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Fernando Armellini - Fri, Nov 24th 2023




“Go, cursed people, out of my sight into the eternal fire, which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). These are the most terrible words that we find in the Gospel and are among others that fell from the lips of Jesus. Luke and Matthew remember some more: “I don’t know where you come from! Away from me, all you workers of evil”(Lk 13:27). “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom all that is scandalous and all who do evil. And these will be thrown into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:41-42). “Bind his hands and feet and throw him into the dark” (Mt 22:13). “But his master will come on the day he does not know, and at the hour he least expects. He will dismiss that servant, and deal with him as with the hypocrites. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt24:50-51).

These phrases are etched in our minds. They have inspired legions of artists to paint scenes of terror, despair, and torment. They have suggested lyrics, such as the Dies Irae, the most impressive of the descriptions of the Last Judgment. They have offered inspiration to musicians who have translated into sound the anguish of the crucial moment when Christ will pronounce the final judgment.

As the Gospel presents it, the judgment of God continues to be seen by many today as a dramatic rendering of account. Thus, an encounter with the Lord, far from being desired and expected, is for everyone a big unknown, even for the righteous. In the face of the One who “who can charge his angels with error” (Job 4:18), who can feel safe? Many Christians already consider it a lucky break to be able to knock a few years off purgatory. Is this the justice of God?


• To internalize the message, we repeat:

“Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad

because the Lord judges the world... with his justice.”

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11–12,15-17


In 587 B.C., Jerusalem and its marvelous temple were destroyed, and the walls razed to the ground. The Babylonian soldiers gave in to all sorts of violence and barbarism. A few escaped the massacre by taking refuge in the desert; some fled into Egypt, and many were taken prisoner and were exiled to a foreign land. In the village, only the poorest remained; some winemakers, a few peasants, and a handful of craftsmen. After a few years, and among those who remained at home, the savvier and more skilled emerged. They know how to take advantage of the extreme needs faced by most people. They exploit those who are impoverished by misfortunes and woe. They buy and sell, and unscrupulously traffic goods to enrich themselves.

It is at this sad time that the prophecy proposed to us today is announced. Thinking back on the misfortunes that have struck his people, Ezekiel compares the Israelites to aflock in disarray without a shepherd; and, at the same time, pronounces a message of salvation. He does not announce the advent of other kings, as history shows they only led the people to ruin. Instead, he promises that God will personally take care of his sheep (v. 11), will gather them from where they have been dispersed “in a time of cloud and fog” (v. 12), and will take them to good pastures on the high mountains of Israel (v. 15).

Then he directs a threat to those who hoard and trample on the rights of the weakest.To his “flock,” the Lord assures: “I will distinguish between one sheep and another; and set apart rams and goats” (v. 17). It is the promise of prompt intervention in favor of the oppressed, the poor and the exploited.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28


The rabbis believed that with the coming of the Messiah, the first of two realms would be ushered in—the ‘kingdom of the Messiah’—which would be succeeded by the ‘kingdom of God.’ Paul—educated at their school—had assimilated this opinion and thought that the first kingdom would cover humankind's history and conclude at the end of the world. It is in this historical perspective that today’s reading is understood. Paul is convinced that during his reign, the Messiah would gradually destroy all his enemies. His victory will be complete when the last adversary, death, is finally defeated (vv. 25-26).

The enemies, whose destruction is announced, are not people but the forces of evil, all that prevent them from living in the world to the full. These are disease, famine, nakedness, ignorance, slavery, fear, hatred, selfishness, and sin. When these negativities disappear, then the kingdom of the Messiah can be said to be accomplished. For this reason, anyone committed to resisting these evils—even if they are not Christian believers—is collaborating in the project of the Messiah.

When this kingdom is established in the world and the enemies of Christ, including death, have been defeated, then he will hand his reign over to the Father, and the kingdom of God that will last for all eternity will be ushered in (v. 28). In the light of this explanation, the reading’s first verses become clear (vv. 20-24). Christ did not eliminate biological death: the human body, like every living thing, wears out and ends up being consumed. He has conquered death because he has deprived it of its ability to annihilate life but turned it into birth into a full and definitive life.


Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46


A God who ruthlessly condemns is, for a Christian, quite embarrassing. We cannot understand how the terrible threats referred to in verses 41-46 can be regarded as ‘gospel,’ that is, as ‘good news,’ as ‘message of salvation.’ There is an even more significant challenge: how can the severe God who appears in today’s passage be reconciled with the Father the whole Gospel speaks about? He who “makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good and he gives rain to both the just and the unjust,” demanding that his children not distinguish between good and evil (Mt 5:43-48). How can we make a distinction that tells us not to do anything up to a certain point? If we are required to condemn our enemies to eternal fire, we cannot be required to love our enemies (Mt19:10). Jesus, who came “to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:10) and boasts of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34), will not be able to stand against us.

