I have been wrestling with Matthew 25:31-46 ahead of preaching on it on Sunday and am wondering whether I might have found a key that helps to unlock it. Of course, I might have stumbled into some ancient heresy - in which case, I repent immediately!
Any of you with any wisdom on this, please comment on what follows.
The story (it's not a parable) is puzzling for a couple of reasons. The first is that Jesus seems to be suggesting that the sole basis for judging everyone from every nation is how they've each treated his followers ('the least of these my brothers and sisters' used elsewhere in Matthew to talk about disciples). There is nothing about faith or living a personally righteous life.
And the second is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised by the criterion for judgement or at least they are surprised by the fact that Jesus says they haven't recognised him in the people in need around them.
The embarrassment of this story, of course, is that it seems to suggest salvation by works; that we are judged solely according to what we do rather than what we believe.
So, here's a thought. Is Jesus (or Matthew) going full circle and ending the final discourse of the gospel with reference to the first one (namely the sermon on the mount)? Is mention of the least of these an oblique reference to the poor, hungry, shattered of the beatitudes? Possibly.
Rather more likely and interesting (I think) is the following thought. Could this whole judgement scene be an outworking of 7:21-23 where Jesus distinguishes between those who claim to be disciples - some he knows and some he doesn't. There he only says that not everyone who calls me Lord, but only those who do the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom. Is he here spelling out what that's all about?
After all, he has echoed those words in 25:12 where half the young women seeking entry to the wedding banquet are sent away with the words 'I don't know you' ringing int their ears.
From 24:36 Jesus has been telling his followers that his parousia will arrive suddenly and unexpectedly and so they should they should always be ready. This readiness is not a hanging about in the hallway with our bags packed, but an active waiting on the king and working for his kingdom as spelled out the three parables from 24:45-25:30.
Is this judgement scene the final teaching on what it means to be ready, a final spelling out that judgement is based on how we live as well as what we believe? Is Jesus reminding us that not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom, but only those who who do the will of my father spelled out in the terms of this story. Is Jesus here stressing to his followers that the quality of their lives in the world, where they support and look out for one another and the poor of their communities (Galatians 6:10 in action) is the single sign that he is the one to whom the world will give account and that he is returning at a time no one knows, so everyone had better ask themselves whether they are ready?
The criterion for judgement seems to be a conscious echo of the description of Jesus' ministry in 9:35-38 and 11:4-6 and thus a call for us as followers of the coming king to be living as the king lived, caring for those in need and thus demonstrating the grace of God to all.
And all this might help us to integrate the picture of the relationship between faith and works in Matthew 25 with the ones we find in Romans 2:6-11 and James 2:14-24 where there is a similar emphasis on what we do as well as what we believe, with the former having a judgement setting.
Am I mad or does this make some sense?