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Matthew 25: 31-46 - "Practicing Justice and Mercy", by Abilio Peña Buendía (Pilgrimage Bible study)

Following Jesus requires consistency between the proclamation of our faith, liturgy and prayer, and the practice of justice that we develop, since the peace of God is a fruit of that justice. This gospel passage allows us to ask ourselves whether we are followers of Jesus.

24 February 2020

Bible Studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
Practicing Justice and Mercy (Matthew 25: 31-46)
by Abilio Peña Buendía*

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.”

Following Jesus requires consistency between the proclamation of our faith, liturgy and prayer, and the practice of justice that we develop, since the peace of God is a fruit of that justice. This gospel passage allows us to ask ourselves whether we are followers of Jesus. We are if we practice justice and acts of mercy, starting by contributing to the provision of the most basic needs of our poorer brothers and sisters, which include hunger, thirst, homelessness, insufficient clothing, and prison conditions.

We are followers of Jesus if we commit ourselves to distributive justice, and we are not if we remain indifferent to injustices; this is because Jesus, the Son of Man, is present precisely in those who are most in need. The final verdict on our commitment or lack of commitment to justice is dictated by whether we have been merciful to those in need or not.

Contextual interpretation

Our Christian commitment to justice, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, is directly related to creating peace, since it is the basic needs of disadvantaged people that have resulted in social movements demanding change in many contexts, something that has led to repression and persecution by those in power. Likewise, when spaces in national states close, as has occurred in countries like Colombia, rebel groups tend to form; this is why a stable and lasting peace, the peace of God, is the result of justice and of practicing mercy.

Matthew 25:31-46 is a text without parallel in the gospels. It appears at the end of    Jesus’ teachings, and near the end of his life, when he was confronted with the scribes and pharisees. The possibility of salvation, of keeping the inheritance of the reign of God, depends on the practice of distributive justice, on the practice of mercy with those who suffer from some need.

He describes it using the metaphor of the final judgment and a short parable. In it, the world is divided into two large groups, some on the right and others on the left, as the goats are separated from the sheep: those who have lived according to God, and those who have not. The language is direct and forceful and does not give rise to ambiguous interpretations, because it is a trial in which the judge pronounces a sentence and the group being tried barely has the opportunity to ask about the facts for which they are being punished or rewarded. And the sentence is either eternal joy for those who have acted according to the criteria of the Judge or eternal torment for those who have acted against it.

Jesus, the Son of Man, is presented as King and Judge, to administer justice for the entire universe. It is the decisive moment in which those being tried recognize him as Lord, at the end of time, following the apocalyptic tradition of the Old and New Testaments. In the midst of this transcendent scenario, the reasons for the trial are material and concrete, and have to do with the satisfaction of the basic needs that, as far as the Judge is concerned, each of his followers was obligated to provide for those who required it or who had those needs. Meeting these needs saves both those who suffered from them, as well as those who act to satisfy the needs of the people affected. This is because it is there, in the relationship between those in need and those who help them, where mercy happens, the love of God, as it appears in the parables and in Jesus’ miracles in the same Gospel according to Matthew.

These needs have a specific person who suffers from them; and the Judge identifies fully with that person, so much so that what was done or not done in terms of satisfying those basic needs, was done or not done to the Judge himself, to him who is omnipresent and knows all. He knows it, because he has suffered it directly through the people in need, whom he describes as “the little ones.” The criterion he judges by is distributive justice, the capacity to distribute goods, but also the possibility of using our time to attend to the needs of others, regardless of the resources available:

  • Faced with the hunger suffered by the little ones, the solution is to feed them.
  • Faced with the thirst that the thirsty person suffers, the solution is to give them drink.
  • Faced with the lack of protection of the naked, the solution is to clothe them.
  • Faced with lack of shelter, the solution is to receive them.
  • Faced the loneliness of a person in prison, the solution is to keep them company.
  • Faced with disease, the solution is to accompany those who suffer from it.

What is very powerful is the forcefulness with which Matthew states that the presence of God is precisely in those little ones and that what was done or not done to them was done or not done to God himself. This is in line with New Testament tradition, in which the presence of God lies in others, especially people in need.

