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Why Foreign Missions? 9. Matthew 25.31-46: The Nations’ Reception of the Missionary Disciples of Jesus

Why Foreign Missions?  9. Matthew 25.31-46: The Nations’ Reception of the Missionary Disciples of Jesus

What is the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Mt. 25.31-46?  I will argue that this parable is about the nations (or peoples) of the world being challenged to receive the missionary disciples of Jesus.  To accept them is to accept Jesus.

Such an interpretation goes against commonly held views.  One common interpretation is that the parable is about caring for the poor.[1]  If so, it is stating what we find elsewhere in Scripture and other Jewish writings, such as:
         Proverbs 25:21-22   21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;  22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you. (also quoted in Rom. 12.20).
          Isaiah 58:6-7   6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
         4 Esdras 2:20-23   20 "Guard the rights of the widow, secure justice for the ward, give to the needy, defend the orphan, clothe the naked,  21 care for the injured and the weak, do not ridicule the lame, protect the maimed, and let the blind have a vision of my splendor.  22 Protect the old and the young within your walls.  23 When you find any who are dead, commit them to the grave and mark it,1 and I will give you the first place in my resurrection.

However, we have to ask three questions of this view:

  1. Why are the nations gathered?  This interpretation typically challenges individuals or possibly groups, such as churches, to care for the poor.  Yet the passage is about the judgement of nations.  Also, while Israel might be indicted for its treatment of the poor in such texts as Is. 58, Mt. 25.31ff would be unique in speaking of worldwide judgement of the nations based on their treatment of the poor.
  2. Why does Jesus refer to ‘my brothers’ in this passage?  The typical answer given is that Jesus is calling the poor his brethren.  In the two other passages where Jesus speaks of his brothers in Matthew, they are the disciples (Mt. 12.48-49; 28.10).
  3. Why are the nations judged only for feeding the hungry, offering a drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the sick and imprisoned?
While care for the poor and needy is certainly part of the Biblical message in both the Old and New Testaments, this does not appear to be the point of Mt. 25.31-46.

A second view is that the nations are judged for their treatment of the disciples.[2]  As Don Carson states,

The fate of the nations will be determined by how they respond to Jesus’ followers, who, ‘missionaries’ or not, are charged with spreading the gospel and do so in the face of hunger, thirst, illness, and imprisonment.  Good deeds done to Jesus’ followers, even the least of them, are not only works of compassion and morality but reflect where people stand in relation to the kingdom and to Jesus himself.  Jesus identifies himself with the fate of his followers and makes compassion for them equivalent to compassion for himself.

Carson is aware that his interpretation is open to the objection that it does not preserve a distinction between the ‘least of these’ and the sheep.  Yet he argues that a similar ambiguity might be found in Mt. 18 between ‘child’ and ‘disciples’, that his interpretation emphasizes the loving relationship within the Christian community, and that it explains why the sheep and goats are surprised by Jesus’ response.

I might offer further support for this position while still favouring the more nuanced position to be noted next.  In favour of the ‘least of these’ being Jesus’ disciples, consider the terms used of disciples throughout Matthew’s Gospel.[3]  Notice how often and in what different ways Matthew defines Jesus’ disciples as little in some sense.  We can see this through nine different words Matthew uses for disciples. 

One word found several times in this Gospel is ‘mikros/mikroi’, which we find translated as ‘little ones’ in Mt. 10.42: ‘And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward." 

A second word Matthew uses for the disciples is ‘nepios’, or ‘baby’: ‘At that time Jesus declared, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes...’ (11.25). 

The third word to note is the actual word for ‘child’, ‘teknon’: ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!’ (7.11). 

Similarly, fourth, the word for ‘son’, ‘huios’, is used of the disciples: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’ (5.9). 

Fifth, ‘elachistos’ or ‘least’ refers to the disciples in the same way that ‘mikros’ does: ‘And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’’ (25.40). 

Sixth, a disciple is described as ‘servant’ (‘diakonos’): ‘He who is greatest among you shall be your servant...’ (23.11). 

Seventh, the word for ‘slave’ (‘doulos’) also captures the nature of discipleship: ‘...and whoever would be first among you must be your slave’ (20.27). 

Eighth, Jesus speaks of disciples as ‘last’ (‘eschatos’): ‘So the last will be first, and the first last’ (20.16). 

