Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Fourth Sunday, Year A,
Solemnity of Christ the King, Matthew 25:31-46, November 20, 2011
A DECADE OR so ago, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona was in Monterrey, Mexico where he delivered a speech on poverty at the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development. Hours later, Guingona, who represented President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was in a luncheon tendered by the governor of the state of Nuevo Leon for 150 heads of state, to which he had been invited. While seated at table no. 5 of the dining hall of the Centro de Arte de Monterey, he was told that there had been a mistake, and his name was not on the guest list, despite the fact that upon arrival at the hall, he presented his formal invitation. He left in a huff, and ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a protest. Said Guingona: “I called our department for them to inform the Mexican government that the slur approximating insult, for whatever reason, was in effect directed not only at me but mainly to our government, to our nation, our people for whom I stood. Reason and justice therefore demands that an apology, if at all, should come from the Mexican government herself, asking indulgence for the breach from our government.” Some countries virtually condemned the Mexican insult. The Thai and Brunei delegations did not attend the State Dinner in protest of the terrible discourtesy.
If Mexico was condemned for her treatment of the representative of the Philippine government, so at the end of time, people will be condemned on the basis of their treatment of Jesus’ representatives. This is the main point that the parable of the sheep and the goats or of the last judgment in today’s Gospel is trying to convey. But before developing this theme, let us first examine the parable. Doubtless, this goes back to Jesus himself, and in its original setting, the story is about the Kingdom of God, more specifically, about the act of separation in the end-time, much like the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30) and the good and the bad fish (Matt 13:47-50). When it was used in the early Church, the parable became an allegory of the last judgment, as the shepherd came to be identified with the king (v 40). Matthew is probably responsible for the addition of apocalyptic features to the parable, as when he speaks of the coming in glory of the Son of Man who is identified with the king. But as it stands in Matthew, how is one to understand it? Many exegetes think that the parable has two fundamental questions that influence one’s interpretation: who are the nations being judged, and who are “the least of the brothers”. According to one interpretation, it is really about judgment of Christians on the basis of their attitude toward the needy members of the Christian community.
But in recent years, Liberation Theology popularized an interpretation that sees it as a judgment of all persons—Jews, Christians, pagans, grounding on their treatment of any person in need, both Christians and non-Christians. Says Gustavo Gutierrez in his A Theology of Liberation: “Our encounter with the Lord occurs in our encounter with others, especially in the encounter with those whose human features have been disfigured by oppression, despoliation, and alienation… The salvation of humanity passes through them; they are the bearers of the meaning of history and ‘inherit the Kingdom’ (James 2:5). Our attitude towards them, or rather our commitment to them, will indicate whether or not we are directing our existence in conformity with the will of the Father.” In other words, all individuals and nations will be judged on the basis of their attitude toward the poor, the deprived, the oppressed and the marginal. This goes beyond the traditional corporal works of mercy under which rubric the acts toward others have been placed, for, in this theology, working on the side of justice for the poor is an essential task of salvation. Some groups even interpreted this to mean that faith is not necessary for salvation, not even the Church, since all that one needs is preferential option for the poor.
However attractive such an interpretation, it is not consistent, though, with the theology of Matthew. If one reads the whole gospel, he will notice, as Donald Senior points out, that Matthew envisages three forms of judgment: first, the leaders of Israel will be held accountable for their rejection of Jesus and his message (Matt 23); second, the Christian community and its leaders will be judged on the basis of their response to God’s offer in Jesus (Matt 24-25); and third, the nations to which the mission of the Church is directed, will be convicted on their refusal to accept the messengers and their message (Matt 25:31-46)—which is the Gospel today. These different forms of judgment may be compared with Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:5-10 (see also 1 Pet 4:17). In other words, the basic question that the parable addresses is this: How shall non-Christians share in the Kingdom of God? For Matthew, the Gentiles will be judged according to how they responded to the proclaimers of the Gospel, namely, the disciples of Jesus. They are, for Matthew, the “least brothers” of Jesus (Matt 10:42; 11:11; 18:6; 10,14). The reason for interpreting this parable as a judgment on non-Christians is that when Matthew speaks of nations, he usually means the Gentiles (Matt 4:15; 6:32; 10:5, etc.) Moreover, in the Gospel, they are pictured as ignorant of Jesus: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or away from home or naked or ill or in prison and not attend to your needs?” (Matt 25:44; see also vv 37-39). Hunger, thirst, nakedness and imprisonment—these refer to the sufferings of the disciples who proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation.
At the beginning of this essay, we noted that the snub done to Vice-President Guingona was an insult to the Philippine government. Because she shabbily treated our representative, Mexico actually insulted our country. She is ill-qualified therefore to join the family of decent nations—this is what the diplomatic issue that emerged virtually means. Similarly, one who does not treat well the representative of Jesus is hardly qualified to join the family of God, for in point of fact, he rejects Jesus himself. The same thought is found elsewhere in Matthew: “He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Underlying this logic is the shaliach principle according to which the rejection or acceptance of an envoy involves the rejection or acceptance of the sender, and in this principle, such acceptance or rejection will be validated on judgment day. Clearly, the situation-in-life that this parable presupposes is the missionary activity of the disciples. But at the present moment, this means that nations and individuals will share in the Kingdom of God on the basis of their attitude toward the Church, the proclaimer and sacrament of Jesus.*