My wife has dedicated her life to the issues surrounding poverty and world hunger and specifically what Christians can do about them. So it was to my surprise that she illuminated to me a reading of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats that undercut every take on it I had ever heard. But it also offered a relief to a conflict it seemed to offer in regards to our salvation not coming about “by our works” (so that no one can boast).
I hated this song, but my view of this parable was largely influenced by the very guilt-inducing rendition offered by Christian folk singer Keith Green. If you’ve never heard of Keith Green, you will gain an enormous amount of insight into late 70’s – early 80’s Evangelical culture by listening to this one song.
What was new to me was a new look at the words “brothers of mine”
The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
It seems that this was not the only place in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus had used the word “brothers”. In fact a distinct pattern can be found. Matthew consistently records that Jesus called his disciples his “brothers.”
Here are just two quick examples.
Matthew 12: 48-50
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Matthew 28: 9-10
Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
It’s likely that when Jesus said “least of these brothers of mine” he pointed straight at his disciples. This flips the entire meaning of the parable from being about what Christians do with the oppressed to being about what people do with oppressed Christians.
Please, don’t hear me saying that I think Christians are now off the hook for caring for the “the least”. The rest of the scriptures are full of admonitions to feed, clothe and advocate for the oppressed. In fact I think Christians should feel justified to go on caring for others as if they are caring for Jesus. But this parable isn’t about that, this parable is about the final judgment.
Green had it right at the end of his song; the only thing separating the sheep and the goats was what they did. What he missed was that they were being judged for what they did . . . with those who were carrying the gospel of Jesus.
Dr. Saucy at Biola and probably many other dispensationalists argue that he is referring to helping out the nation of Israel.
Another way out of the works-based salvation interpretation is that you will know a tree by its fruit and faith without works is dead. Therefore, how we help out the least shows whether we have a heart that is the Lord’s.
It’s worth mentioning that the NET Bible footnotes support your reading:
I can’t totally argue with your statement: “It’s likely that when Jesus said “least of these brothers of mine” he pointed straight at his disciples.” except that I would change “likely” to “possible.” It’s a good visual, but really, how can we possibly know or even guess?
The interpretation of this parable as “the least” referring specifically to Jesus’ followers rather than to the needy in general is a new one to me, but it does make sense in the context of Matthew’s gospel. (And you’re right, that interpretation doesn’t let us off the hook of caring for the needy. The Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan, among other teachings, make clear that our compassion is to extend to all people.)
But even with this interpretation, I fail to see how the “conflict” over “works-based” salvation is ameliorated. Clearly, the judgment is based here on the people’s (whether as individuals or as nations, I’m not sure) actions, not by faith per se (which isn’t mentioned in the story).
What I find interesting in this story, though, is that those judged (in both directions) weren’t aware of what they had done. We don’t hear the unrighteous here saying, “Well, I did this and this and it doesn’t count?” Nor do we hear the righteous saying, “Yep, that’s exactly what I was trying to do in life.”
Instead, the actions in both cases apparently flowed out of the kind of people these were. The sheep didn’t care for “the least” out of a mere sense of duty; they were caring for Jesus without even explicitly trying to. The story suggests that the goats might have cared for “the least” had they been explicitly told to, but their hearts were such that they didn’t see the needs right in front of them.
I don’t think there’s any question here that in this story there is a judgment based on deeds. But these are deeds that came about not by following a list of demands but rather through the people’s approaches to life, the priorities they had. In a sense, the judgment was based on the people’s character, the character that manifested itself in what they did.
Stuff like this, in my opinion, totally undermines how great and revolutionary your Christianity is supposed to be. When you take away the rhetoric, it turns out you’re left with something entirely unremarkable.
sorry you don’t find us more compelling.
Brian, you’re right. I should have used the word “possible” instead of “likely”.
It’s not that I don’t “find you compelling.” It’s just there’s this list of doctrines that don’t match the rhetoric.
