Matthew 25.31-46 exemplifies the divine inversion. Inverting worldly expectations, the king explains to those gathered before his throne that they served him as king by serving the least kingly people of all: the hungry, thirsty, naked, and the sick and imprisoned. The king identifies these individuals as his very brothers.
The naive reading of the passage places the Christian disciple with those gathered before Jesus’ throne. Jesus speaks to us, promising that we meet him, the king himself, in serving “the least of these.” So, too, the Christian disciple neglects the king himself in neglecting the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned. As so often in the Scriptures, the royal inversion befuddles both groups, with none recognizing the king in those they served or in those they neglected to serve.
There is, however, another reading of the passage. The alternative does not see Jesus instructing his disciples in this passage to serve him by serving the needy. Instead, the alternative reads the passage as one encouraging Jesus’ disciples to mission by promising to hold the nations to account by how they treat the evangelizing disciples—by blessing them or by persecuting them.
In the naive reading, Christ’s disciples provide food, drink, clothing, and fellowship to those in need. In the alternative reading, Christ’s disciples receive food, drink, clothing, and hospitality as those in need.
While I think there is a strong textual argument for the alternative reading, I don’t find the evidence sufficient to justify jettisoning the naive reading of the passage. And it matters how the Church reads this passage (as also so many others).
There is a strong case for the alternative reading. For example, in his book, Jerusalem and Parousia, my friend, Concordia Seminary Professor Jeffrey Gibbs, draws attention to two notable items in the passage—the King’s specific reference to the needy as “my brothers” (in verses 40 and 45) and the identity of “the nations” (in verse 32) that the King gathers before him and judges by how they treat “these brothers of mine, even the least of them.”
Gibbs develops the argument in detail—too much detail to do it full justice in a brief summary. The upshot, however, is that, in this reading, those who Jesus identifies as “these brothers of mine” in Matthew 25 refers to the disciples he sent out to evangelize the nations. Among several lines of evidence, Gibbs observes that while “brothers” is applied in sundry ways in the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew records Jesus using it expressly in reference to the eleven disciples when he calls them together to give them the Great Commission (cf., Mt 28.10, 16, and 18-20).
So, too, Jesus tells his disciples, not least in Matthew 10, to expect suffering and persecution when they take his message to others. Even more piquantly in Matthew 10, Jesus identifies himself with the disciples whom he sends:
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. . . . And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.
Jesus reference to his disciples as “these little ones” in Matthew 10 could be a description he echoes in his reference to “the least of these” in Matthew 25.
Finally, Matthew 25 records the continuing discussion that Jesus started with his disciples when he exited the Temple early in Matthew 24. In verse 9 of chapter 24, Jesus tells the disciples that “they will deliver you into tribulation and they will kill you and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.” These are the same nations that the King gathers before him in Matthew.
Hence, Gibbs concludes the King’s “brothers” in Matthew 25 are not simply all of those in need, but are, poignantly, the disciples he sent, starting with the eleven, to take the Gospel to the nations. The message of Matthew 25 for this reading is that Jesus sends his disciples as sheep among the wolves, with the word of encouragement that he suffers with and in them, and that he will bless or judge the nations in accord with how they receive his disciples.
Yet the alternative argument misses the forest for the trees. The problem with the alternative argument is not the evidence it draws on to make its case, but rather the evidence it ignores. For example, Gibbs draws the reader’s attention to the language of “brothers” and “nations.” But in doing so I think he discounts too quickly the import of the larger narrative passage for who it is that Matthew 25 addresses.
Matthew 25 concludes Jesus’ Temple discourse which began in Matthew 21 with Jesus entering Jerusalem and then clearing the Temple. Jesus engages different religious factions through Mathew 23 regarding his actions. This chapter concludes with Jesus lament over Jerusalem and the coming destruction of the city and temple.
In Matthew 24, the disciples come to Jesus in private, asking for clarification on these events and his coming. These are the focus of his discussion in Matthew 24 and 25. Jesus explains to his disciples in a series of images and parables that no one knows the hour of his coming, so they must not grow weary of waiting or despair of his coming.
These images and parables up through Matthew 25.30, however, do not instruct Jesus’ disciples what it is, exactly, to be prepared for his coming. Matthew 25.31-46 closes the loop: As Jesus’ kingship is superlatively expressed in and through the scandal of the Cross, his kingdom comes superlatively, and just as scandalously, through service of the king’s people to his brothers, the “least of these.”
So it seems that the natural expectation of the reader or hearer would be that Jesus addresses the actions of the same set of individuals that he addresses in the passages immediately preceding verse 31. Indeed, the irony of the alternative reading is that those to whom Jesus provides this instruction are not in fact present with Jesus and hearing the instruction. Further, it seems awkward to read the passage as intended to encourage the disciples when the focus is on the acting agents.
The focus on “brothers” in the passage to motivate the alternative reading seems to miss the point altogether. Jesus’ reference to “the least of these my brothers” seems to be purposefully provocative and generalizing. I take Jesus to be making a constructive identification, akin to the move he makes when he shares the story of the good Samaritan in response to his interlocutor’s questions, “And who is my neighbor?” The point of Jesus’ language is precisely to broaden our understanding of the scope of kingdom activity, not to narrow it. So, too, the gathering of the nations can be easily taken to be no more than the gathering of all “people” (v. 32) in the general resurrection.
But is this all just hair splitting on one short passage? The thing is, I suspect that one reason the Church faces such difficulty with her message of new life in the resurrected Messiah today is that it is often heard by outsiders as little more than cheap talk; nice-sounding words that don’t really make a difference. But more than just manifest evidence of the faith, the passage invites Jesus’ Church to inhabit the world that Jesus brought to earth—a world again turned right-side-up. A world in which the King wins by losing his life on a Cross, and the people liberated by that Cross serve his most royal majesty, just as bizarrely, by serving the “least of these.”
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Jerusalem and Parousia
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