The medieval scholars who separated the New Testament into chapters did well with Matthew 25. It tells three parables with the same theme: in eternity, the godly will be rewarded and the ungodly punished; therefore choose God. It crescendos with the blunt, emotionally powerful call to compassion that is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.
For the godly, Jesus saves the best for last. We are not promised worldly riches, peace, or health – we are not promised we will receive anything from this world, except its scorn. But when Jesus comes into his kingdom, there will be banquets, ruling of cities, and – best of all – his favor. Of the three, the last is the only one that I am sure is not metaphorical.
“Best for last” also describes, in my opinion, the placement and quality of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. Jesus makes our calling so simple, so – unreligious. Treat the needy well, and you will treat me well. Ignore and mistreat them, and you ignore and mistreat me. My friend Tim Callahan – faithful reader of this blog! – once had a dream in which he was so angry he wanted to slug someone. Jesus stepped in front of the person and said, “if you try to hit him, Tim, you will have to hit me first.” In his dream Tim cried, “but Jesus I don’t want to hit you. I love you.” Brother Tim understood right then what it means to be a Sheep.
The parable marks Matthew’s record of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The events leading up to the Passion begin in the next verse. It is as if Jesus is saying, “remember when I healed that leper, comforted that gentile woman, drove the demon out of that man? It was not just for them that I did that – it was for you to see and to keep your eyes open and do likewise. For the rest of your lives, until I come, I want you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. Love the needy. That is what sons and daughters of the Kingdom do.”
Then he goes to Calvary, purchasing mercy for us when we fail to love perfectly, which as sons of fallen Adam we were born to do. But that is a blog post for another day.