"Christ, Unawares" Bible Study on Matthew 25:31-46
November 19, 2020, 1:55 PM

Dear Members & Friends:

I invite you to read the following passage from Matthew 25:31-46 (Common English Bible).

31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne.32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45 Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

What is the intent of Jesus' story?  Is it to urge Christians to do good works for Christ incognito?  As with all of Jesus' parables, there are several interpretations and layers of meaning.  So what are some of the possible interpretations that we can pull out of this parable?

This parable is the last in a series of four parables of judgment (including the parable of the coins that we heard last Sunday, Matthew 25:14-30).  Throughout Matthew 24-25, we have eschatological stories of the end and the judgment that comes at the end.  Goats and sheep are divided on the basis of "in as much as you did it unto the least of these" and sent to eternal punishment or eternal life (Matthew 25:46).  Could it be that the punishment is in the here and now in terms of hearing how the King responds to our lack of compassion to the needs of others?  What is the basis of the judgment?

The judgment upon the sheep and the goats, both of whom belong to the same flock, is based upon whether they have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, and visited the prisoner.  Still, we must ask questions like: What is this parable really about?  To whom was this parable addressed?  Who is Jesus talking about with his talk of "natons," "sheep," and "goats"?

"All the nations" that are gathered before the Human One (or Son of Man - Matthew 25:32, NRSV) could mean merely "all the people of the world" (Greek: panta ta ethne).  Most of the time when Matthew uses the Greek ethne, Matthew clearly means Gentiles (see Matthew 4:15; 6:32; 10:5; 20:19, 25; 24:14; 28:19).  So Matthew could mean "all the Gentiles," that is, all those who neither know nor worship Christ.  Could that mean that the sheep and the goats are drawn from all nations who do the works of compassion whether they do it in Christ's name or not?

Who are "the least of these brothers and sisters of mine"?  The address  "brothers and sisters of mine" certainly sounds like Matthew is identifying the victims, the "least of these," as his followers in the Church.  Some take ethne specifically to mean Gentiles outside the Church.  Those interpreters have tended to do so for Protestant theological reasons, troubled as they are by the apparent "works righteousness" of believers being judged on the basis of works rather than faith.  But there can be no sidestepping that the parable says that judgment is according to works of compassion.

Matthew doesn't seem to know our good old Protestant grace-versus-works dichotomy.  Throughout this gospel, we have seen Jesus call his followers to a righteousness that exceeds even that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-20).  Jesus refuses the acclamation "Lord" from those who fail to do the good works he commands (Matthew 7:21-29), commending those who do the right deeds over those who have the right words without the just and loving actions (Matthew 21:28-32).  Jesus does not command his followers to desire justice, to pray for peace; he blesses those who do justice and make peace (Matthew 5:1-16).  When this gospel ends, Jesus one last time says to his disciples, "Obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20, NRSV).

So again, who are the people gathered for judgment?  Who are the sheep and the goats? And who are the least of these brothers and sisters of mine?

The first two questoins of interpretation seem, on first glance, easy enough.  But are they?  If it's all the nations, it seems everybody is being gathered for judgment. The sheep are those who, unknowingly, in meeting the needs of others, met Christ.  The goats are those who, unknowingly, in failing to respond in mercy to the needs of others, failed to meet Christ.  Both the sheep and the goats are clueless when face-to-face with Christ in the needs of others.  Could it be that every one of us (all the nations) at one time or another in life have been among the sheep or the goats?  

"Who are the least of these?"  This may be the most important questoin to ask.  Who are these vulnerable little ones that are deserving of the mercy that is given by the sheep and withheld by the goats?  Note that Jesus calls these vulnerable ones his "brothers and sisters" (Matthew 25:40, 45).

Throughout Matthew's Gospel "brothers and sisters" is used by Jesus to refer to his disciples (Matthew 12:49-50; 23:8; 28:10).  "Little ones" (probably interchangeable with "the least") frequently refers to those who believe in Jesus (Matthew 1:42; 18:6, 12,14).  I therefore think there are good reasons to interpret the parable of the sheep and the goats as relating to the last part of Jesus' comission when he sent out his disciples in Matthew 10:40-42.  There Jesus says, "I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded" (Matthew 10:42).

So does that mean that a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist, or a person of no faith who offers a cup of cold water (or does some other act of random kindness) will be among God's sheep, God's flock, who hear the King, the Shepherd say, "I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me"?

Could it be that we are sometimes the gruff, old billy goats who are surprised by Christ unawares?

Jesus said, "I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:15b-16, NRSV -- I know, another gospel, but I'm sure you get the gist of it).


Pastor Billy Goat Greg Rupright, a Sometimes Sheep in God's Flock


11-21-2020 at 7:46 PM
Pat May
Well argued,Pastor Billy Goat...
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