What is also notable is the little awareness or complete lack of awareness of those being judged regarding the place where the God of Jesus happens, as expressed in the questions: When did we see you or not see you hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, marginalized, and we helped you or did not?

These are questions about the place where God dwells. Is it in the temple? In worship? This is very important in religious tradition. But it is not there. God happens in the person in need.

Before our text, in the same gospel by Matthew, Jesus is shown building a community, announcing the Beatitudes related to peace, justice, persecution. Later, he himself becomes persecuted and slandered and falls victim to the local religious powers, especially to the power of the Roman Empire, which imposed its pax through military submission. In that context, the Son of Man also judges the institutions and powers responsible for hunger, a lack of clothing, a lack of shelter and lack of health, lack of warm clothes and inhuman conditions in prison. He clearly questions the structures that produce poverty and perpetuate injustice.

In the 1960s, the priest Camilo Torres Restrepo said in Colombia that effective love was a Christian imperative to build a society that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, gives drink to the thirsty, and shelter to the homeless, on the basis that not meeting these needs was a factor that led to violence. Also, different traditions of our churches have spoken of structural or institutional violence, which refers precisely to the pressure exerted by the dominating powers against the little ones, through poverty, misery, and destitution, something that has also become a cause of the socio-political violence that ends in armed confrontations.

In Colombia, a peace agreement was signed between the FARC-EP guerrillas and the Colombian government, with the facilitation of various countries of the world and with the support of our churches. Although it did not resolve the structural violence linked to poverty, it did result in the insurgency giving up arms and created some of the conditions necessary for political participation.

However, the few agreements related to the solution to the land problem, which is where the meeting of the basic needs of shelter, food, and water can be derived, are being breached by the State, giving rise to a new cycle of violence. This shows once again that, without meeting basic levels of satisfaction of needs—that is, of distributive justice—it is unfortunately very likely that violence will again be resorted to in order try to resolve them.

To sow the seed of the legitimate demand to satisfy those needs so present in the gospel, which are human rights, it is necessary to appeal to the deep Christian tradition of nonviolent action, but also to religious and humanist traditions which call on the force of truth and of conscience to build conditions that guarantee food, housing, and the health of each and every one of God’s children, so that a different, nonviolent way emerges for those needs to be met.

Above all, the ability to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters and to feel indignation for the injustice they suffer is required, so that we can move toward solidarity and try to meet their needs by sharing the resources we have. It is in that sharing that God happens, in that love that is made effective by building more just relationships.

Questions for reflection

In our Christian life, how important are the people who are most in need?
How can we be peacemakers in the midst of so many injustices?

Ideas for action

In your family, community, or church, analyze each of the needs that our biblical text says must be met, taking into account that in the world there are 795 million hungry people,[1] that Africa and Latin America are the most unequal continents in the world,[2] that by 2040 water will run out in several countries of the hemisphere,[3] that the approximate number of prisoners in the world is 11 million people, and that about 1 billion people lack adequate housing.[4]

Think of a population group with which we can establish solidarity to try to help resolve some of their needs.

Resources to learn more

Jorge Pixley, “Mat 24-25: The End of the World,” Ribla 27 (Quito 1997): 82-95. Avallable at Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/revistadeinterpr27depa/page/n5/mode/2up

Ivoni Richter-Reimer, “Economy of God and Diakonia: Strategies of Hope for the World (Matthew 25,31-46),” Ribla, Quito, 2001/2, pp. 115-129. Available at Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/revistadeinterpr39depa/page/n9/mode/2up

* Abilio Peña Buendía is a Columbian theologian and associate member of the Franciscan Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes. He worked for 20 years in the Intereclesial Commission of Justice and Peace in Columbia and for a variety of other peace initiatives in the country.


[1] World Food Program https://es.wfp.org/hambre/datos-del-hambre, obtained 300417

[2] BBC Mundo: http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2016/03/160308_america_latina_economia_desigualdad_ab

[3] World Resource Institute, Ranking the World's Most Water-Stressed Countries in 2040, http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040

[4]Habitat for Humanity, Inadequate Housing Problem, http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world%E2%80%99s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040.