31 “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. 32 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, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 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; 35 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, 36 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.’ 37 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? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 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.’ 41 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; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Along with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is one of the great separation parables of Jesus’ ministry. Arrayed before the exalted and enthroned Son of Man in a great assize, the nations are divided by the King, as a shepherd divides a flock into sheep and goats, the sheep to the right, the goats to the left.
Despite being very familiar, this parable raises a number of questions. One concerns its relationship with the rest of the material of the Olivet Discourse. This parable occurs at the end and climax of Matthew’s version of this discourse, where Jesus speaks of coming judgment upon Jerusalem and of the parousia of the Son of Man. A number of commentators have maintained that there is a significant temporal hiatus located at some point between an earlier part of the discourse and the later—the former dealing with the events of AD70 and the latter with the end of all things—a hiatus that is unclear on account of Jesus’ telescoping or collapsing of eschatological horizons. The connection and relationship between the two parts of the discourse needs to be identified.
A second question concerns the identity of the ‘least of these’ to whom Jesus refers. Many scholars are divided between a ‘universalist’ and ‘particularist’ reading of this expression (my friend Ben Kautzer has helpfully alerted me to much material relevant to this debate). Universalist readings find in the ‘least of these’ a reference to the poor more generally. Benedict XVI wrote: ‘Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.… Love of God and love of neighbour have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God.’ This reading has a strong pedigree in the Church, a pedigree dignified by the inspiration and support that it has given to remarkable practices of the works of mercy. Particularist readings, by contrast, tend to see in the ‘least’ of Jesus’ brethren a reference to the disciples and emissaries of Jesus. However, this reading appears to undercut the remarkable support that this passage has traditionally given to the Church’s ministry to the poor.
A number of considerations lead me to favour a particularist reading. The reference to Jesus’ ‘brethren’ in the context of Matthew’s gospel is most likely to refer to disciples or to persons who respond positively to the gospel. Jesus has already spoken in Matthew of his identification with the disciples that he sent out (10:40-42): ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’ In sending out his disciples, Jesus sent them without provisions, making them entirely dependent upon the hospitality of the places that they visited (10:9-10). The manner in which his disciples were received and treated would serve as a basis for the condemnation or blessing of a city (10:12-15).
Whether or not a large temporal hiatus exists, the end of Matthew 25 appears to involve a widening of the lens of the discourse. Whereas the passages that precede it have been focused upon the judgment of Israel and Jerusalem, here it is the judgment of all of the nations that is in view. The identification between Jesus and his emissaries was first spoken of in the context of the disciples’ mission among the towns and villages of Israel: this parable seems to envisage the expansion of this into a broader mission among all of the nations of the world. Like the towns and villages of Israel, the nations will be judged by the hospitality or hostility they show to the poor brethren of Jesus. The mission to the nations is in continuity with and is an escalation of the disciples’ earlier mission to Israel and will lead to a similar judgment.
Although it has been suggested that the particularist reading of the ‘least of these’ challenges the ministry to the poor that this passage has inspired, I believe that this is a mistaken conclusion. The key element of the parable that we are in danger of forgetting is that Jesus comes incognito and the sheep entertain him unawares. We do not know the ones in whom Christ will come to us. If Christ is simply encountered in every poor person or in every known member of the Church, the unwittingness of the welcome is lost. Although Christ’s presence may be made especially visible in the Christian community, it exists unknown in persons beyond it and his Spirit moves untraced beyond the realm of the Church, gathering people in.
By coming to us incognito in the form of the destitute, the needy, and the stranger, Christ tests our posture towards these people in general—only by a universal extension of hospitality can we enjoy Jesus’ particular presence. As Hebrews 13:2 declares: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’ Only in welcoming all such persons can we be in a position to receive Christ. The Church must live with an open door and an open heart, because that is where Christ meets it.
It is much safer to conceive of Jesus’ presence as something that can be clearly located: in the Eucharist, in the preaching of the gospel, in the body of the Church. A Jesus who can come to us as the unrecognized stranger, as the illegal immigrant, as the foreigner, as the vulnerable child, as the prisoner, as the outcast, as the despised minority—even as our enemy—can terrify us. How can we welcome such a King?
The connection of the test of hospitality with divine judgment is not merely found in Jesus’ teaching. In Genesis, we witness the stark contrast between the unwitting welcome that Abraham extended to the angels and the attempted gang rape of the angels in Sodom. In Ezekiel 16:48-50, God declares that Sodom’s condemnation was related to its indifference and cruelty to the poor and the needy, displayed in their treatment of the two unknown visitors.
On various occasions throughout the Scriptures, we see that the revelation of the presence of Christ or the constitution of his people is rendered contingent upon the extension of hospitality to the poor and those in need. It was in the act of mercy of the Good Samaritan that a new neighbour relation was formed and new brethren—the Samaritan and the man who fell among thieves—were separated from those who had excluded themselves by their indifference to the one in need. In that parable the people of God are established through the act of mercy. At Emmaus, it was only through the hospitality extended to the unknown Stranger that the presence of Christ was made known and a regular meal became Eucharistic.
Something very similar occurs in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It is as the sheep receive Jesus’ poor brethren that they receive Jesus himself unawares. It is through this act of receiving Jesus’ poor brethren that they themselves are marked out as the blessed heirs of the Father with them. The precondition of fellowship with the exalted Son of Man is the welcome extended to the Jesus who comes to us in the guise of the needy stranger.
There are many political lessons to be drawn from this passage. This age is one in which all nations are exposed to the great divine test of hospitality, a test of eschatological consequence. For a Church that often concerns itself with the accumulation of cultural power and institutional autonomy, this passage may be a summons to be a people more dependent upon the hospitality of others. The reminder that Jesus comes to us and to our societies as one utterly dependent upon our hospitality is also of immense importance. Our society’s welcome to the exalted Son of Man should be sought first, not in our grand cathedrals, or in eloquent prayers in our halls of power, but in soup kitchens and prison cells, in shelters and in refuges.
On that great Day of Judgment, will we be found to have rejected the brother or sister of Jesus who came to us in the protester on the streets of Ferguson, in the illegal immigrant in our detention centre, in the sexually trafficked woman in our city, in the young man in our prison system, in the unborn child in the womb, or in the homeless person on our streets? Or will we, in a glorious moment of epiphany—finally recognizing the One whom we once welcomed unawares—discover that the stranger was a member of his family, a family to which we also have now been revealed to belong?
‘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.’
 Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 15