|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
I have a love/hate relationship with this text.
I hate it, because it seems to make works the requirement for being blessed by God. There is no mention of faith or justification or forgiveness or the cross -- the acts of God that bring us salvation. Rather, the text is all about human actions.
I hate it from a family systems approach, because doing such things for others can create co-dependent relationships between the helper and those in need. We have usually answered the question: "Am I my brother's keeper?" with "Yes." We are to take care of our needy brothers and sisters. Our text would support this answer. However, if we look at this answer from another perspective, we may want to change our response. Who of us wants to be "kept"? We "keep" animals in the zoo or pets in a pen. Such "kept" animals are unable to survive on their own. Sometimes we may "keep" people in a similar bondage. So, we need to struggle with how we can best care for the needy as Jesus' parable says we should. How can we do it in a way that doesn't put them or us in bondage?
I love it, because these good works are not really works that earn us heaven because the doers of them don't realize that they have done anything good. Caring for other people is such a part of their (redeemed) nature, that the caring acts come naturally, perhaps even unconsciously -- like a good tree naturally producing good fruit. It doesn't have to "think" about producing fruit. They just happen. Their production is part of its nature. In the same way, the "goats" don't realize that they have done anything wrong. "The Great Surprise" may be a more appropriate title to this text than "The Final Judgment." Both groups are surprised when they hear about their good deeds (or lack thereof).
David M. Granskou (Preaching on the Parables) picks up on this theme with this brief comment: "More important is the observation of Jeremias that this is not a typical judgment story insofar as the righteous are surprised at being among the saved." [p. 124]
The observation of Jeremias (The Parables of Jesus) is:
There are Egyptian and rabbinic parallels which must be considered in relation to the substance of our passage. These similarly lay down the principle that works of mercy will be the decisive factor in the Judgment. But what a difference! Both in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and in the Midrash the dead man boasts self-confidently of his good deeds.... How differently sounds the surprised question of the righteous in vv. 37-39 of our passage, who are unconscious of having rendered any service, to say nothing of the conception that in the persons of the poor and wretched, men are confronted by the hidden Messiah. [p. 208]
Granskou goes on to suggest that because of the surprised reactions, which breaks the normal pattern of a morality story, Jesus was combating a moralistic view of life and the judgment of God. [p. 125, my emphasis]
Most of us have had a similar type of "surprise". Someone comes up to us and says, "What you did for me sure helped me a lot." or "What you said to me had a powerful influence on my life." While they are saying this, we are trying to remember what we said or did that was so great. Often we don't know what good we are doing -- and only later discover that we have served Christ in the least of these. On the other hand, if we assume we are doing a great job, we might be surprised to hear about what we haven't done.
Richard Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) carries this idea a bit further. Some comments from his book about this parable:
The righteous are surprised. They don't know their deeds. They haven't kept score. Their left hand doesn't seem to know what their right hand is doing (Matthew 6:3)....
The righteous were righteous because of their deeds and they didn't know it. They didn't know their own righteousness.... The righteousness of the sheep was precisely an alien righteousness. They didn't even know they possessed it!...
Note that in the story the opposite is also true. The unrighteous ones know their deeds. They have kept score.... The unrighteous are quite confident about their righteousness. It is always so with humanly crafted righteousness. Those who measure their righteousness on human scales are in for a shock at the day of judgment. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven..." (Matthew 7:21)....
Jesus' vision makes it clear. The life of the Christian is a life given in love to the least of these. But that's good works, isn't it? Won't such good works for our neighbor destroy the "faith alone" foundation of our faith? (We Lutherans actually worry about this at times.) The answer to our question is "No." Our good works will not destroy our "faith alone" posture. We can do all the loving of the least and little ones we can possibly imagine and not be liable to belief in works-righteousness. We are called to do lots of good works. We are also called not to keep score. When we keep score of our deeds we want to credit our love of neighbor to our heavenly bank account. Loving our neighbor is not the problem. Keeping score of our good deeds of neighbor-love is the problem. The truly righteous don't keep score. Their left hand doesn't know what their right hand is doing. Such as these will stand before the Sovereign one day clothed in Christ's righteousness alone. [pp. 220-222]
Another indication that this is not a works-righteous text is that the righteous don't earn the kingdom, but they inherit it (v. 34). An inheritance is determined by the giver, not the receiver.
The verb "to inherit" (kleronomeo) is used only three times in Matthew, with three different objects:
The meek inherit the earth (5:5)
Those who have left everything will inherit eternal life (19:29)
The righteous inherit the kingdom (25:34)
We might ask if our inheritance is earthly, spiritual, or heavenly.
This final speech of Jesus begins with the disciples asking: "Tell us, when (pote) will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (24:3b)
Three times in our text, the righteous ask "when" (pote -- vv. 37, 38, 39) and once the "goats" ask "when" (pote -- v. 44).