Finally, ninth, those who follow Jesus are ‘disciples’ (‘mathetes’), not ‘church leaders’ or some other term that might permit them to claim power and authority.  As ‘students’ (mathetes), the disciples always understand that they are ones who do not make others disciples of themselves but ones who make others disciples of Jesus.  This notion is captured in the final instance of this most common designation for those who follow Jesus: ‘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...’ (28.19).

However, a third, more likely view is that the nations are judged for their treatment not simply of believers but of the missionary disciples—a view advocated by J. Ramsay Michaels.[4]  The notion of disciples as ‘little ones’ explains the nature of Christian mission.  One who becomes a missionary in the world is one who becomes ‘little.’  This is why Jesus describes the disciples who go from village to village and appear before kings as ‘little ones’ in Mt. 10.42.  Jesus’ missionary discourse in Mt. 10 explains that the disciples will become little because they have taken nothing with them on their journey, they are dependent upon those who will receive them as they travel, and they will be thrown into prison and need to be fed and clothed by others.  Those who receive these disciples who have become little for the sake of ministry will receive a reward, even if all they did was give these little ones water (10.42).  This verse is significantly similar to Mt. 25.31ff.

In Mt. 25.31ff, the sheep are those nations which receive the disciples who, through becoming little, bring a Gospel that is itself not about power as the world knows it but about God’s power in the cross, a story that seems to be about failure and weakness in the world’s eyes.  The sheep nations receive the disciples by clothing them, feeding them, giving them something to drink, helping them in their sickness in foreign lands, and visiting them when they are thrown into prison because of their testimony.  The disciples experience this littleness in their lives because they are witnesses for Jesus, and so Jesus says, ‘Inasmuch as you [sheep nations] did this to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it also to me’ (25.42, 44).

The second and third views noted above overlap: missionary disciples are, after all, disciples, and all disciples are challenged with the mission.  Yet not all are placed in situations of hunger, thirst, being strangers, becoming sick and imprisoned because of their travelling to the nations an encountering hardship and persecution.  Mt. 25.31-46 has these missionary disciples primarily in view.

That said, discipleship is, in Matthew’s Gospel, a matter of joining Jesus in His mission of bringing the reign of God to this sin-ridden world.  This is done through becoming little by serving others.  Jesus goes to the cross to suffer and die, and those who would be His disciples must go with him, carrying their own crosses (Mt. 16.21, 24ff).  This mission inevitably involves leaving--leaving family (Mt. 19.29; cf. 8.21; 12.46-50), leaving homes and lands (Mt. 8.20; 19.29) and leaving wealth (Mt. 19.21; 6.19-34).  It may even involve giving up married life (Mt. 19.12).  This is not asceticism, where one expects to find God’s pleasure in self-denial.  This leaving always has a purpose: to serve the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Gospel message is to be proclaimed to all nations.  It will meet resistance.  Self-denial and sacrifice will be necessary to take this message to the nations.

Perhaps the three views noted above can actually be brought together in another text in Matthew—in what Jesus says to the rich young man: ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’ (Mt. 19.21).  Following Jesus as a missionary disciple requires an unencumbered life.  Such a life frees one to give generously to the poor and needy, since life is no longer about acquiring things but doing good.  Of course, it is more than that, but it is at least that.  It is also about going (or supporting those who go) to the nations with the good news of the kingdom (Mt. 24.14).  What Mt. 25.31-46 adds is that the nations will be judged on how they have received these missionary disciples.

[1] E.g., David R. Catchpole, ‘The Poor on Earth and the Son of Man in Heaven: A Re-appraisal of Matthew xxv.31-46,’ Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 61 (78-79): 355-397.
[2] Donald Carson holds this view (‘Matthew,’ in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), ad loc.).  He gives five positions on how ‘the least of these my brethren’ (vv. 40, 46) has been understood: (1) all hungry, distressed, and needy; (2) apostles and other Christian missionaries; (3) favourites within Matthew’s community; (4) the Jews; (5) Jesus’ disciples.  More recently, R. T. France has affirmed Carson’s view (The Gospel of Matthew.  New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), ad loc.)  See Carson for some extensive bibliography.
[3] See my article, 'Not 'Leaders' but 'Little Ones' in the Father's Kingdom: The character of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel.' Transformation 2004 (21.2): 114-125.
[4] J. Ramsay Michaels, Apostolic Hardships and Righteous Gentiles: A Study of Matthew 25.31-46", Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 27-37.