For the Love of God, Volume 1/January 25
From Gospel Translations
Genesis 26; Matthew 25; Esther 2; Acts 25
THE PARABLE OF THE sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) focuses attention on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. It speaks volumes to us in a culture where the poor, the wretched, and the unfortunate can easily be ignored or swept aside to the periphery of our vision. Here Jesus, the Son of Man and the King, declares, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (25:40; cf. v. 45). Doesn’t this mean that somehow when we serve the wretched we serve Christ? Doesn’t this then become a distinguishing mark—perhaps even the distinguishing mark—of true followers of Jesus Christ?
That, at least, is how this parable is usually interpreted. At one level I am loath to challenge it, because it is always important for those who know and follow the living God to show their life in God in the realms of compassion, service, and self-abnegation. Certainly elsewhere the Bible has a great deal to say about caring for the poor.
But it is rather unlikely that that is the focus of this parable. Another ancient stream of interpretation has much more plausibility. Two elements in the text clarify matters. First, Jesus insists that what was done by the “sheep,” or not done by the “goats,” was done “for one of the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40; cf. v. 45). There is overwhelming evidence that this expression does not refer to everyone who is suffering, but to Jesus’ followers who are suffering. The emphasis is not on generic compassion (as important as that is elsewhere), but on who has shown compassion to the followers of Jesus who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, sick, or in prison.
Second, both the sheep and the goats (25:37, 41, 44) are surprised when Jesus pronounces his verdict in terms of the way they have treated “the least of these brothers of mine.” If what Jesus is referring to was compassion of a generic sort, it is hard to see how anyone would be all that surprised. The point is that it is Jesus’ identification with these people who have (or have not) been helped that is critical—and that is a constant feature of biblical religion. For example, when Saul (Paul) persecutes Christians, he is persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:4). Real followers of Jesus will go out of their way to help other followers of Jesus, not least the weakest and most despised of them; others will have no special inclination along these lines. That is what separates sheep and goats (25:32-33).
So how do you treat other Christians, even the least of Jesus’ brothers?