January 27, 2021

I Am the Least of These

I heard it again in church today. Last week, it was in our church bulletin, used to announce a youth mission project. It is the poster passage for all manner of missions and social justice ministries. How can you go wrong with a text that epitomized Mother Teresa, the very Scripture by which she herself defined her own ministry?

You know it. The last day. The final judgment. The Son of Man seated on his throne in judgment. All nations gathered before him. Sheep and goats. Left hand, right hand. Those who inherit the kingdom. Those who hear the most horrifying words, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

What makes the difference?

“…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, 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.”

When did we do this?

“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.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

And so, as the pastor exhorted us this morning, Christians must have a “least of these” mindset. Like Jesus, who came to proclaim good news to the poor, release to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18), even so his followers must humble themselves to reach out to the neediest of our neighbors and serve them with the Savior’s love.

This passage is so stirring, so stimulating to the imagination, so sobering in its implications, that one cannot help but pause to take stock of one’s own life in its light.


Except that I am convinced we have it all wrong.

I assert that, when we look beneath the common interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, we find a classic case of assuming what the Bible says, just because we have been told this is what it means, over and over again. Because of an ingrained traditional reading, we have become inoculated against reading the text as it is.

What is Jesus saying in Matthew 25:31-46?

Matthew has placed this passage at the end of Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse” about things to come until the “end of the age” (Matthew 24-25). The “sheep and goats” story is the last of three parables that Matthew attaches to the end of this “sermon.” These parables form the “conclusion” to Jesus’ message and drive home some practical messages he wants the disciples to glean from his teaching.

It is important to read this in the context of the entire Gospel and where it is going. Christ is about to leave his disciples’ presence, and in the interim between his ascension and return, he will leave them with his “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:18-20. This passage shares some things in common with the parable of the sheep and goats.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

From Jesus’ ascension to the “end of the age,” Jesus’ disciples are commanded to go to the “nations,” making disciples and receiving them into the community of faith.

Another passage that provides insight into Matt. 25 is Matthew 10, which gives a preview of the disciples’ mission. Here the author shows Jesus sending the disciples on an interim outreach to “the lost sheep of Israel.” In addition to instructing them on where they are to go and what they are to do, the majority of Jesus’ mission discourse is devoted to describing the various reactions they should expect, as well as the reward and punishments that will be doled out to those who either welcome or reject their ministry.

For some: “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.”

For others: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Most Bible scholars understand the teachings of this passage to go beyond the immediate context of the specific events in Jesus’ ministry to which they are attached. They are meant to be read by the church as instructions for our mission today as well.

With this context from Matthew in mind, let’s go back and read Matthew 25:31-46.

Who is being called before the Son of Man on his throne?

The nations.

On what basis does he evaluate them?

On how they treated him. But not on how they treated him personally. Rather, on how they treated, “the least of these who are members of my family” (lit. my brothers). Jesus said (as he did in ch.10) that, as you treated them, so you treated me.

The “least of these” are Jesus’ family members who have gone into the world between his ascension and the end of the age to take his good news and love to the nations.

As Paul said, the “least of these” are those who are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2Cor 4:10-12)

If I am a believer in Jesus, a member of his family, I am one of the “least of these.” Same for you. The nations will be judged on the basis of how they receive us and the message we bring.

Some might say that reading Matthew 25 like this will take away our motivation to serve the poor and needy. In fact, I find this to be a much more challenging and convicting reading of this passage than the traditional one. Far from removing our motivation to love and serve others, it challenges us to find our identity in Jesus alone and to be willing to sacrifice anything and everything else in order to be his people in the world.

And ultimately, this passage assures us that Jesus has our back in the end. He is not unaware of how his people (the least of these) are being treated in the world, and one day there will be a just accounting from all nations.


  1. Interesting interpretation. I want to understand it better.

    Do we also read the parables of the virgins and the talents in such a way that the nations are waiting on the bridegroom and the nations are entrusted with the master’s possessions?

    Also, what do we make of “all the nations” being gathered in 25:32, but “the people” being separated? I would have taken that to mean all peoples of every tribe and people group will be before God in the end, and then all of those persons will be separated out according to how they were able to see and treat Christ in the common.

    • James, the word “people” isn’t found in the Greek text; it’s just “He will separate them one from another”. I think the point is the separation, not to figure out who is the sheep and who is the goats. Other than that, I don’t think that verse is so complicated.

      As for the parables of the virgins & talents, N.T. Wright (and others, I believe) have pointed out that to Jesus’ hearers, the Jews, any story that began with the character of a king or master was about God. Therefore, when Jesus tells those kinds of parables he is mostly warning that God Himself is at the threshold, and asks who is ready to receive Him as the true king (…. an ordinary carpenter, riding into Jerusalem, weeping). Also, the idea of “two ways” to live or approach life was already there in Judaism.


  2. Chaplain Mike –

    Great post…perhaps by reading “the least of these” as someone other than “us,” believers excuse themselves from heeding the demands of truly following Jesus, demands which you’re calling attention to here.

    > If I am a believer in Jesus, a member of his family, I am one of the “least of these.”

    I still find this statement has the potential to become dangerous when taken out of context. After all, I do think “the least of these” actually did go hungry, thirsty, were in prison, etc. Can someone who’s never been any of those things really lay claim to that title?

    Perhaps there’s a dual-call in the parable–in following the sacrificial way of Jesus, we become so wrapped up in providing to the least that we end up identifying with and joining them?

