so for John) speak little of "eternal life.
  • Matthew 19: 16: "Then someone came to him and said, 'Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?'" (|| Mc 10, 17 || Lc 18, 18)
  • Matthew 19: 29: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life" (|| Mc 10, 30 || Lc 18, 30)
  • Luke 10: 25: "Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. 'Teacher,' he said, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?'"

These references to eternal life go in the same direction: there is on the one hand human life:

  • where the individual must put into practice the commandments (Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not harm, honor your father and mother),
  • where the individual must love God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his strength and with all his mind and his neighbor as himself (Luke's text is followed here by the parable of the Good Samaritan),
  • where the disciple left home, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or fields to follow Jesus

and there is on the other hand the follow-up to such a life:

  • God gives eternal life as an inheritance at the end of time.

Our v. 46 is along the same lines, since watching over the hungry, the thirsty, the poor, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner echoes Luke's account of the Good Samaritan; it illustrates what it means to love God with all one's being and one's neighbor as oneself; it is the positive side of the commandments.

Finally, it should be noted that this notion of "eternal life", linked to a general resurrection at the end of time (since one cannot enter life without a body), is recent in Judaism, since it appeared around the 2nd century BC:

  • Daniel 12: 2: "Many of those who sleep in the land of dust will awaken, some for eternal life, others for reproach, for eternal horror."
  • 2 Maccabees 7: 9: "When he breathed his last: 'You are a villain,' he said (one of the Maccabean brothers), 'you exclude us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to eternal life, we who are dying for his laws'"

Expression zōē aiōnios in the Gospels-Acts
  1. Analysis of the narrative's structure

    v. 31-32a Introduction or setting – 1) characters, 2) time and 2) location:
         1) son of man with his messengers, all nations,
         2) end of times,
         3) throne of glory

    v. 32b-33 Action of the king - He separates people into two categories, on his right and on his left.

    v. 34-40 Dialogue with those to his right

    v. 34-36 Word of the king to those on his right v. 34: Invitation to enter the Kingdom
    v. 35-36: Explanation of this invitation - gestures of compassion
    v. 37-39 Reaction of those to his right: when did these actions take place?
    v. 40 Answer of the King: when actions have been taken towards those in need

    v. 41-45 Dialogue with those to his left

    v. 41-43 Word of the king to those on his left v. 41: Order to go to the eternal fire
    v. 42-43: Explanation of this invitation - no gesture of compassion
    v. 44 Reaction of those to his right: when should these actions have taken place?
    v. 45 Answer of the king: when there were people in need

    Conclusion: two different locations, i.e. that of an endless punishment, that of an endless life

    • The story is basically very simple and has a symmetrical structure. The heart of the story is a separation made by the king (Son of Man) to determine who will enter a kingdom of eternal life, and who will be thrown into an eternal garbage can. Around this central action, a dialogue takes place between the king and the two groups of people to enlighten it with a justification.

  2. Context analysis

    1. Immediate Context

      • This account of the Last Judgment is part of a long discourse of Jesus (24, 4 - 25, 46) pronounced on the Mount of Olives and is introduced by the question of his disciples: "Tell us when it will take place (destruction of the temple), and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the world". We are therefore bathed in an eschatological atmosphere, i.e. of the end of times. This discourse could be broken down like this:

        1. Jesus' answer to the question about the signs and the time of the end
          1. a. The end of time will be preceded by a difficult period (24: 4-14)
            1. It will be a time of false messiahs
            2. It will be a time of upheaval
            3. It will be a period of persecution
            4. It will be a time of false prophets
            5. It will be a time when love will cool down
            6. It will be an opportunity to be resilient and proclaim the Good News to all nations.
          2. The end will begin with terrible days for Jerusalem (24: 15-25)
            1. The situation will force people to become refugees
            2. it will be a time of false Christ and false prophets.
          3. The arrival of the Son of Man will not be in doubt (24: 26-35).
            1. It is useless to go looking for it
            2. The cosmos will be turned upside down
            3. Then the Son of Man will appear in the clouds and his angels will gather the elect from the four corners of the earth with trumpets.

