Body and Blood of Christ

The Last Judgment

"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."

Matthew 25:31-46.

Page Divider

The 'Last Judgment'


his is Matthew's great scene of the Last Judgment. In it the Son of Man is emphatically a King who sits in judgment. Perhaps largely     through the influence of this passage the image of Christ as judge has had a profound impact on Christian tradition -- an unhappy impact. This image of Christ is far from the dominant one in the New Testament. And, even in our passage, when one looks closely, it will be seen that judgment is 'auto-judgment': we judge ourselves by our omissions or our deeds. It is not so surprising that there has been concern with the King and the Judge -- that drew attention from a disturbing factor. Properly understood, the passage is subversive of ecclesiastical system; it is a denial of the label 'Christian' to any church not characterised by loving concern for the poor. It underlines the fact that, if Christ is King, his kingdom, his manner of kingship, is not of this world (see Jn 18:36).

The scene is vivid. Mixed flocks of (white) sheep and (black) goats were a common sight in Palestine. Here sheep and goats separate for final blessing or curse. The king sits in judgment on his people. The good works of vv. 34-36 are the traditional 'corporal works of mercy' and the elect have performed these works. Their surprise, their amazement, is in being told by the king that they had been done 'to me'. Astounded, they ask; 'When? when? when?'

The answer is Jesus' solemn attestation of his total identification with the poor and the outcast and oppressed. It might seem, at first sight, that this Matthean scene has nothing specifically Christian about it. But when we realise that nothing less than the comportment of Jesus himself is the yardstick of judgment, we can see how thoroughly Christian it is.

The truth is that the king who is Judge of all is the crucified King and he is met in every one who suffers. It is because they had failed to understand Jesus' identification with those who suffer that the 'goats' had failed to minister to him and serve him. They had not loved the poor in concrete deeds of mercy. This Jesus, the crucified one, is the Son of Man who utters judgment - but what kind of judgment is this? He is the one who identifies himself with the lowly - with all the daughters and sons of men. He is the loving and living expression of God's concern for humankind. A God bent on humankind, and nothing short of that, becomes the standard of our concern for those in need. That is why the words of warning sound so harshly: 'Depart from me, you cursed.'

Straightway: a problem. Can one, as a Christian, really believe that the suffering Jesus on the cross who in Luke's passion-story prayed: 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they do' (Lk 23:34) could, as risen Lord, declare in awful judgment: 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire'? Matthew, it seems (25:41), would have us think so. That such is really his intent becomes incredible when we understand that the 'they' of Luke's text embraces all who brought Jesus to death. Jesus prays forgiveness for the obdurate chief priests and their allies. Luke is suggesting that even perpetrators of evil never really appreciate God's goodness or the strange wisdom of his purposes. Still, what are we to make of Matthew's Last Judgment? We must take account of a feature of Semitic rhetoric (for, though Matthew is in Greek, it is a thoroughly Jewish gospel). This feature is overstatement for the sake of emphasis. E.g. 'If your eye scandalizes you, you must pluck it out'. To be a true follower 'you must hate your father and mother.' What, then, is the most forceful way of framing a solemn warning? It is as inexorable judgment. In effect, the 'last judgment' is warning: it primarily relates to one's conduct in the present. One is challenged to live in such a manner that, should it occur, one would not be caught unawares. We are being taught how we should prepare for the 'coming' of the Lord, prepared for our meeting with him. The 'last judgment' is taking place in my life here and now.

Edward Schillebeeckx offers a provocative comment on the Matthean judgment scene: “I believe - and I say this with some hesitation - that at the last judgment perhaps everyone will stand at the right-hand side of the Son of Man: 'Come all you beloved people, blessed of the Father, for despite all your inhumanity, you once gave a glass of water when I was in need. Come!'”

Wilfrid Harrington



Quill Pen


This is the Story of Jesus drawn from the four Evangelists

last judgment

Unfolding the Story of jesus

Gospel passages accompanied by a number of brief commentaries

Unfolding the story of jesus