  3. I remember stumbling upon this same interpretation during my years as a monk. Since then, I’ve always seen the least of these as those who are called to take the Good News into the world. This idea of “the least of these” takes the presentation of the Gospel out of the hands of the “professional” and the “ordained” and places it where it needs to be — in the lives of “whosoever will.”


  4. I would ask: Why can’t both interpretations be correct, both-and rather than either-or?

    The “traditional” reading and the way it has been lived by Christians throughout the centuries is reasonable; I think yours is less obvious but a possible interpretation that could sit along side the more traditional one. What do you think?

  5. Yes, I think there’s this interesting problem in church where we try to convince people to serve and care for the poor or just others in general. Instead, we should be focused on pointing to the gospel. We serve because of God’s love for us, because we’re so insanely thankful for what He’s done. That’s the best motivation for helping others. When we genuinely recognize the wonder of God’s grace for us, the only meaningful response is to share it.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  6. Yes! Thank you for this. I awakened on this idea last year when studying Matt 25 for a sermon and preached a sermon taking this same line with the text (surely less eloquently than you presented it). This past Sunday I was tempted to use the text to proof-text a point I was making about the church’s ministry and missions (an interpretation which flows so naturally from this preacher’s lips and which will “preach”, but I resisted, not least because of the Ephesians passage for epiphany which was before us as well in which Paul (Eph 3.8) says, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the gentiles, the unsearchable riches of Christ . . .”

    I can’t say for sure that Paul means the same thing when he says, “the least of these” but it got me thinking in a new way about apostolic witness and how such a witness gives the world the most authentic, Jesus-shaped means to ‘respond to the gospel’ rather than simply being asked for an intellectual ascent to gospel ‘truths’ disembodied from the shape of the life of the one who is the good news.

    Thanks for this.

  7. I’ve always read these passages in the “new” way presented here, and I think that the church’s social ministry belongs first and foremost within the church itself. That being said, as Devin said above, there’s no reason in my opinion that it has to be “either-or”. There are Scriptural examples as well as much historical precendent for the church providing help for everyone, regardless of whether they were in the church or not. But I do believe that the church’s primary focus (including in it’s social ministries) be on building up a spiritually-based kingdom, not on being a generic caregiving institution. To me, it’s a question of what the real purpose is and of the degree to which we go in either of the two seemingly opposite directions.

    • Todd Erickson says

      There is nothing in the bible which indicates that Christ’s Kingdom is soley spiritual, or even that the spiritual can or should be separated from creation…just that it cannot reside in the presence of sin.

  8. I would agree that this interpretation could include any “Jesus” people who find themselves in such difficult circumstances and are welcomed in cared for when they are in need, whether for the sake of the gospel or because they are simply people who are in need.

    If this parable were primarily a response to all the nations being judged, it would seem those who welcome or care for the”Jesus” people who are in need are being welcomed into the kingdom simply for being kind to Christians, even if they do not receive the Jesus they have preached to them. IMHO, I think if this were true, then it may also need to apply to those “unbelievers” who are generous or kind to all those who are in need – because they acted with compassion. This is not universalism as it is not about everyone being saved but it can begin to touch on Lewis’ view (his view speculatively not doctrinally) of those who still enter thru Jesus into the kingdom of heaven in ways outside traditional evangelical interpetation of salvation. I do not want to limit the grace of God but I also do not see this as “solid ground”, doctrinally speaking.

    In the end, I still believe in the more tradtional intepretation of this passage – even if it at times haunts me.

    • This brings up a good point. Chaplain Mike’s proposed interpretation seems to make being nice to Christians a ticket to heaven for the unbelieving.

      • Read Matthew 10:40-42 again:

        ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

        The concept of the “messenger” is the background to this. To “receive” the messenger of an important person is to receive the important person himself. It’s not just a matter of “being nice.” It is about welcoming such a person into an official relationship.

        Similarly, in Matt 25, to “care” for Christ’s brothers in distress is to open one’s life to them, and thus to welcome Jesus as well.

  9. Though I may disagree with you on some points of theology, I must wholeheartedly thank you for correcting a common (mis)interpretation of this passage. I have heard so many people use this passage to talk about the need for Christians to help the hungry, naked, and imprisoned in general when the passage is actually talking about feeding and taking care of Christ’s people who go out into the hostile world to preach the gospel of the Kingdom. It is utterly amazing that self-proclaimed evangelicals can use a passage way out of context to promote some type of social activism or moralistic teaching when the passage is not even talking about that (not to say, though, that Christians should not help the poor and downtrodden in general).

  10. Another thing, based on this passage, it shows that people’s actions do truly matter in this life – whether for the Lord or against the Lord. This passage truly undermines the false notion that everyone, no matter what, will eventually be saved.

  11. To be clear. I am not suggesting that Christians should not serve the poor and needy. There are hundreds of passages that speak to that.

    This passage however speaks to something else, something the church needs desperately to hear.

    Jesus assumes here that his followers will not only reach out to the “least of these” but will indeed BECOME the “least of these” as they find their full identity in Jesus and their vocation in fulfilling his mission.

    • well said. much more clear.

    • “Becoming the least of these” is exactly what Jesus did when he emptied himself- Phil 2. It speaks of identifying with Jesus’ humility and love, out of which we are to serve others, and the poor are certainly first among those others.

      It also reminds me that most of the twelve were martyred, and all of them suffered greatly. Not that Jesus is talking about anybody “getting theirs” for mistreating the disciples, but that the disciples’ fate would essentially be the same as his, as they fulfill his mission- but that fate will also include Resurrection.