The ‘justice’ of such a God leaves much to be desired: could the sin of a person (frail, limited, finite creature) be punished with an infinite, ‘everlasting’ punishment? There is no proportionate relationship between punishment and failure. If, on the other hand, the person remains free—of which we have certainty—for all eternity, why should wrongdoers persist in their error? What could make them so stubborn? What of their encounter with God? These are some of the many questions that are raised against this passage of the Gospel. These are serious questions, but they might have originated from a spurious interpretation of the text.

The question arises when we consider the context in which this description of the “trial” is couched. It is enough to read what follows. After the great scene in which the Son of Man deploys all his power, here is what happens: “In two days’ time it will be Passover and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Mt 26:2). It is like being left speechless when a most ignoble defeat follows a celebration of triumph. They look like two opposing, irreconcilable situations, yet these are two glorious moments of a single victory, the victory of love. The Christ who ‘judges’ also delivers himself into the hands of those he loves, and justly ‘inasmuch as a victim of love’ he becomes a judge. He is the ‘ideal man,’ second only to God, the true man, with whom all must be compared to understand whether they are building a life or laying the groundwork for failure. We will return to the argument. Now let us examine the text.

In Palestine, at sunset, shepherds tend to separate the sheep from the goats. The latter are more sensitive to cold and are placed under shelter. With their covering of wool, the sheep like the cool of the night and have no problem spending it in the open. Jesus uses this image, taken from everyday life, to convey his message. To understand it, we must pay attention, first, to the literary genre. A hasty, superficial reading, perhaps a bit naïve, of the gospel, risks drawing theological conclusions that may appear unfounded and even deviant in light of a more attentive and careful study.

The language is typical of the preachers of that time. They tended to use stunning images to stir their listeners and speak of tremendous punishments like unquenchable fire and eternal penalties. It was said, for example: ‘As the human race trembles, the beasts are happy because it goes well with them that humans need not wait for any judgment.’ Listen carefully, though: when rabbis spoke of the ‘fire of Gehenna.’ They did not refer to hell, but the fire that constantly burned in the valley surrounding Jerusalem that served as the city dump. The adjective ‘eternal’ did not have the philosophical connotations it has today, but it was popularly used to mean, in general terms, a ‘long,’ ‘undefined’ period. 

This Gospel passage is generally regarded as a parable, but this is not accurate. It belongs to the judgment scene genre, found both in the Bible (cf. Dn 7) and in rabbinic literature. The structured schema is always the same: there is a presentation by the judge, accompanied by angels who serve as assistants and security guards, then the convocation of all people, the separation of groups, sentencing, and finally the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished.

This literary genre aims not to inform about what will happen at the end of the world but to teach how to behave today. As an example, let us look at a judgment scene from rabbinic literature showing an impressive analogy with our text: In the future world, who is judged will be asked: What are your works? If he answers: ‘I fed who was hungry,’ he will be told: ‘This is the Lord’s gate, enter through it’ (Ps 118:20). If he answers: ‘I have given to the thirsty,’ he will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord come through it;’ if he answers: ‘I have clothed the naked,’ he will be told, ‘This is the gate of the Lord, go through it.’ The same will apply to anyone who has taken care of the orphan, who has given alms, who has performed works of love (Midrash of Psalm 118:17). Referring to the dialogue, it is clear that the rabbis did not intend to reveal the words that God will deliver at the end of the world. They, instead, wanted to instill values ??that would serve as a solid foundation for life in this world.

Let us now examine the structure of the passage in Matthew. It is easy to define. It begins with an introduction (vv. 31-33) followed by two dialogues (vv. 34-40; 41-46) that develop in a parallel and identical way: the king pronounces the sentence (acquittal in one case and conviction in the other) and explains why. Both cases raise an objection to both of which the judge responds.

It is also easy to see the message Jesus wants to convey: the years of a person’s life are precious, a treasure to be managed well. No one can go wrong because life is one: Jesus suggests how they must live. The rabbis said: this world is like a dry land; the future world is like the ocean; if a person does not prepare food on dry land, what will they eat on the sea? This world is like a cultivated land, the future world as a wilderness; if a person does not prepare food on cultivated land, what will they eat in the desert? They will grind their teeth and bite their flesh; desperate, they will tear their clothes and riff out their hair. 

