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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another…’

I was challenged this week to revisit Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. It is a difficult passage, both for what it obviously says as well as for what it appears to imply.

I have looked at this passage in the past here:


and here:


In those two treatments, I focused on what I still believe is the main and most obvious point of this parable. Jesus is describing the surprising nature of God’s work. The heart of this story is the question repeated by both those who are identified as “righteous”  and those labelled “accursed”.  The “righteous” ask:

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25:37-39)

The “accursed” want to know:

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?”(Matthew 25:44)

The critical word here is “when”. The “righteous” have acted with compassion without recognizing that their compassionate action towards those in need, was in fact a gift given to Christ. In the same way, those who are “accursed” did not see that, what they failed to do for those who were in need was a failure to honour the presence of Christ in those who were suffering.

The really challenging part of Matthew 25:31-46 is that the evidence of God’s work in our lives is how we treat other people. Perhaps we slip so quickly to considerations of “eternal” destiny when we read this passage because we do not want to face Jesus’ stark and radical call to live lives of deep self-giving sacrificial compassion and service to those who are in need.

The implication of Matthew 25:31-46 is harsh and frightening. Jesus seems to be suggesting that a life of  compassion and service to the poor is so important human beings will ultimately be separated into those who have lived with compassion and are rewarded and those who fail to care for the poor and have an eternity of suffering to look forward to. The compassionate ones will

inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)

While, those who do not live compassionate lives will be banished

into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41)

The righteous will receive “eternal life;” the “accursed” will be sent “away into eternal punishment.” (Matthew 25:46)

It is not a pretty picture. It is hard to know how to read this parable without it becoming a source of anxiety and fear.

Every night I go to bed with a full stomach in a world filled with people who are “hungry”. I awake in the morning and choose what to wear from an overstuffed closet, while others remain “naked”. I enjoy my freedom while I do nothing for those who are trapped “in prison”. The list of the “sick” I could visit is endless. Their voices cry out in judgment against my complacency.

How much compassion is enough compassion to save me from an eternal destiny of anguish? How many strangers do I need to welcome?

If separation on the basis of adequate compassionate living is the point, then, as much as anyone, I deserve to be placed among the goats to whom the Son of Man says:

just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. (Matthew 25:45)

This parable is intended to be a mirror held up to my face. It is a goad to serious self-examination. Jesus wants me to search my heart and seek to find there the stirrings of compassion and love that are the nature of God living deep in my being. Matthew 25:31-46 poses for me the challenging question: What does my relationship to those who are vulnerable and most in need suggest about the condition of my heart?

But is separation really God’s ultimate goal for humanity?