        2. Since the time is not known, one must be careful (24: 36 - 25: 30).
          1. This moment will be as unforeseen as the flood and there will be no outward signs to identify elected and non-elected people
          2. Also you have to behave day and night to be responsible for it, to be ready at all times
          3. Three parables illustrating this point
            1. Put yourself in the position of a master who has entrusted his estate to a steward, how will he react to a good or bad steward?
            2. As the parable of the ten virgins shows, one must be prepared for a long wait, otherwise one risks missing this encounter with the son of man
            3. As the parable of the talents shows, this moment of long waiting is a time when we must make what we have been entrusted with bear fruit, otherwise we will not be ready for the kingdom.

        3. 3) Last Judgment narrative that creates two categories of people (25: 31-46)

      • This great discourse is a construction of Matthew, using various materials. As we have seen, it could be divided into three parts:

        1. Jesus answers the question about the time of the end times and his return by referring to the tribulations that preceded it, but assuring them that his coming will be very visible, so they need not worry. In this section, Matthew follows Mark's text quite closely.

        2. But he adds that, since the exact moment is totally unknown, the important thing is to use this time to behave responsibly, ready for a very long time and making good use of what has been given to us, especially the word of the gospel. In this section, Matthew departs from Mark and uses much of the material he shares with Luke, commonly referred to as Document Q.

        3. And he ends with a vivid description of the coming of the Son of Man and the final judgment where people are divided into two categories, according to the compassion shown. This story is unique to Matthew.

      • Our account of the final judgment thus ends this great speech which is, in fact, the last of Jesus before his trial and death. It does not answer the disciples' original question. Rather, it plays the role of the conclusion of his teaching by making explicit the criteria by which all mankind will be evaluated to determine those who have put his teaching into practice, and those who have not, and thereby making known those who will inherit the kingdom, and those who will be excluded from it. It articulates well with the above, focusing on the present period of waiting, illustrating what should be done during this period, actively expressing compassion.

    2. General Context

      • Jesus' speech in Jerusalem is in fact the fifth of the great speeches that structure Matthew's gospel. Let us recall them:
        • 5: 3 - 7: 28: the sermon on the mountain
        • 10: 5 - 42: the mission statement
        • 13: 3 - 52: the discourse in parables
        • 18: 2 - 35: the discourse on community
        • 24: 4 - 25: 46: the eschatological discourse

        Matthew calls these speeches or instructions logoi, literally: words. Now, this term refers to the description in Exodus 20:1 of Yahweh's words given to Moses at Sinai, the ten debarim in Hebrew, which the Greek Septuagint translated as logoi. Jesus is therefore the new Moses. Moreover, the first discourse is given on the mountain (5:1: Jesus went up into the mountain). One can imagine that the five discourses evoke the Pentateuch, or the first 5 books of the Bible, which constituted the heart or the foundations of Judaism, and that the five discourses of Jesus constitute the foundations of the community of Matthew.

      • The period in which the Gospel was written is a difficult time, especially for Jewish-Christian communities. On the one hand, they experience the rejection of their Jewish brothers, who consider them heretics. At the same time, the young church is distancing itself from a number of Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary restrictions (see Acts 15:1-29). On the other hand, the Jewish pillars of the young church die, such as James, Peter, Paul. This causes a real identity crisis. What does it mean to be a Jewish Christian? Where are the points of reference? It is not surprising to see Matthew's Jesus denouncing iniquity (Greek: anomia, literally: absence of law; see Mt 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12); many Jewish Christians must have felt that there was no longer any law, and as Paul often repeated, the Christian is free from the Law. So, through Jesus' five discourses, Matthew specifies the new law that will govern Christian practice.

      • There is a surprising phrase that can only be found in Matthew's gospel, in Jesus' fifth discourse: "Because of increasing iniquity, love will grow cold among the many" (Mt 24:12). The absence of law leads to an absence of love. We have the impression that we have here an echo of a community situation. In this context, the criterion of the Last Judgment, in which each person will be judged according to the compassion he or she has shown, takes on a striking significance: is it not a word that speaks directly to people whose hearts have grown cold?

