There are two main issues informing these middle chapters of Matthew that contribute to a picture of our Lord and Savior as not always the obvious incarnation of God's love but sometimes as exasperated, angry, and even petulant (pity the poor fig tree!). First, Jesus turns in these chapters toward Jerusalem and a difficult future that he articulates ever more clearly: persecution, suffering, and death – and a resurrection. Thus his message and its delivery take on greater urgency in these chapters, as he tries to prepare people to grasp that future's meaning once it occurs. Second, Jesus is frustrated by the inability of his people – and especially their leaders – to understand that their perception of their relationship with God is backwards.
I believe that Jesus is quite consistently arguing - especially in these chapters - that we are first meant to believe that God loves us as the sinners that we are, and then to work to respond to that love by caring for those around us. We, and the leaders and people of Israel in Jesus' time, too easily fall into the trap of trying to earn God's love by making our behavior fit into categories of righteousness, and Jesus here has just about had it with that misinterpretation. Hence his frustration with the Pharisees and their constant efforts to test whether his behaviors fit the letter of the commandments; hence his parables that attack the Jewish leaders for failing to understand and follow the teachings of the prophets (e.g., the Wicked Tenants, 21:33ff.); hence his sad response to the rich young man (19:16ff.) who thinks there is a checklist of righteous acts that will guarantee his entrance into a kingdom to which Jesus is promising he already belongs.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep (18:10-14) promises us that God will go after every one of us, that none will be lost from the loving care of the Shepherd. How, then, might we read the image of the separation of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) that seems very clearly to judge us by our behaviors? I would assert that no one in the history of humanity has ever been completely caring or completely uncaring - even the most selfish or evil person we know has occasionally done something nice for someone - and that the image therefore is less about how we will be judged than about how we can best respond to God's love. God, Jesus is saying, cares for all of us and when we care for each other we are aligning our lives with God, we are responding best to that love - we are in heaven; when we fail to care for each other we are aligned only with ourselves and are thus separate from God in our own perceptions - and that is its own hell. We judge ourselves and each other accordingly - how about if we let the judging go and instead act in love toward one another?
Much to chew on this week!