      I think you’re on to something, Chaplain Mike. This is fuller and deeper and takes into account the situation of the first hearers of these words, which I believe is the first thing we have to do before we decide how scripture might be speaking to us today.


  12. While I think the passage alludes to both interpretations, I think it is equally dangerous to replace one with the other. The common interpretation is not a shallow conclusion reached by well-intentioned, but misguided believers (though there is a degree of shallowness in how it is so often used). Rather, it is an ancient and integrated part of the tradition with most expressions of Christianity throughout history. I would be fairly cautious to remove the former understanding. It can be, to a degree, a both/and understanding.

    • Here’s a further question about the “traditional” interpretation:

      How does one avoid the tendency toward works-righteousness implied by the parable, if the common understanding is correct?

      • Good question. And similarly, if broad-based social work is what it’s all about, what would distinguish Christians from atheists, Muslims, or others who do similar “good works”? In my opinion, it has to be that the work is done openly naming the name of Christ or at least having the kind of everyday lives in those doing the work that it’s clear the power and motivation behind the work comes from the Holy Spirit and not just secular humanist or other sources.

      • Christiane says

        For those whose theology is based on denial of the ‘original interpretation’, the ‘new interpretation’ works very nicely. I believe that a whole new interpretation of the Bible is now being compiled, according to the son of Phyllis Schlaffly, that will ‘do away’ with any ‘confusing’ and ‘misleading’ terminology that does not recognize the ‘proper theology’. espoused by many in the conservative movement these days. It will change the terms to reflect ‘proper’ understanding of economic teachings.

        Oh dear.

        • Christiane…huh?

          Is that what you think I’m advocating here?

          • I am confused.
            There have been so very many attempts lately to explain that the parts of the Bible that center around Christ’s Commandments to love one another and to love our neighbor as ourselves, are now not seen in that light.

            To be honest, I have heard politicians explain Matthew 25:31-46 similarly to your version, and I may have jumped to conclusions here

            When politics and religion mix, both lose something of value.
            I may have been reacting to what I have heard in the past. Sorry for that.

            I don’t think I agree with your interpretation, but I also don’t think it aligns with the ‘neo-con Gospel either. On the other hand: I think the onus is on Christians to present in themselves models of Christ-like love for ‘the nations’. That is very different from expecting acceptance because of ‘who we are’. If we want the light of Christ to dawn on the nations, another look at Isaiah 58 gives some guidance.
            Sorry for all the ranting. I was out of line today.
            You are wonderful to help Michael out in his illness, and I am grateful for what you are doing here.

      • The longer I’ve pondered this throughout the day, the more I am seeing the “newer” interpretation as a possibility. It’s starting to grow on me; I think I like it. But I, like someone else said would not be quick to throw out an interpretation that has stood for so long. I would ask, though, is Jesus’ referring to “the least of these” as his brothers the primary reason for understanding them to be Christians? Because I don’t see much of anything else in the immediate context that would support that reading…

        And if the common understanding is correct, I don’t see any more tendency toward works-righteousness than in James. True faith will express itself in love and obedience, concern and care for others.

        One more thing: if the “newer” interpretation is correct, then the story of Rahab is a really beautiful Old Testament example…

        • Yes, to me one main key to understanding the passage is that Jesus calls them “the least of these, MY BROTHERS.”

          Nowhere in Scripture, that I know of, are the poor and needy given the status of Jesus’ family members simply on the basis of being poor and needy.

          • I preached on this passage a year or so ago, and this was the interpretation I took. Had some interesting responses from the congregation (I was supply preaching). One of the profs at my seminary had us look closely at the language, and many were surprised that we had missed the focus here.

      • As I said in my first comment, I am not denying the validity of the “new” interpretation, but rather the exclusionary way it is being presented. Your questions are valid as well, to which I think there are answers. I think they are too many to go into detail here. One brief example, though, is to recognize that the King calls them sheep righteous for these things. Even with the “new interpretation, does that not still leave as much room for works-righteousness?

        However, my concern is that, with even a cursory study of Church history we discover how central the “traditional” interpretation to nearly every branch of the Church. A brief look at the essential tradition of hospitality throughout Church history is enough to demonstrate that it was one of the pivotal understandings.

        My point is not to reject your interpretation, but rather to caution such a wholesale dismissal that is possible in the way it has been framed. I appreciate the discussion.


      • “How does one avoid the tendency toward works-righteousness implied by the parable”
        every Luthren who ask’s this question should have to perform the work of reading the Book of James weekly

      • Todd Erickson says

        I think that the objection runs like this:

        Both the sheep and the goats call Christ Lord. They were all people who would, one suspects, identify themselves as “Christians” or even “Disciples”.

        But one set had a lifestyle which flowed from that calling, and the other set doesn’t. One was hospitable and generous and giving, and one wasn’t.

        At the time, with the people that Christ was talking to (once more, context), the rich were thought to already be as blessed as they needed to be, and Christ’s audience didn’t believe in Heaven (nor did he preach it to them). They believed that at the end, there would be a final judgment and resurrection. So what Christ is saying to them is that those among them who they see as already blessed in this life, but who in fact are not giving out of that largess (“for I have blessed you that you might be a blessing to the nations) will in fact lose out in the end. See also the parable of lazarus and the rich man.