      • In short, this fifth discourse of Jesus, the eschatological discourse, is consistent with the whole of Matthew's gospel. It continues what was begun with the Sermon on the Mount, it marks out Christian action in a context where Jewish Christians wondered whether there were still laws, and it reminds us that despite the disappearance of all these ritual requirements and dietary constraints, the law of love remained in all its force.

  3. Parallels

    • This story has no parallel with the other gospels. Rather, it bears the mark of themes peculiar to Matthew:
      • The son of man who will sit on his throne of glory: 19:28; 25:31
      • There will be a gathering of all men at the end of time: 13:47; 25:32
      • Judgment will be a separation: 13, 49; 25, 32
      • The righteous will take possession of the kingdom; 13, 47.49; 25, 37.46
      • Others will be sent to eternal fire: 13:50; 25:41.

    • According to biblical scholar M.-É. Boismard (voir Synopse des quatre évangiles en français, Tome II : Paris, Cerf, 1972, p. 368), Matthew would have been inspired by the document The Treatise of the Two Ways, a small Jewish moral treatise, originally written in Aramaic, which we now know only in its Greek form through the Didache, and in a Latin translation that has come down to us under the title of Doctrina Apostolorum. Here is a part of the text as it can be reconstructed from the Didache with some variants of the Doctrina (Doctr.):

      1: 1There are two ways, that of life and that of death (Doctr. adds: of light and darkness, upon which two angels have been established, one of justice and the other of injustice).
      1: 2This is the way of life: first, you will love the God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself. All things you would not want done to you, and you
      1: 3ado not do it to others; such is the teaching (Doctr.: interpretation) of these words:
      2: 2You shall not kill, commit adultery, infanticide, fornicate, steal, ...covet your neighbor's property, perjure yourself, testify falsely, etc.
      2: 7You shall not hate anyone, but some you shall rebuke; some you shall reprimand; some you shall show mercy; some you shall pray for; some you shall love more than your own soul.
      3: 1My son, flee from everything (that is) wrong.
      3: 2Do not be angry, for anger leads to murder.
      3: 3Do not be subject to covetousness, for covetousness leads to fornication...

      The centerpiece of this treatise is "what you hate, don't do it to anyone". This is what the Old Testament tries to make clear:

      • Ezekiel 18: 7: "does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment"
      • Isaiah 58: 7: "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?"
      • Tobit 4: 16: Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms.

      And that's what Matthew is trying to do here.

  4. Intention of the author when writng this passage

    • This is Jesus' last speech before the events leading up to his trial and death begin. Matthew placed in a very logical way a teaching addressed to his community, concerning how to act during the absence of his master, and reminding that all will have to account for their actions at the final judgment. In doing so, Matthew is not breaking new ground, for the essentials are already found in the Old Testament: care for the thirsty, the hungry, the poor, the foreigners, the sick and the prisoners is present everywhere; and the prospect of a day of Yahweh judging everyone according to their deeds is part of the faith of many Jews, and we will see at that moment who has chosen life and who has chosen death. Nevertheless, Matthew gives all of this a Christian perspective: it is the risen Christ, called the Son of Man, who will preside over this final judgment and evaluate human actions, and gestures of compassion toward men are fundamentally gestures of compassion toward the risen Christ himself. It also gives the scene a universal dimension: the criteria for judgment apply to all, Christians and non-Christians, Jews and non-Jews, so that the criterion for judgment is not faith or religious affiliation or the fact of being baptized, but demonstrated compassion. The surprise of people who did not even know that it was the risen Christ they were supporting suggests that it could be people who have never even heard of Christ, but who are considered "Christians" without knowing it.

    • Let us also remember that Matthew's Jewish-Christian community is going through difficult times: it is rejected by the Jewish community and probably excluded from synagogues, many of the ritual laws and dietary prescriptions that were part of Jewish identity have fallen away, and now the return of Christ that was expected soon is not happening. All this is enough to cause an identity crisis and a form of communal depression. Matthew undertakes the project of "catechizing" his community once again. In Jesus they have a new Moses who gives them a new law, and so they are not lawless. And this law is summed up in love of neighbor. To bring the community out of its torpor, Matthew is going to strike his imagination by agitating the threat for Christians to be excluded from the kingdom and to be rejected into darkness or into the Gehenna of fire. He reminds them that they have to choose between the path of life and the path of death. This scene from the Last Judgment is a reminder of this. At this point it will be useless to claim their title of Christian: only their actions will count.