The only other instances of pote in Mt is in 17:17:
Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer [lit. until when] must I be with you? How much longer [lit. until when] must I put up with you? Bring him here to me."
The answer to the question: "When is Jesus coming?" in our text is "Now, when you do it to the least of these." Jesus, who is coming, is present now in the "least of these".
Louw and Nida in the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament give this definition of basileuo/basileia and comment.
to rule as a king, with the implication of complete authority and the possibility of being able to pass on the right to rule to one's son or near kin -- "to rule, to be a king, to reign, rule, reign". It is generally a serious mistake to translate the phrase basileia tou theou with "the kingdom of God" as referring to a particular area in which God rules. The meaning of this phrase in the NT involves not a particular place or special period of time but the fact of ruling. An expression such as "to enter the kingdom of God" thus does not refer to "going to heaven" but should be understood as "accepting God's rule" or "welcoming God to rule over." 37.64
When we inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the cosmos, it is not a place, but living (now?) with God ruling over our lives. Such acceptance of God's rule in our lives would lead us to care for the needy. And when we act in accordance with God's rule, we have inherited the kingdom.
While our passage is the ending of Jesus' final discourse, the image of Jesus being the outcasts of society leads into the passion (ch. 26-27). Robert Smith (Matthew) picks up this theme:
Indeed that great and final vision (25:31-46) prepares readers for the Passion Narrative (chaps. 26-27). In his vision Jesus speaks about being identified with the world's outcasts, and in his passion he actively and actually identifies with them. The Son of God (27:40, 43) stands deliberately and voluntarily in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated, the tortured. He began as a refugee and he ends as a condemned criminal. He gave his blood for them and for many (20:28; 26:27). [p. 299]
According to Smith: "Sheep and goats mingle and graze together each day. But when they are moved to fresh pasture or when sheep are due for shearing or goats for milking, or when evening falls and the goats must be sheltered against night's chill, then they are separated" [p. 297].
The word for "separate" (aphorizo) is a fairly rare word (10 times in the NT -- 3 in Mt). It occurs twice in v. 32 of our text and also in 13:49: "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous."
It is one of Matthew's themes that there are sheep and goats, evil and righteous, wheat and weeds (Mt 13:24-30) in the church at the present time. The separation is not our responsibility, but the responsibility of the angels or of the king who comes at the end of the age. Although Mt does have the discipline section in ch. 18, where a church member sins against another, the purpose of the discipline is not separation, but seeking to restore the wayward one. Until the time that the angels come to do the actual separating, we may have to put up with those stupid jerks in the world (and in the church) <g> while we pray earnestly, "Come, Lord Jesus, come."
Jeremias indicates that: "sheep are the more valuable animals; moreover their white colour (in distinction from the black of the goats) makes them a symbol of the righteous." [p. 206]
I'm not sure where I picked up this idea, but I used it in a sermon on this text. Why "sheep and goats"? Why not good sheep and bad sheep or good goats and bad goats? Why two different animals? It is impossible for a goat to become a sheep.
It was common for a shepherd to have both animals in his flock. However, throughout the Bible, including the First Reading (Ezek 34:11-16, 20-24) and Psalms (100 or 95:1-7a) for Christ the King A, God's people are referred to as sheep. Throughout scriptures the image of sheep and shepherd is used to talk about the relationship between God and God's people. Goats are not used in the image of this relationship.
So, it may be, that the distinction between sheep and goats refers to people who have a relationship with God and those who don't -- people who are sheep of the Good Shepherd and people who are merely goats.
Perhaps that the most important part of this parable: We are to be sheep under authority of the Good Shepherd. The separation takes place between sheep and goats before either group is told what they have or haven't done. The sheep are told before they know anything about what they've done, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." It is not their "good deeds" that brings the blessing; it is because they are sheep, God's people, living under authority of the Good Shepherd. But as sheep, they naturally did such good things for the needy and also to Christ.
I'm not sure that I agree with these paragraphs from Hare (Matthew), but I share it for your information and critique.
There is nothing uniquely Christian about the idea of Jesus' solidarity with his messengers; it reflects the Jewish shaliach principle: "A man's representative is as the man himself." What is distinctive about Matt. 18:5 is the notion that vulnerable children who have no conscious relationship to him are nonetheless his "representatives." In 25:31-46 this remarkable principle is extended to include all the world's powerless and needy.
Because of this solidarity principle, the good deeds performed by pagans are not treated as atoning for their sins, nor as evidence that they imitate God, but as indicating a relationship with Jesus! although they knew it not, the righteous pagans were serving him by helping those with whom he identified. Although their case is anomalous, they are in a limited sense "in Christ" (to borrow Paul's language) by means of this service. They are "anonymous Christians." [p. 291]
One interpretation of "the least of these my brothers" is that it refers to the believers. NRSV translates v. 40 with "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."