For Jesus, human life is more important than for the rabbis, so he reveals to the disciples the values ??that will provide a secure basis for this human life. What values? It is not hard to spot them because they occupy half of the story and are so important that Jesus repeated them four times, at the risk of appearing monotonous: it is the six works of mercy.

The list of people to help—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned (vv. 35-36,42-43) was known throughout the Middle East (cf. Isaiah 58:6-7). Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead is famous. In Egypt, since the second millennium B.C., the text was placed with the deceased at the time of burial. This was what he had to testify to before the court of Osiris: ‘I have practiced what gladdens the gods. I have given bread to the hungry; I gave water to the thirsty; I have clothed the naked; I offered to ferry those who had no boat.’ The only novelty added by Jesus is that he identifies with these people: what is done to one of these little ones is done to him.

The values he suggests are not like those for which most people go overboard, but they are what really counts in the eyes of God. What is the ideal successful person in our society? The one who holds power, the wealthy, who can afford to satisfy their every whim, is wanted by the T.V. cameras. ‘Successful people’ are athletes driving stirring the delirium of the stadium, T.V. stars, or anyone who has managed to become a personality either through notoriety or a successful career.

What is the thought of God? After every person's story on earth, when each is alone with themselves and with God, only love will be precious. The life of each one will be considered success or failure according to their commitment to six dictums of suffering and poverty: hunger, thirst, exile, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment.

One detail is carefully highlighted in the story: none of those who have done these works of mercy is aware of having done them to Christ. Love is true only if it is disinterested, even if it is free of any suspicion of complacency; those who act because of the reward, even that of heaven, do not yet love genuinely.

And the sentence? The rabbis used to repeat their teachings twice to imprint them in the minds of their disciples. Often, they presented the message positively first and then negatively. They resorted to the familiar ‘antithetical parallelism,’ also used by Jesus (cf. Lk 6:20-26; Mt 7:24-27; Mk 16:16).

Our passage is an example of this: the second part (vv. 41-45) adds absolutely nothing to the first; it is a stylistic record to highlight what has already been expressed. Jesus is on about not to terrorize his listeners, stirring the fear of hell in them, but to stress the profoundly severe danger of wasting life. Spending life well is what really counts. He does not claim to announce what will happen at the end of the world but to encourage people to think, open their eyes, and show how God will judge the decisions we make each day.

A simple example may help us understand what was said better. Two necklaces are on display in a jewelry shop, one of pure gold but a little worn by time, the other of burnished brass but highly polished. An inexperienced buyer enters and is attracted and fascinated by the brilliance of the brass necklace. Fortunately, an expert appears and warns him: Beware—he says—don’t waste your money on this bauble or trifle!

This judgment saves the inexperienced buyer. Even if the knowledgeable person uses harsh and threatening expressions, their judgment is always the judgment of salvation. Believing that the judgment scene described by Jesus refers to the condemnation of sinners to the torments of hell is, at best, risky. Hell exists but is not a place created by God to punish those who have misbehaved at the end of life. It is a condition of unhappiness and despair resulting from sin. However, we can get out of hell, away from sin through Christ: our liberation comes from Christ and his judgment of salvation.

But, in the end, will God not punish the wicked? A judge seems just to us when, after evaluating the crime, he punishes with equity. But this is not the justice of God. He is not a just God because he rewards or punishes according to our standards and expectations—if this were the case, there would be no hope for anyone, and all would end up being convicted—but because he can make the wicked righteous (cf. Romans 3:21-26).

The question, therefore, is not who will be counted as sheep and who will be counted as goats at the end of the world, but on what occasions do we behave as sheep or goats today. We are sheep when we love our brother or sister; we are goats when we neglect them. What will happen at the end? It is truly hard to believe that the good shepherd—from whom no one will be able to snatch even one of his sheep (cf. Jn 10:28)—after leaving us to spring around like young kids, will not find a way to turn us all into his lambs.


READ: The Gospel presents the Last Judgment where Christ, the judge, bears our soul to us. Christ the King will finally deliver the Kingdom to the Father, having defeated death once and for all. Matthew offers the final criterion for eternal life: How did I treat others? Nothing matters as much.


REFLECT: How funny or strange it would have been if the people on the right answered thus: “Yeah, Lord, we knew it was you we were serving when we fed the hungry and clothed the naked.” It doesn’t fit the script, right? The remarkable thing is, that these good souls had no idea they were serving Christ when engaging in these acts of mercy! Doing good was just their second (or first) nature? Goodness is never so better when done unawares. How about you?


PRAY: With the power of the Holy Spirit, pray that you may recognize those in need. Pray that good be done to the world through you without you being aware of it.


ACT: Look for opportunities to meet Jesus’ expectations in your daily life.





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