This final parable in Jesus' final sermon in Matthew brings home the reality of judgment. As the missionaries from Matthew's churches spread the good news of the kingdom both among fellow Jews and among Gentiles, they faced hostility as well as welcome. This parable brings together some themes from the rest of the Gospel: Christ, like the kingdom, had been present in a hidden way (compare chap. 13), and one's response to his agents represented one's response to him (chap. 10).
Jesus is the judge on the day of judgment. The parable assumes Jesus' deity. Whereas others sometimes fill the role of final judge in Jewish tradition (as in Test. Ab. 13A; 11B), the central biblical and Jewish role of final judge that Jesus here assumes normally belongs to God himself (see, for example, 1 Enoch 9:4; 60:2). As noted earlier, the king in rabbinic parables is nearly always God. Likewise, coming with all the angels (Mt 25:31; compare 13:41; 16:27; 24:31; 2 Thess 1:7) alludes to various versions of Zechariah 14:5 (see Gundry 1982:511), where God is in view. Further, Jesus' claim that whatever others have done to his servants they have done to him fits a rabbinic perspective about God (Smith 1951:154). Finally, although shepherds could represent Moses, David and others in biblical and Jewish tradition, the chief shepherd remained God himself (as in Ps 23:1-4; 74:1-2; Is 40:11; Ezek 34:11-17; Zech 10:3; Sirach 18:13; 1 Enoch 89:18; Ps-Philo 28.5; 30.5). Jesus is both judge and the focus of the final judgment, spelling disaster to those who ignored him on this side of that day.
The nations will be judged according to how they respond to the gospel and its messengers. The nations or "Gentiles" in Jewish literature would be judged according to how they treated Israel (4 Ezra 7:37; Klausner 1979:200). As in other parables, here they are gathered (compare 13:40; Is 2:4; Rev 16:16) and separated (Mt 13:30, 49), in this instance the way a shepherd would separate sheep from goats (compare Ezek 34:17), to keep the goats warm at night while keeping the sheep in open air as they preferred (Jeremias 1972:206). Sheep cost more than goats (Jeremias 1972:206) and because of their greater utility and value were nearly always more numerous on a farm (N. Lewis 1983:131-32).
The older dispensational scheme viewed this passage as the judgment of the nations based on their treatment of Israel. This suggestion could fit Jewish perceptions of the judgment, as noted above (compare Manson 1979:249-50). But this suggestion does not fit well Jesus' own designation of his brothers in the Gospels elsewhere (Mt 12:50; 28:10; see below). Because the passage explicitly declares that this judgment determines people's eternal destinies (25:46), it cannot refer to a judgment concerning who will enter the millennium, as in some older dispensational schemes (Ladd 1977:38; compare Ladd 1978b:98-102).
Nor is the popular view that this text refers to treatment of the poor or those in need (as in Gross 1964; Hare 1967:124; Catchpole 1979; Feuillet 1980a) exegetically compelling, although on other grounds it would be entirely consonant with the Jesus tradition (such as Mk 10:21; Lk 16:19-25) and biblical ethics as a whole (for example, Ex 22:22-27; Prov 19:17; 21:13). Jewish lists of loving works include showing hospitality and visiting the sick, though not visiting prisoners; such acts were found praiseworthy in the day of judgment (2 Enoch 63:1-2; Jeremias 1972:207-8; compare Bonsirven 1964:151-52).
In the context of Jesus' teachings, especially in the context of Matthew (as opposed to Luke), this parable addresses not serving all the poor but receiving the gospel's messengers. Elsewhere in Matthew, disciples are Jesus' brothers (12:50; 28:10; compare also the least--5:19; 11:11; 18:3-6, 10-14). Likewise, one treats Jesus as one treats his representatives (10:40-42), who should be received with hospitality, food and drink (10:8-13, 42). Imprisonment could refer to detention until trial before magistrates (10:18-19), and sickness to physical conditions brought on by the hardship of the mission (compare Phil 2:27-30; perhaps Gal 4:13-14; 2 Tim 4:20). Being poorly clothed appears in Pauline lists of sufferings (Rom 8:35), including specifically apostolic sufferings (1 Cor 4:11). The King thus judges the nations based on how they have responded to the gospel of the kingdom already preached to them before the time of his kingdom (Mt 24:14; 28:19-20). The passage thus also implies that true messengers of the gospel will successfully evangelize the world only if they can also embrace poverty and suffering for Christ's name (compare Matthey 1980).
The stakes involved in our witness are eternal. The horrifying conclusion (25:46) is the damnation of people who did not actively embrace messengers of the gospel but nevertheless were oblivious to how they had offended God. The goats thus depart (7:23) into eternal fire (the worst possible conception of hell; see comment on 3:8, 10, 12), but tragically, God had not originally created them for the fire or the fire for them (compare 4 Ezra 8:59-60). Rather, it had been prepared (compare Mt 25:34) by God for the devil and his angels (compare 2 Pet 2:4; 1QM 13.11-12).
We too must "receive" one another with grace. In the context of the surrounding parables, welcoming Christ's messengers probably involves more than only initially embracing the message of the kingdom: it means treating one's fellow servants properly (24:45-49). Unless we "receive" one another in God's household, we in some way reject Christ whose representatives our fellow disciples are (18:5-6, 28-29). Paul likewise reminds the Corinthians that to be reconciled to him is to be reconciled to God himself (2 Cor 5:11--7:1).