The revolutionary rhetoric is God’s grace and not man’s works, but then it turns out you really believe that we’ll get rewarded in heaven based on our works. So it really is works in the end, and God really is simply handing out rewards based on how much you accomplished during life. “God’s unconditional grace” is just to decide whether or not you met the “not going to hell” threshold. What’s revolutionary about that? You first have to convince people they’re headed to hell anyway. And after that, it’s just eternal rewards for good deeds in life. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s surely nothing radical.
The revolutionary rhetoric is charity and unconditional love for absolutely everyone, but then it turns out you really belive it is most important to give charity and unconditional love to other Christians. How is that revolutionary? How is that radical? There’s nothing wrong with believing your first duty is to your kin or folk–that’s pretty much a universal pragmatism–but it does undercut how radical and revolutionary following Jesus is supposed to be.
Your Christianity has all this radical theological rhetoric, this crap about a new kind of life, but at the end of the day it turns out to just be what everyone already thinks is a good life. It’s a sales pitch. It’s the same as the Mormon belief in prophetic leadership, which turns out to actually be just the same thing as the inspired leadership that every other Christian denomination claims. Ntohing radical about the Restoration at all.
but then it turns out you really belive it is most important to give charity and unconditional love to other Christians. . . . .There’s nothing wrong with believing your first duty is to your kin or folk–that’s pretty much a universal pragmatism
That’s not at all what I’m saying this parable is about. Jesus is delivery the parable not to his disciples but to those who aren’t following him. To the unbelievers, he directs them to consider his disciples, the ones bearing his message, and says ‘it’s what you do with them and their message when they show up at your door that’s going to ultimately matter to me.’
Oh, so instead, it’s just Jesus double-condemning people who decide not to accept the message. Once for not being saved by accepting Jesus, and twice for not bieng sufficiently nice to the message-bearers.
That’s not exactly better. Run-of-the-mill condemnation of outsiders who are not nice enough to insiders. Serves no purpose other than to make the insiders feel more self-righteous, anyway: anyone who accepts the message is likely to also treat the messengers well, and anyone who rejects the message is not going to be particularly concerned about the part of the message warning you to treat the messengers well anyway, because they rejected the message.
As long as you’re rejecting it based on what I actually said. I can’t make Jesus taste better to you if what he says tastes bad.
You are either misunderstanding or deliberately misinterpreting me.
I’m not saying at all that what Jesus says “tastes bad.” I’m saying that despite the rhetoric about a radical new life in Christ, it’s turning out that what Jesus is actually saying is not radical at all, but actually is not substantively different from any other typical belief system.
Your Jesus is not inviting me to live a whole new kind of life. He’s inviting me to live a fairly conventional kind of life, but to ddescribe it in a whole new kind of way.
I’m saying that the rhetoric does not apparently match the reality, which is not a judgment against the reality at all. Just, it doesn’t match the rhetoric. And the rhetoric is what you’re selling.
well I think you’re taking what he’s saying in this one parable and expanding it to cover everything else he might have said. As Eric pointed out, the impact of this parable doesn’t cross out his teachings on the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son or the Master and the Vineyard Workers.
If you’ve already decided that you think Jesus is all sizzle and no substance (or no different substance than anyone else), I doubt there is going to be much I can say to convince you otherwise. But I doubt you’re going to find any religious expert of any stripe who will agree with you that ‘Jesus didn’t radically change the religious landscape of the Western world because after all he was just selling the same thing as everyone else at the time.’
We’re not talking about whether Christianity radically changed the history of world religion.
I’m talking about whether Christianity offers a radical new kind of life in Christ.
Those have nothing at all to do with each other.
Very good post, Tim!
I will add Galatians 6:10 to it (emphasis mine):
“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, ESPECIALLY to those who belong to the family of believers.”
I’m reading Kullervo’s complaint as:
I don’t want to belittle his concern, but I’m not finding it remarkable.
While the passage of the original post may not be as radical as it may seem at first glance or in its traditional intepretation, that doesn’t mean that the life Jesus offers us elsewhere isn’t radical at its core.
In addition to the parables that Tim mentioned in his post of 2:45 p.m., I have a hard time reading the Sermon on the Mount and thinking that Jesus is inviting us to live a life that’s only slightly different than ordinary.
