22 November 2020Matthew 25:31-46
'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.' (v. 40)
This passage comes at the end of a set of teachings from Jesus which began back in Matthew 24:3 when the disciples asked him, "Tell us… what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Whilst often treated as a parable, it doesn’t really fit into that category. Rather, to make a point Jesus uses an image people of Palestine would have been familiar with: separating sheep and goats. The animals would share pasture together, but, in the evening, the less hardy goats would be separated from the sheep so they could be sheltered.
With the title, ‘Son of Man’ (see Saturday’s notes) and the image of all the nations gathering at this Son of Man’s throne, the passage fits into Jewish apocalyptic literature, which uses picture language to imagine how God will bring about the kingdom of justice in all its fullness.
The question that puzzles many concerns exactly who are the members of Jesus’ family mentioned here. One theory is that it refers to disciples of Jesus. When his family came to him (Matthew 12:46-50), Jesus said that whoever does the will of God is his brother and sister. The original readers of Matthew’s gospel, who may well have been facing persecution, could have taken comfort that Jesus, the King of heaven, had noticed their suffering and that of those who supported them. With many Christians around the world still suffering persecution, that comfort of King Jesus taking notice of them may continue to be a source of strength, and make this an appropriate reading for today– Christ the King Sunday.
However, taking the sweep of all the gospels, we also see Jesus in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. It would therefore not be a wrong reading to see the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters as referring to all who are hungry, in prison, etc.
We may be uncomfortable with the image of people being sent off into eternal punishment. If we are to welcome the image of eternal life that Jesus offers, though, it is hard not to accept the opposite image. A mistake the Church can fall into is forgetting that it is not our job to make those judgements about ourselves or others. Rather, it is Jesus who is the judge. In presenting Jesus as judge, we should not also forget the full image we get from across the gospels.
- Who are ‘the least of these’ in your view today, and in what ways could they be supported or encouraged?
- How should the Church talk about these more pictorial passages in our more scientific and rational world?
- To what extent should judgement feature in our faith?