        • Todd, if this were a general sermon that Christ preached to the crowds, I would agree with you. However, in its context, this is part of a message presented as instruction to the apostles about what they would face in the time before the end of the age. In my view, the “sheep and goats” parable is Christ’s final encouragement to the disciples that their labors, which might lead to nakedness, hunger, imprisonment, or worse, would not be in vain, for the Righteous Judge will sort all things out and make them right in the end.

          • This parable is indeed part of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples. But when read even in the context of all of chapter 25, this is the third parable in a row alluding to alertness, preparedness, and good stewardship. In this case, the sheep and goats either were or weren’t alert to the needs of the “least of these.”

            I understand the emphasis on the phrase “who are my family” (or brothers) in light of the earlier text. But perhaps two things should be noted:

            1. That phrase isn’t repeated when the goats are addressed. If such a phrase was meant to be one of the major foci of the parable, wouldn’t it have been repeated?

            2. In Matthew 10 when Jesus talks about whether the disciples would be welcomed, notice that he switches focus right at the end. He talks about welcoming the disciples, but when he talks about giving a cup of cold water to one of these little ones, he says “in the name of a disciple.” Suddenly he doesn’t seem to be talking about welcoming disciples, but welcoming whomever needs a cup of water. So using this passage to contextualize Matthew 25 in that manner doesn’t seem to work. If anything, it reiterates the “traditional” understanding.

      • Sherman the Tank says

        For my reading, Matthew 25 and James take priority over anything Paul had to say about works, not the other way around. I think the consequence of your reading is that you’ve used Matthew to explain away Matthew 25.

        The last thing we need is a bunch of middle class Christians pretending to be “thirsty” and “hungry.” There’s no need to spiritualize poverty in this passage. Matthew had no trouble writing “poor in spirit” when he wanted to, and he didn’t do it Matthew 25.

        However, I take your point upthread, or at least that people should become the least of these, and a lot of liberation theologians would agree. (Though I won’t pretent to be anywhere near pulling this off myself.)

        • The last thing I had in mind was “spiritualizing” anything. The “least of these” in this passage are those who have literally laid their lives on the line because they find their identity in Jesus and his mission.

          And that is the very essence of the challenge that I think this passage presents to the “middle class Christians” to whom you refer.

  13. I wish I understood this better.

  14. Catherine Grannum says

    Hello, just to say I was really interested to read this because I read a book on Matthews Gospel last year (Matthew for Everyone by Tom Wright (NT Wright)) which gave the same interpretation of that passage as you’ve just given. I was quite taken aback by the idea, but couldn’t argue with the fact that it is a much more plausible and consistent interpretation of the passage in context than the conventional one. I think to take this interpretation has a quite mindblowing effect on the way we need to percieve ourselves as the Church ie that the whole of humanity will be judged by how each person recieved our message and treated us. I find that astounding and really quite discomfiting, to imagine being the object of God’s favour and protection to that extent.

  15. Christiane says

    is the quotation from the O.T. that God desires for us to care for ‘the alien’, ‘the other’, ‘the helpless’:

    “Deuteronomy 24:17-20

    You shall not violate the rights of the alien or of the orphan, nor take the clothing of a widow as a pledge. For remember, you were once slaves in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, ransomed you from there; that is why I command you to observe this rule. When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf there, you shall not go back to get it; let it be for the alien, the orphan or the widow, that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings. When you knock down the first of your olive trees, you shall not go over the branches a second time; let what remains be for the alien, the orphan and the widow. “

    • Good point. Also good to remember is that the alien was to have one and the same law as the Israelites. They were to be effectively incorporated into the community and subject to the same requirements so long as they “lived under the same roof” as the Israelites.

      • Christiane says

        Yes. Like Ruth of the Moabites, when she lived with her mother in law, Naomi, and was allowed to glean.

        • Christiane, again, my point is NOT to say that Christians have no responsibility to care for the poor, the alien, and the stranger. I of all people, as a hospice chaplain, would affirm that, and would find support on almost every page of the Bible for that.

          I am simply making the point that particular passage says something different, something even more profound and challenging than the way it is commonly read.

  16. Christiane says

    Does the Matthew 25 teaching clarify, confirm, or remove from our obligation,
    this from Isaiah 58 ?

    This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke;
    Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.
    Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
    Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
    If you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; Then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday;

  17. Christiane says


    Concerning the religious teachings of ‘The Family’ of ‘C Street’ fame (the cheating senators and politicians), Doug Sharlet has written:

    “I know David Coe and like him, but I think this is where you really get to the heart of the problem with The Family, this confusion over what their faith is about. Doug Coe will go so far as to say that he is not a Christian, that Christianity has got it all wrong.
    The group began during the Great Depression because the founder thought that God came to him and revealed a vision that the New Deal was satanically inspired and that Christianity was getting it wrong for 2000 years by focusing on the poor, the weak, the suffering.
    He said God came one night in April 1935 and said, “I want you to be a minister to not the down and out, but the up and out,” he called them, the powerful. And God’s going to choose a few powerful people, he’ll work through those people, and those people will distribute the blessings to the rest of us.”

    This new teaching has infiltrated much of the Christian far-right thinking and has also influenced conservative thinking. You can now find many examples of teachings where Christ is the chief advocate of unrestricted capitalism. The influence goes beyond any one political party and has now influenced other parts of the world.
    It’s primary focus is to do with economics. And it upholds the belief that its leaders ‘the New Chosen’ have been appointed by God and are not under the same moral laws and restrictions as the ‘lesser among us’.

