Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew is certainly not one of the most quoted pieces of Scripture, at least by contemporary Christians. But in terms of content, it has to be placed near, or even perhaps at the top of the list of importance.
The chapter begins with the parable of the wise virgins. And so from the perspective of our Orthodox Faith, the chapter “bookends” the Great Fast. The account of the Last Judgment (which ends the chapter) is with us today on the Sunday of Meatfare, and the Parable of the Wise Virgins ‘ends’ the Fast on the eve of Holy Monday, on which day we celebrate the service of Bridegroom Matins.
Sandwiched between these two we find the parable of the distribution of talents, the account of how God expects us to take the gifts He has given to us, and to apply them for HIS glory, for the increase of HIS purpose, for the benefit of HIS Kingdom.
The end of the chapter is what lay before us today. Some refer to verses 31 through 46 as another parable. But from the perspective of Orthodoxy, it is a documentary.
Jesus begins with no uncertainties, no ‘ifs’, but with the concrete. “When the Son of Man shall come in His glory.” The words are a prophecy of what lay before us—all of us—on that day when He returns. His return will not be one in the humility of His first coming to earth, in a stable, seen by only those who were made known of His arrival, shepherds and Magi. This time all of humanity will come at His summoning. They will not bring wonder as did the shepherds, nor gifts as did the kings of the East, but they must bring the fruits of their lives, answering for the use of or the wasting of the talents given to them.
Jesus uses the imagery of sheep and goats not in the literal sense, but in the figurative. Sheep are those who hear their Master’s voice and follow where He leads. Goats are contrary and do as they themselves please. Sheep produce things from their God-given gifts for the benefit of others—wool to clothe the naked, milk to feed the hungry. Goats produce nothing of value—they consume and return nothing.
The separation of sheep and goats is by the same judgmental criteria. They are simple, unequivocal, and easily known and understood by all, since they consist of the most fundamental of human needs—food, water, comfort, clothing, health, and support when being punished. These are things to which all human beings can relate. Thus it should not be difficult for all human beings to respond when they see these as needs in others.
The three lessons of Chapter 25 are in fact one lesson. We are to remain vigilant for the Lord’s return, watchful in taking care that we are ever ready to respond when we hear of His arrival. Our readiness (or lack thereof) has everything to do with how we employ the talents that He has given each of us. Not all can accomplish all things, but each can accomplish that which He has given us the ability and the wherewithal to do. If we employ those talents as He wills, we trim our lamps and keep oil at the ready for His arrival.
If we can do these things, then we will not fear that summons to His judgment seat, but we will be filled with joy that He has returned, and in the knowledge that all is now accomplished, with pure hearts we can approach Him in the hope to hear from His lips, “Come, you blessed of My Father, and inherit the kingdom prepared for you!”