To think more about it, I’ve turned to the compendium on Jesus’ parables by Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent. I always appreciate his careful and apt scholarly judgements, and the way he works methodically through each parable. Snodding fantastic.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…”
“…Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Does ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ refer to Jesus’ followers? What is the basis of the Son of Man’s judgement?*
The sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46) is a brief analogy rather than a full parable, but this highlights something that’s true of all parables: they’re analogies, similar to fables. More than that, these are ‘stories with intent’, designed not to inform or prompt reflection, but to elicit an emotional response. There’s something visceral about Jesus’ parables: God’s kingdom is at hand NOW; it demands your response NOW.
I really appreciate Snodgrass’s emphasis on sticking strictly within the boundaries of each analogy, which is the only way to fully experience the driving point of each parable. The more teaching points we derive from a parable, the more we’re likely to distract from and weaken the confrontation with Jesus.
So what’s going on in the sheep and the goats? What follows is my work-up of Snodgrass’s approach.
At first glance, ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ looks like it refers to Christians, because:
- ‘Brothers’ and ‘little ones’ are both used elsewhere to refer to disciples;
- There are passages in which an encounter with disciples implies an encounter with Jesus himself;
- Both of these two things are seen in Matthew 10:40-42, which looks like a parallel passage.
But that conclusion can’t be drawn from those correspondences, because:
- Almost half of the metaphorical references to ‘brothers’ are about people as neighbours, not disciples (e.g. Matt 5:22), and the references to disciples as ‘brothers’ do not suggest it’s a title for ‘disciple’;
- In Matthew 18:5, receiving a little child (an actual child) in the name of Christ means receiving Christ himself;
- The acts of benevolence in the passage are traditional descriptions of helping the needy;
- There’s no real evidence that Matthew sees treatment of Christians as a criterion of judgement. In Matthew, the basis of judgement is faithfulness in discipleship evidenced by mercy and love;
- The real parallel passage for the sheep and the goats is not Matthew 10:40-42, but 7:21-23.**
‘The least of these brothers of mine’ means something like, ‘the most insignificant of my fellow humans’. It’s referring to the marginalised, ‘the overlooked or ignored’, as The Message puts it.
The basis of judgement is our treatment of them, which reflects our identity, according to which we’ll be judged. In the sheep and the goats, as is so often the case, faith and obedience are inseparable. Faith is evidenced by obedience, obedience expresses faith, and together they identify a disciple. The basis of judgement here has nothing to do with meeting a ‘mercy quota’. It’s about identity: What sort of person am I? Mercy and love are the way of the kingdom; mercy and love identify a person of the kingdom.
Just as faith and obedience are inseparable, so our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationship with other humans, God’s image-bearers. In the sheep and the goats, what’s even more significant than the identification of Jesus with his followers is the identification of God with the poor. The glorified Son of Man can identify with the humble because he has been humiliated in crucifixion (Matt 26:2).
The point of the sheep and the goats is to motivate faithful discipleship evidenced by mercy and love. Jesus’ analogy confronts me ruthlessly with the challenge of whether I’m a person of compassion. The emotional kick is not, ‘Beware of hell!’ but, ‘Am I a merciful person towards the poor?’ As Snodgrass puts it,
What humans do or do not do matters. The present is not banal and unimportant, but the arena that determines eternal destiny. … The obvious truth is that the New Testament writers cannot imagine a person being brought into association with Jesus without having love evident in his or her life.
It’s often said that at least a quarter of Jesus’ teaching is about hell. Well, not exactly: it’s about judgement. But even that’s not quite it. The point of this teaching is not the existence and nature of hell, or even the future state of humanity. (That’s largely taken for granted — Jesus is riffing on existing understandings.) The point is to cast a burning spotlight on our present lives. Judgement is not so much a fact to be recognised or a point to be preached, as a crowbar to change our direction, a vice to galvanise us into action — much as it was for the Old Testament prophets. Of course, Jesus dials the heat up to ‘eternal’, but that’s in service of this very point: the demand for compassionate discipleship.
If we make the sheep and the goats about anything other than our present conduct, we’re blunting Jesus’ prophetic razor blade. Snodgrass concludes:
The parables of the future are not about the future. They are about life in the present. [Each] holds up two ways, one leading to life and one leading to death. The parables summon people to wise and faithful living. Their sole purpose is to persuade people — in view of God’s future — to do the will of the Father and to show his compassion. All else is ancillary.
* I’m taking it for granted that judgement here includes all nations, not just followers of Jesus.
** Snodgrass writes: ‘Rather than interpret [the sheep and the goats] in light of 10:40-42, we would do better to interpret 10:40-42 in light of the judgement pronouncements at the end of the other four discourses (chs. 7, 13, 18, 25). This would allow us to see 10:40-42 as a specific application to mission of broader concerns about judgment.’
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.