    Another term for the secretive society known as ‘The Family’ is ‘The Fellowship’.

    • I agree that this interpretation does sound very much like “the extreme chosen Elect gospel that the Family teaches”. CAN WE NOT PREACH THE GOSPEL IN OUR ACTIONS & OUR WORDS??????? seems to me like this interpretaion is an example of self-martyrdom —(IAM the weak, Iam the poor, Iam the hungry) those starving people are the others —maybe I’ll pray for them. those living in poverty, they should get a job. What kind of disipleship is this???? we need ST francis “preach the Gospel always, if nessisary use words”. peace

    • I’m afraid you have missed my point entirely.

      • Let me apologize to you — I feel like i posted to quickly & was overly negative , I know you would not propose some of the things I was writing, I just have to disagree with your interpretation though it was thought provoking. I have really enjoyed your posts, keep up the good work. you have been a blessing to me. peace

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I smell Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory…

      • “The Family” is, to the Left, what the CFR/Trilateral/Bildeberg groups are to the Right.- a pinata to take their frustrations out on.

        • Christiane says

          the ‘Family’ has been around since the New Deal.
          There was no ‘left’ then, just a lot of poor people. And the ‘Family’ wasn’t among them.

  18. Mike, I appreciate your taking a fresh look at Matthew 25, though I disagree with your conclusion. A passage I’ve long thought has been misunderstood is that of the widow who throws her last mite into the temple treasury. She’s mentioned in the context of the Pharisees’ exploitation of the masses, and I think the Lord simply cites her as a typically egregious example of that exploitation, rather than as an example of how we ought to give away our last penny. It’s telling that no one who preaches on the widow as an example of giving ever gives that much himself or really expects any listener to do so.

    But I digress.

    As for Matthew 25, Luther took a rather expansive view. This is a portion of his discussion of the 5th commandment (You Shall Not Kill), in his Large Catechism,

    “…under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see any one innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel, or aid thereto for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.

    Therefore God also rightly calls all those murderers who do not afford counsel and help in distress and danger of body and life, and will pass a most terrible sentence upon them in the last day, as Christ Himself has announced when He shall say, Matt.25, 42f.: I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me not in; naked, and ye clothed Me not; sick and in prison and ye visited Me not. That is: You would have suffered Me and Mine to die of hunger thirst, and cold, would have suffered the wild beasts to tear us to pieces, or left us to rot in prison or perish in distress. What else is that but to reproach them as murderers and bloodhounds? For although you have not actually done all this, you have nevertheless, so far as you were concerned, suffered him to pine and perish in misfortune.

    It is just as if I saw some one navigating and laboring in deep water [and struggling against adverse winds] or one fallen into fire, and could extend to him the hand to pull him out and save him, and yet refused to do it. What else would I appear, even in the eyes of the world, than as a murderer and a criminal?”

  19. Chaplain Mike, when I read the passage it seems to indicate that the sheep on the right will be saved: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Is that not heaven but some other place of blessing separate and distinct? If it isn’t, and it is the “nations” and not Christ’s family that will receive this blessing, that would appear to imply that by doing good for Christ’s family those outside the family will receive salvation by these works. Plus, how do we get past the fact that when the nations are judged they are separated into sheep and goats, where “sheep” was often a metaphor for Christ’s own? I am no Bible scholar, but it seems that in order to eliminate Christian receiving works-based salvation via social action we are interpreting the passage in such a way as to ignore a common metaphor Christ used for his people and opening the door for those not his own to work their way in to a place of blessing.

    Thanks for posting such an interesting question!

  20. Christiane says

    Is social action not a moral response to Christ’s commandments ?

    There is this source to think about when considering this post:

    “The Family, who sponsor the senators and politicians who lived at C Street, teach this philosophy, supposedly revealed to their founder by God in a vision:

    “Christianity has got it all wrong.
    The group began during the Great Depression because the founder thought that God came to him and revealed a vision that the New Deal was satanically inspired and that Christianity was getting it wrong for 2000 years by focusing on the poor, the weak, the suffering.
    He said God came one night in April 1935 and said, “I want you to be a minister to not the down and out, but the up and out,” he called them, the powerful.”

    This is the type of influence that bears watching. And it explains much of the ‘new thinking’.

    • Again, Christiane, try to focus on what I’m saying. You and I are absolutely on the same page when it comes to serving the poor, weak, and needy. I do not represent this “new thinking” to which you refer!

  21. This makes sense to me. Ever since I’ve been praying the daily office (just over a year or so) I’m finding a little too often that, as I read the gospels daily now, much of what Jesus said, which I grew up hearing, is outright shocking to me. We learn the quotes when we are so young, but as I grew older my fundagelical faith community had little focus on Jesus, his teachings and words. I feel like every time I read about what Jesus said I am hearing it for the first time because most of what I’ve been told about it’s meaning is wrong, and I’ve had to un-learn and correct a lot of what I subconsciously thought about God. The story about the pearl of great price is another great example of this for me.

  22. As a postmillennialist, I have a slightly different take. Since the Great Commission will be a success, all the nations of the earth will be discipled and baptized and taught to obey Christ. The whole world will convert to Christ. Christ will return after the world is converted.

    With all the world as converts, the sheep are true professors, the goats are false professors of Christ. They will be judged, in part at least, on the second great command, loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. There are no heathen in this passage. Everybody who is at the judgment knows who Crist is. My 2c anyway.

