Jesus’ message in the reading from Matthew is very clear. It is not very easy to hear, however, especially in a culture where fear is stronger than love. Love responds to the needs of Christ’s ‘brothers and sisters’, offering food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, hospitality to the stranger, clothes to the naked, care to the sick and to those in prison. Fear says that in times like these we need to be careful. “Save your resources for yourself, for you do not know what needs you may have in the future. Don’t talk to strangers. Avoid infection. Don’t waste your time. Be suspicious, don’t trust what you cannot prove, don’t take risks, look after yourself.” These days it is much easier to be a ‘goat’ than a ‘sheep’.
There are a number of details in this passage that can easily be overlooked. Jesus talks about ‘the least of these my brothers and sisters’. Jesus did not call everyone ‘my brother’. In Matthew 12:46-50 he asks who his brothers are, and then points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ brothers and sisters are those who do God’s will. Yet in this passage we find some of them suffering hardship. We learn therefore that following Jesus is not the key to ‘success’ in this world. It is, however, the key to significance in the eyes of God: not only are we reckoned as Jesus’ brothers and sisters, but also whatever happens to the least of us is counted as happening to Christ the King, for he is in us and identifies with us completely however lowly we may feel ourselves to be. We need therefore to be so careful to love one another truly, for in so doing we love Christ. However, we are not in a position to judge who are Christ’s brothers and sisters. Neither sheep nor goats were aware of Christ’s presence in a person. He could be present in any one we meet, however unlikely it may seem to us. That means we must treat every human being – especially the ‘least’– as if they were Christ himself.
The inheritance given to the righteous is to those who are ‘blessed by my Father’. In judgement the Father and the Son act together. The righteous are not just blessed by the reward they receive; they are also blessed by the life of love they have lived – it is more blessed to give than to receive. As for the reward, it has been in preparation throughout history; Jesus teaches that actions and events can bring greater or lesser rewards from God (Matthew 5:12, 6:1). But the greatest reward is the relationship we are given with God.
The unrighteous are judged not so much by the evil they did as by the good they did not do to the King, as determined by their treatment of his ‘brothers’. Their sentence is ‘eternal punishment’, ‘the eternal fire’, says Jesus. The picture of hell came from a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, where refuse was consumed by maggots and fire. Those who reject or ignore Christ the King reject Life. That’s not what God wants for them.
1) Who are Christ’s brothers and sisters in our world today? When might we be helping Christ himself?
2) Why was Jesus so harsh with the ‘goats’ of his day? What can we learn?