I think that this interpretation of the parable is self-serving to the Christians that wrote and popularized Matthew, and hence I am going to suspect it.
I think we need to see it along the same lines as
. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . .
21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness
Just a small note, which I’m sure you know, that adelphoi has the semantic range of “brothers and sisters.”
Jared, is it any more self-serving to the followers of Jesus than it is to Jesus when he call for followers?
It might be, but Jesus didn’t write Matthew.
no, but Matthew says that Jesus said it. As a disciple, it was his job to remember and pass on all of his Rabbi’s teachings.
No, it’s definitely not remarkable, that’s my point. My complaint is not about the direct content of Jesus’s message. My complaint is that Evangalical rhetoric about the utter uniqueness and radical nature of Jesus’s message is constantly undermined by Evalngelical theological interpretations of said message. Once again, when you start to get down to brass tacks, Evangelical theology presents a religion that is good but not in any way revolutionary or radical. I’m not saying that the content of Evangelical theology is problematic. I’m saying that the sales pitch is dishonest.
Just to be clear, you’re not arguing against the “uniqueness and radical nature” of Evangelical theology, but rather against their claim that Jesus’ moral teachings are somehow special?
(I’m trying to separate “moral teachings” from other parts of Jesus’ message which are clearly unique, such as the idea that everyone has to accept him as their savior.)
Also, you keep using the term “Evangelical,” and I just want to be certain that you mean to single out that branch of Christianity; i.e., your complaint does not apply to Catholics, etc.
Right, I’m not saying that Evangelical theology is utterly lacking any distinctive tenets. I’m talking about their own spin on their religion. “Everyone has to accept Jesus” is not really a selling point. “Everyone has to accept jesus or go to hell” isn;t even really a selling point; it’s a scare tactic and it’s worthless because I would also have to believe them that I was going to hell anyway. But talk about “a whole new kind of life in Christ” is a positive selling point.
Unlike most of the internet, I know what Evangelical and Fundamentalist mean, I know how they are different and where they overlap, and I also know how they are different from and where they overlap with other kinds of Christianity. Not to be snippy, but I am using my words with care for once.
Thanks for clarifying. I think your point is interesting, but I really can’t comment since I don’t know enough about the subject. I wonder though if the counter-argument would make an appeal to the soul-changing power of Christ; i.e., “Sure lots of people want to do good, but they find it difficult; faith in Christ can transform you so that good works are more likely.” (Then again, that’s awfully works-oriented. And anyway, on this point, as a Mormon, I probably shouldn’t attempt apologetics for Evangelicals.)
Also, I don’t think you were being snippy. I know that you are very aware of the differences between various Christian sects, which is why I asked.
You can’t really “sell” Jesus’s message without the message of sin. Being “a new kind of person in Christ” only makes sense in the context of sin being a reality. Jesus’ message is that you can have freedom from the ultimate consequences of sin and freedom from continuing to sin. Both are positive selling points if you believe that sin exists, impedes your own going life and that it separates you from God.
And yes, I think Christianity that removes the reality of sin from its message is offering the same message as everyone else.
In another context this is what I hear you saying: “cholesterol medicine doesn’t have any positive selling points because all it says it will do is remove remove cholesterol from my blood. That’s just using heart attacks as a scare tactic and I don’t even believe heart attacks are real.”
Removing cholesterol is a positive selling point if cholesterol does indeed cause heart attacks.
Tim: Your comments remind me of an article I just read about an “alternative Jesus” who “requires working for social justice — such as stopping human trafficking. But [lets] you do what you want in your personal life.”
I think it’s a bit more nuanced than just believing that sin exists, because one also has to believe that sin is what Evangelicals say it is. For example, one could completely reject the notion of original sin, and instead define sin as “anything that harms someone else.”
(Of course, you never said that it was “just that simple,” and I don’t mean to imply that you did.)
So, it’s aura salve again, then?
If you don’t think sin, evil or hell are real, then yes it’s just aura salve.
It’s still aura salve if I think evil is real.