  23. Miguel…I would like to hear what you had to learn differently about the pearl of great price.

  24. I have heard and read about this passage being taking both ways that are being discussed above. If it is meant as Chaplain Mike describes, then like he says, it does not negate all the other places that the books of the Bible tells us to help the needy. Even Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan indicates that we are to help any that we can help. And,
    Revelation 20:12-13
    “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. NIV

  25. KR Wordgazer says

    This is not a challenge but a request for clarification:

    If it is the nations who are being judged on how they treated Christians, this doesn’t mean that whole nations get to enter the kingdom as nations, right? Salvation is still an individual thing, right?

  26. Let’s keep in mind that the way we respond to Christ, through his messengers, does actually matter in a salvific sense. On the other, how we Christians treat other people in general also matter in a salvific sense too (James 2). Don’t be fooled, God requires His followers to bear fruit and persevere in the faith. There is no such thing as a true believer who is wretched and “not-so-sanctified” in the journey of faith. Though we all bear fruit in varying ways and according to our unique experiences, all true believers will be sanctified. That is a guarantee. In other words, if you’re not being experientially sanctified then you’re we were never forgiven and justified, basically you’re on your way to hell.

  27. Very good and an important corrective to the frequent misuse of this passage, as for example in this article by Catholic apologist Mark Shea, who also misquotes St. John of the Cross in support of a works-based soteriology: http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/4_last_things_judgment/

  28. As our good Confessional Lutheran friends keep reminding us, the separation that Jesus makes is based on the *identity* of those gathered before Him: are they sheep, or are they goats?

    The separation is *not* based upon works. The works are merely recounted as evidence of that identity, thus showing the justice of the separation and subsequent judgement. Thus, the judge observes that the sheep were doing sheepy things, and that the goats were not.

    It is notable that the sheep are entirely unaware that they were doing these good works. They really didn’t think that they had done anything praiseworthy at all. This is natural for a sheep who, by definition, is not trusting in his own works, but in the righteousness of Christ.

    The goats are entirely unaware that they *hadn’t* been doing good works. This is natural for a goat who, by definition, is trusting in his own righteousness.

    Thus, the primary point of the passage is really that there is a day of judgement coming when all shall be judged by Christ on the basis of whether they are a sheep or a goat. That is, each person shall be judged based upon whether or not they are those who are trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and in *His* righteousness put to their account.

    A secondary point is that true sheep *will* be doing good things. Sheep do sheepy things (baa!) by nature. That is, as James says, faith inevitably produces good works. All that sheep require to produce good works is proper care and feeding through the word of God.

    A tertiary point is that the sheep will largely be unaware of the good works that they are naturally doing. This is, I suggest, both because they are doing these things unconsciously, by nature, and also because they at the same time are so very aware of their own sinful condition before God.

    It is therefore a gross error to misapply the passage by using it to berate sheep (or goats!) in attempt to make them do good works by which they might be saved. Preaching the law alone doesn’t result in good works, because we don’t, and can’t, keep it. Preaching the law *and* gospel, however, produces faith, and that faith then inevitably produces good works. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Not by works.

    The proper application of the passage is therefore to repent and trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins, and to trust in His life of perfect obedience put to your account.

    • I never found the typical Lutheran interpretation of the passage convincing.

      If you read the whole Gospel of Matthew the theme seems to be about true righteousness that comes from the heart rather than of external acts of moralism (which is why some scholars see a anti-Jewish streak in Matthew).

      In other words, it would be very wrong to read the Gospel of John or the theology of Paul back into the Gospel of Matthew. In Paul, you can find a law-grace antithesis framework in his letter (esp. Romans and Galatians). However, in Matthew, what you find instead is a Pharisaic understanding of moralistic religion vs. true Kingdom righteousness. Just read the Sermon on the Mount and that will give you a very good idea where the Gospel of Matthew is coming from. Do I believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone? Absolutely. Is the typical Lutheran law-gospel antithesis found everywhere in Scripture? Absolutely not.

      • Interesting thoughts, thank you.

        I’ve written up a rather more thorough treatment of the sheep-and-goats passage at:


        I deal there with Paul’s treatment of Law & Gospel in Romans, and how Paul is teaching exactly the same thing as Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. I think that if you read Matthew 5 *carefully*, especially the first 21 verses, you will see that Jesus makes the case clearly that righteousness only comes from *Him*. In other words, I see in the Sermon on the Mount exactly the Law/Gospel antithesis that you don’t 🙂

        Food for thought, though. Thank you.

        • We may agree to disagree, but you will have to convince me more than that to show that the Sermon on the Mount is teaching us the exact same law-gospel antithesis of Paul’s theology. Look at what our Lord say in Matt 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (HCSB). What does our Lord mean by a “righteousness [that] surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees”? Is he talking about the imputed righteousness from Jesus Christ? I think not. He is talking about our practical righteousness that is empowered and motivated by the Holy Spirit. The problem withe Pharisees is that they had a deficient view of righteousness. They thought they could be right with God based on their external acts of religious moralism. Our Lord, on the other hand, tells us that true righteousness that God accepts and counts worthy comes from the heart. Only those who have been truly justified by Christ’s blood AND are truly being sanctified by God’s grace will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Hebrews 12:14).

          • I really do hear what you are saying 🙂 And thank you for the continuing irenic tone – we certainly can disagree about this in a friendly way. But, I’d rather persuade you – or be persuaded by you!