"Brothers" is a term used for Christians (male and female). With this understanding, those who cared for the believers -- especially those missionaries who continued to follow Jesus' command to go out with no money and no possessions (Mt 10:9-10) -- will be rewarded for their righteous deeds -- even though they didn't know they were righteous, nor that they were even believers!
The other major interpretation interprets "the least of these" to refer to all human beings in need, and not just to Christian missionaries. Jesus said that "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Mt 12:50). So "brothers" may not be limited to just the members of the Christian community.
Long (Matthew) raises a question and offers an answer:
So, what is the answer to the question? Does the parable of the sheep and the goats teach that the world will be judged on the basis of how it treats the church (as the Body of Christ), or does it teach that everybody, including Christians, will be judged by how they treat the poor and needy of the earth?"
Recently, some students of the parable have argued persuasively that the parable, in fact, teaches both. According to this view, the phrase "the least of these who are members of my family" does, in fact, refer to the Christian community. So, the main thrust of the parable is that the people of the world will finally be judged on the basis of how they receive the emissaries of the gospel who come in the name of Jesus Christ. But, this is no invitation to the church to swagger with pride and authority. It is important to note that the parable calls these Christians "the least," not "the greatest"; they come to the world not in limousines and silk, but hungry and thirsty. They are not the power elite or the moral majority, forcing their will on the nations; they are identified with the weak of the earth and are more likely to be found in hospitals and prisons than in palaces. Indeed, the shock of this parable is that no one -- not the goats and not even the sheep -- recognized Christ because they assumed that the majestic, triumphant Lord of all time would surely appear as a powerful presence in history. But this is not God's way in the world. [pp. 285-6]
Although the above quotes hint at answers, I had never asked or struggled with the question "Who are we in this text?". We usually assume that we are the sheep (or perhaps a goat who needs to be transformed into a sheep by caring for the needy).
I'm wondering if the original hearers might have thought of themselves as the needy. As mentioned above certainly "brothers" and possibly "least of these" could be terms referring to the believers. Especially if Matthew's readers were actually poor and hungry and thirsty, etc. they would have seen themselves as the needy in this parable.
This could be supported by retranslating 25:32. The word for "nations" is ethnos. Perhaps its most basic meaning is "not us." It was used by the Jews to refer to those who were "not us," that is "the Gentiles." It was also used by Christians to refer to those who were "not us," that is "unbelievers." ("Gentiles" is used by Mormons to refer to all non-Mormons. Even Jews are "Gentiles" in Mormon thinking.) Does Matthew use ethnos to refer to the unbelievers? The following are verses with this word in the closing chapters of Matthew where it is translated in the NRSV as "nations".
24:9 Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.
24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It seems to me that the "all [the] nations" as defined in these verses must be unbelievers. The "nations" are those who persecute believers, who need the testimony of believers, and who are in need of becoming disciples of Jesus. They do not sound like people who are already part of the church.
So, what is its meaning in 25:32: 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,
It would seem a bit strange to me that if ethnos normally refers to "not us," that the "nations" in our text would suddenly refer to "us". Could it be translated, "All the unbelievers will be gathered before him...."?
Especially in apocalyptic literature, the basic message to persecuted believers is "hang in there." Those who are persecuting you will be punished. Such seems to be the message concerning the goats -- those who did not care for the needy believers. The future of the sheep seems to answer a concern that believers might have had about the eternal future of their unbelieving friends who had shown them kindness and cared for them.
Perhaps we are misreading this text by placing ourselves in the role of the sheep (or goats).
The other thought that's been roaming around in my head is that of "hindsight". It was after the events that the sheep or goats came to realize what they had really done. Perhaps also it was only through the divine word that the needy believers came to realize that Jesus was with them in their destitute state.
I have found in my life that frequently the presence and actions of God are best discerned with hindsight. "Now I can see how God was using that situation to bring me to where God wanted me to be."
In my classical Greek dictionary, the first meanings for metanoeo and metanoia is "to perceive afterwards," "after-thought". The prefix meta- is taken to mean first of all "afterwards" and then secondly, "to change". Usually these Greek words are translated "to repent" or "repentance." Sermons and essays have been written about "repentance" as "changing one's thinking," "having a change in mind," but, at least in classical usage, those are secondary meanings.
metanoeo as "after-thought" might be equivalent to "hindsight" -- looking back and re-evaluating what has happened -- discovering that God was present in the situation -- then our re-thinking could lead to prayers of thanksgiving. Or, the re-thinking might lead us to discover that what I had thought was a good and righteous act was really a selfish deed which leads to prayers of confession -- in which case God is using the deed for God's purpose of confession and forgiveness.
The overused poem "Footprints in the Sand" is a bit like this. The help and comfort from God was only discerned when looking back on the footprints and hearing the Word that reinterpreted the past events.
I'll end with this comment from Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel): "In Jesus' eschatological vision we discover that when Jesus does come into our heart, he brings all of needy humanity along with him!" [p. 222]
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901