    • In short, Matthew tells them this: our master is absent, but you can join him today by expressing your compassion for those in need, and thereby you will inherit eternal life, and you will not be with those who will experience eternal punishment.

  5. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

    1. Suggestions from the different symbols in the story

      The symbols in this story are extremely numerous. Let's choose a few of them.

      • The symbolism of the judgment can take several directions. Usually, we do not like this symbolism which has a negative connotation. However, it is part of everyday life. At school, young people have their academic performance evaluated. They have to go through an annual performance appraisal. Many senior managers expect a bonus based on the performance of their portfolio. Whether or not one appreciates these evaluations, one fact remains: human beings evolve differently, some exceed expectations, others disappoint. What happens when we place ourselves on the religious level? Can we simply say: God is good, and it doesn't matter what we do?

      • The symbolism of separation, like that of judgment, pushes us away. We desire equality so much that to begin to distinguish people from one another, to put them in different categories, seems anti-human to us. Yet all this is part of the truth of things. There are people who can write well, others who cannot; there are people who can speak well, others who cannot. There are people who have developed an immense capacity to love, and others who are still at the stage where others are a threat. Knowing that our humanity is such a mosaic, what is the right attitude? One thing is clear, the final separation belongs to God alone.

      • The symbolism of a kingdom inherited by people whom God values opens up an unprecedented perspective: life does not end with death, but unfolds in an eternal dimension that only God can offer. This only accentuates the value of this life, knowing that it is the first step and the springboard for a much greater reality. Doesn't it change the way we look at it?

      • The symbolism of rejection or sending a group of people to the trash can be shocking, especially in reference to eternal punishment. We may be surprised to feel pity for them. However, we must not lose sight of the central affirmation: our gestures, our decisions, our actions have consequences. Just as throwing yourself off a building has an impact on your body, so some of my decisions can destroy me. We probably need others to see clearly. Are we ready for that?

      • The symbolism of the invisible man, i.e. Christ who is behind every being in need is interesting. It enhances each individual, even the most humble, with an aura of mystery, a spiritual dimension. It can also signal our myopia, like this story about Don Bosco. He had come to France one day and some priests had given him a shabby room in the attic in the presbytery to house him. Later, when he was raised to sainthood, those priests said, "If we had known, we would have given him a better room". Doesn't history repeat itself?

    2. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

      • Almost every day the news bulletin and newspapers talk about the threat of Ebola. Today a headline: "Lack of global solidarity worries the UN". What does today's gospel bring in such a situation? Can we remain indifferent?

      • Internationally, helping people in need is not easy. We realize this in the face of the attacks of the Islamic state. How can we help those who have lost everything and are displaced, transfixed by fear? Accentuate the aerial bombardments? Send convoys of soldiers? Everyone has their own solution. What is the minimum that can be done?

      • A special synod on the family is ending in the Vatican. Opposing visions are clashing: should we show more compassion to people who do not live according to the rules of the Catholic Church? In all of these discussions, who will evoke today's gospel? Let's bet that the emphasis will be on the unchanging doctrine of the Church, regardless of the people. And after having compartmentalized everything, the question will be asked: where does doctrine end, where does pastoral work begin? Does this reflect Jesus' approach?

      • Some time ago, a man with a mental illness, and in a state of crisis, died, killed by the bullets of a policeman's gun in self-defense. But an in-depth analysis of all the circumstances showed that all this could have been better handled from the beginning with better preparation on the part of the police officers. Can today's gospel motivate us to invest time and energy to better manage even violent mental patients?

      • My life is made up of encounters, on the bus, in the hallway of a building, at the office, at home. Do I have to look long and hard to find moments to live the gospel?

 

-André Gilbert, Gatineau, October 2014