            I am not claiming that Jesus is not talking about real good works in the Sermon on the Mount – works that His followers *are* to do and *will* do. It’s simply that I assert that these good works can in no way *produce* a righteousness that saves, but are instead the evidence of a new creation by the Holy Spirit in those who are doing them. They are the product of faith in Christ (and that the gift of God), not the cause of it.

            This is what Paul says, and I don’t see how we can ignore his teaching when it comes to understanding Matthew. The same Holy Spirit inspired both Matthew and Paul. The Christ who spoke the words in the Sermon on the Mount is the same Christ who sent the Holy Spirit to lead Matthew into all truth and inspire Paul to write what he did. Therefore, it is entirely legitimate to read the ‘theology of Paul’ into Matthew, as they are not (and cannot be) in conflict, but are rather the consistent and harmonious inspired doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s epistles, and the other New Testament writings, are given precisely *to* help us understand the true meaning of the events and teachings recorded in the four gospels. If we try to read them independently, we shall almost certainly go astray.

            I have no problem, therefore, with you talking about ‘our practical righteousness that is empowered and motivated by the Holy Spirit’, *if* by that you simply mean the good works that we are commanded, and expected, to do as those who have saving faith. But those good works of the law can never in any way give us a righteousness that saves, nor can they in any way contribute to our salvation. Can we not agree at least on this point?

            And is it not precisely a righteousness that *saves* that Jesus is talking about in Matt. 5:20, when He talks about the kind of righteousness that is required to ‘*enter* the kingdom of heaven’? And is it not also this same righteousness that *saves* that is under consideration in our Matt. 25 pericope? There, those who are righteous (sheep) receive eternal life; those who are not (goats) go into everlasting punishment. How then is the topic anything other than saving righteousness? I cannot see how it is possible to read Matt. 5:20 in any way other than as referring to a salvific righteousness. It *must* therefore, in the light of Paul, be referring to Christ’s own righteousness imputed to us. To read it otherwise seems to me to be not merely to decline to read Matthew in the light of Paul, but to set up Matthew and Paul in direct opposition to one another – or, worse, Christ and Paul! May that never be!

            From everything you’ve said, I’m sure that you are not intending to assert that Paul and Matthew contradict one another (right?), and I’d really like to grasp the nuances of your position, so perhaps you can clear up how you deal with this apparent opposition in your reading of the Sermon on the Mount?

            And, of course, Jesus gives other clues in His sermon about what is really going on. Not least in his opening remarks (Matt. vv. 5:1-19), a careful reading of which I believe will show a setting up of exactly the Law/Gospel dichotomy that you assert is not there. But also in critical parts such as 6:33:

            “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt. 6:33, NKJV)

            Isn’t it precisely this same idea of ‘God and *His* righteousness’ (i.e. *not* our own, but Christ’s) that Paul is expounding when he talks about ‘the righteousness of God apart from the law’, and the ‘righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus’ in Romans 3:21-22? Thus, it seems to me that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is elaborating upon exactly the same subject matter as Jesus here, and quite probably, the very words that Matthew also records for us in the Sermon on the Mount! For surely Paul would have been familiar with the content of this Sermon? Are we really to think that Paul is unaware of the apparent connections he is making with Christ’s words, and not deliberately intending to affect our understanding of them?

            Furthermore, Jesus makes the point that ‘every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit’ (7:17). So the theme of good works being the fruit of faith, rather than its cause, is already made explicit there.

            Finally, look at how Jesus uses the law in Matthew 5. He turns it up to an intensity that means that *no one* can possibly keep it. Fine, you’ve not committed an act of adultery. But you’ve looked lustfully at a woman. Yes, you’ve not actually committed a physical act of murder. But you’ve been angry with your brother without a cause. And so on. Yes, we are commanded do all of the things we find there. But I can’t! Where does that leave me? Seeking God’s righteousness, not my own. Trusting only in Christ’s righteousness put to my account (cf. Romans 7). And then seeking all the more, albeit imperfectly, to conform to the will of my heavenly Father who has shown me His abounding love and grace through His Son. Not to try to earn His favour, as I already have that in Christ, but flowing from the faith, gratitude and love that He has placed in my heart by the working of His Holy Spirit.

            In other words, to turn around your assertion, I believe it would be very wrong *not* to read the theology of Paul back into the Gospel of Matthew.

            I can see that I really ought to write another article, if only for my own benefit, dealing with the very interesting points that you’ve raised 🙂

    • Hello Daniel, this is a response to your last post to me. I believe that when it comes to the core doctrines of evangelical soteriology – sola gratia, sola fide, and sola Christus – that we are in agreement. You also stated that a Christian’s good works are the evidence and product of faith, which is what I was trying to get at. Even historic Lutherans believed that good works are the consequence of genuine faith. As a Calvinist, though, the way I express this issue may sound a bit more legalistic in a Lutheran’s ears. However, the point is clear enough by our Lord: though good works do not earn salvation, they are still necessary because true faith produces good works. No good works = no genuine faith (hence, no future salvation). I would even go further than a lot of evangelicals and say that it is not enough to avoid physical murder, actual theft, real-life adultery, and other gross immoral sins to put into question your salvation, I would say that a habitual practice of attitudinal sins (pride, bitterness, jealousy, envy, covetousness, selfish ambition, unjust anger, etc.) also puts your salvation into question too (even if you avoid the outward gross sins). The Pharisees were good at avoiding the gross sins listed in the Torah but they were devoid of the fruit of the Spirit in their daily life, and were, therefore, the sons of hell (Matthew 23). That is what I believe our Lord was talking about on the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore, what we have here is that we agree on the fundamentals but we disagree hermeneutically on how the Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of Matthew) should be interpreted.

