Sheep And Goats

Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:

The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.

The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.

Perriman continues:

The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …

When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.

As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”

For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.

Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.

God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.

One thought on “Sheep And Goats

  1. After reading this post, I went to Parriman’s page and read several of his own. I agree to some extent — the primarily narrative authority of scripture as the experience of God’s people, and certainly I have thought for decades that some of the apocalyptic warnings of Jesus were plainly meant to point to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. But the narrative is not just historical narrative, in the ordinary sense. It takes place in a realm vastly expanded from the physical and empirical. His kingdom is not of this earth. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” [Ephesians 6] Jesus on the cross promises the repentant thief safe conduct to paradise that very day. Jesus speaks to and about nations, but his primary impact is overwhelmingly personal, disdaining even the bonds of family (much less of nations) as subordinate to the demands of a life of faith. The God of Israel is invisible and unrepresentable, not because he is a small voice within us, but because his order of being transcends the impoverished world of our corrupted senses. [I don’t mean this in the sense of Plato, which is an impoverished intellectualism. Rather, this is the domain of the bread of life and the living water God provides for us, life beyond imagining and beyond speculation.]

    Similarly, the history of the church is also the history of the spirit in the lives of believers, most of which is unrecorded and unknowable to us. I can’t see the Constantinian establishment as the fulfillment and vindication of the faith of the early Christians. Eusebius may have thought so, but Augustine could see the failure of the Imperial church less than a century after Constantine. Not to mention the many Christian nations and believers not included within the Empire of Rome. Many within and without the Roman commonwealth were soon to be overrun by the empire of Islam. All through the early middle ages in Christian Europe, there was a recurring sense of how insubstantial and fragile their “Christendom” was.

    I would also say that “Orthodoxy”, in particular the common understanding of the cross and the trinity, was not an invention of later times, but is implicit in all of scripture. Off the main point and hard to prove, but I’m just sayin’….

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