A Provocation: Reign of Christ Sunday: November 26, 2017: Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46
25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.

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,

25:33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

25:34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;

25:35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,

25:36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

25:37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?

25:38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?

25:39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

25:40 And the king will answer them, ‘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.’

25:41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;

25:42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,

25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

25:44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’

25:45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

25:46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the Sovereign of the Universe talk about “the least?”
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

Another story of division in Matthew.

This one, however, has some odd little elements.

First of all, the story starts out as a story about the coming of the “son of humanity,” but then shifts to speaking about a king making divisions.  That works well enough I suppose, but the seamless shift is worth noting.

Then the storyteller informs us that this dividing is part of the judging of “the nations.” That also works well enough, but now we have to decide whether to translate τὰ ἔθνη as “the nations” so as to imply that all human communities are included, since all humans are part of one nation or another, or whether τὰ ἔθνη this time means what the Hebrew word for “nations” (goyim) implies: Gentiles.

Since most readers of this blog are, in fact, Gentile (I think), it may not matter: no matter how we translate, we are included.

But it is worth thinking about, still.  If this story is just about assessing Gentiles, that implies, I suppose, that Jews are expected to already know all of these criteria, and that Jews are expected, in addition, to live lives of Torah observance.  In such discussions, it generally emerges that the expectations are simpler for Gentiles: the commandments given to Noah will suffice.  Those commandments come down to this: don’t worship idols, don’t commit violent acts, don’t be an idiot, and set up a functioning legal system.  The standards set in Matthew 25 can fit thematically into those commandments.

The situation is not much different if Jews are included in this act of dividing.  Still the expectation is that human beings will treat the people around them (especially the weakest among them) with respect and kindness.  These expectations echo the expectations set in Micah 6: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.  Even when the Jewish discussion turns its attention to the details of Torah observance, still it all boils down to serving God and loving neighbors.

It IS worth noting that nothing is said about “believing in Jesus.”

That doesn’t mean Jesus is unimportant, but it may mean that Christians who refuse to imagine Jews being “saved” unless they say “Jesus” three times with feeling, those Christians might want to think again.

This is not as revolutionary as you might think. If the reason Jesus is crucial is because Jesus works God’s grace for human beings, and because grace has to come first, then this little story makes sense to both Jews and Christians. Jews have always known that grace comes first.  Even Torah itself is a gift of grace, and Jews have never assumed that we buy God’s favor by impressing God with our good deeds.  And Christians, likewise, know that it all comes down to grace, but that does not mean (and never HAS meant) that we are free to act like idiots so that God will have more to gladly forgive us for.

All of this matters.

But what catches my attention is that neither the sheep nor the goats thought they had seen the Sovereign of the Universe hungry or sick or naked or in prison.


The goats appear to be planning to sue the Sovereign since, if they had known they were supposed to look for God in the smelly people living under the bridge, they surely would have.  Or at least would have sent a servant to look for God there.

The sheep also never saw the Sovereign.  They just saw people who needed to be fed, or protected, or visited, or respected.  They just saw people and treated them like people.  It never occurred to them that they should be looking for God.  And they are commended for that.

Think about that slowly.

This is not a story about seeing the divine in the “least of these.”  This is a story about seeing people as people.

That seems so simple.  It is.

One thought on “A Provocation: Reign of Christ Sunday: November 26, 2017: Matthew 25:31-46

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