      • Hi Mark!

        Thanks once more for the measured response. I don’t think that I really disagree with anything that you’ve said there. I probably even agree (if I understand you correctly) with your comment about the Pharisees 🙂 I therefore think you’ve probably nailed it – it certainly does seem that we agree on the fundamentals, but our hermeneutical approach is somewhat different.

        The main difference between us seems to be whether we see Law & Gospel clearly present in the Sermon on the Mount. If that’s the biggest disagreement that I ever have with a brother in the Lord, then I suspect I could live with that.

        For the record, I’m not a Lutheran. I believe all sorts of nasty Reformed-type things that they don’t like (such as WCF-style double predestination, and that Christ went to the cross with specific people in mind) – and I believe these things because I see them taught clearly in Scripture. But, nevertheless, I have found the Confessional Lutheran focus on Law & Gospel to be *incredibly* helpful in understanding the Scriptures in a way that enables me to see how they can fit together harmoniously.

        By the way, I don’t know whether you’re on Facebook, but if you are, feel free to look me up there. You seem like you’d be interesting online company to keep 🙂

        Finally, thank you again for conversing with me here so calmly. I find it really helpful to interact with Christians of other perspectives – there is nothing quite like having to defend one’s position in the face of reasoned opposition to help one think through the issues clearly.

  29. Thank You!!!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    I’ve been saying this FOR YEARS – i.e., that the context of Matthew 25:31ff. is Joel 3:1ff. (English translations and NETS; Joel 4:1ff. in Hebrew and Rahfs LXX), when God judges the NATIONS/Goyim for how they treated His People, and not a judgment of Christians in which they’re determined to be either sheep or goats, and sent either to heaven or hell.

  30. Excellent and coincidental for me. I’ve been almost writing this post myself all week. I just read this point in Ladd’s Theology of the NT last week. In fact, I may just have to make it a completely tangential introduction to Sunday’s sermon.

  31. Mike, while I suspect that your interpretation of this passage in Matthew is correct, it casts much of Christian history in a disturbing light.
    Consider that Christ is dividing the nations between sheep and goats, not sheep and wolves — meaning that merely failing to show mercy and kindness or just being indifferent toward His people is the dividing line of judgement. Apparently, those who actively seek the harm or destruction of His people are clean out of the running for sheepdom (or even goatdom, for that matter).
    But what then does it mean when some of “the least of these” turn and devour and destroy their brethren? Are they sheep, goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, wicked servants, or something else entirely? If Jesus is judging a world that does not know Him by how they treat His people, then how much more will His people who do know Him be judged by how they treat each other? Considering that the historical death toll of Christians at the hands of other Christians is comparable to that perpetrated by pagans, muslims, facists, or communists, and considering all the division and malice that still exists between Christians of different denominational stripes (not to mention all the emotional abuse and cannibalism within individual church fellowships) — our actual behavior seems to be in a completely different universe than His instructions and expectations of us.
    Now, I know that He is merciful and forgiving toward His own, and I trust that He will sort it out in the end — but still the contradictory realities within Christendom, both past and present, bother the crap out of me. Heck, the contradictory realities in my own life bother the crap out of me.
    Christ said that the world would recognize us by our love for each other. I often wonder if we have any business calling ourselves His people in the absence of that reality.

    • RonP writes, “Christ said that the world would recognize us by our love for each other. I often wonder if we have any business calling ourselves His people in the absence of that reality.”

      I know what you mean, RonP. I would like to wear a small crucifix, but I feel in some ways I would do a disservice to the cause of the Kingdom of God with Jesus as King because I so often am not loving and I see people around me being much more loving. I know we are all sinners and not yet perfect, yet it pains me that I don’t see the intensity of the power of the Holy Spirit that we see in the Gospels and in Acts. Where have we gone wrong? Not enough prayer? Are we just plain too selfish? I don’t know. Pray for me that I will always be and act in the power and love of Jesus!

  32. “Nowhere in Scripture, that I know of, are the poor and needy given the status of Jesus’ family members simply on the basis of being poor and needy.”


    In Luke 16 Jesus seems to imply that Lazarus is drawn up into Abraham’s presence simply because he “received bad things” in life. Is this an example of the question you brought up?

  33. I’m obviously way late for this discussion. This “new” interpretation is still not in context.

    Jesus is talking to his disciples in Mt 24-25; and his discussion comes on the heels of his argument with Israeli officialdom in Mt 21-23 (and is his interpretation for his disciples of the upshot of Mt 21-23, particularly as culminated in Mt 23).

    Jesus’ word to his disciples is “Be prepared; do not sleep!” Whatever his disciples need at that point, they do not need a warning not to persecute the church.

    At the same time, they are not supposed to be just hanging around waiting for Jesus to return. That’s not watchfulness either.

    How does the Church enact the Gospel? I.e., how do we live as in the Age to Come even though still in this Age? We seek to wipe every eye dry. It is an eschatological witness: There is no hunger in the Age to Come, so we feed the hungry in this age; there is no nakedness in the Age to Come, so we clothe the naked in this age; there are no sick or imprisoned in the Age to Come, so we go into hospitals and prisons and fellowship with those there, as if the walls did not exist.

    Yeah, it’s foolish. But we are impatient for the Age to Come. The irony is that in serving those whom Jesus serves, Jesus serves us in those whom we serve.

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