The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 2)

What they have done is taken care of “the least of these” is very simple practical ways, usually described as social responsibilities, things that were valued by the Jews at the time of Jesus. The idea that a righteous person takes care of the poor and needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic thought and becomes cornerstone to Christian ethics.

Job defends himself by arguing that he has not defrauded the poor (Job 31:16-21).  These same sorts of “good deeds” are typical of righteous Jews in the Second Temple Period.  For example, Tobit 4:16-17: “Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms. Place your bread on the grave of the righteous, but give none to sinners.”  Likewise, Sirach 7:35 says “Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved.  Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are things which the person of God does because they are God’s people (Prov 25:21, Ezek 18:7-9).

The sheep are also praised for sheltering the foreigner and stranger as well as clothing the naked.  This pair deals with basic hospitality requirements in the Ancient Near East. The word for stranger may mean someone from your country that is passing through your village or someone from another country.  Think of this as “when I was an immigrant, refugee, etc. in your land, you sheltered me.”  In b.Shab we read “Hospitality to the wayfarer is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekinah.”  Job claims that “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32)

They also visit the sick and the prisoner.  Visiting the sick becomes a key virtue in the early Church (see James 5:14, for example).  Visiting the prisoner was necessary since the Greco-Roman prison system did not provide any food, water, or other needs for prisoners.  If the person was to survive in prison, there had to be friends on the outside to bring the person food and water.

The Testament of Joseph 1:5–6 “I was sold into slavery, and the Lord of all made me free; I  was taken into captivity, and His strong hand succoured me. I  was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I  was alone, and God comforted me; I  was sick, and the Lord visited me; I  was in prison, and my God showed favor to me.

Babylonian Talmud (t. Bab. Nedarim) “he that does not visit the sick, is as if he shed blood:  says another, he that visits the sick is the cause of his living; and he that does not visit the sick, is the cause of his death: and, says a third, whoever visits the sick shall be preserved from the damnation of hell.”  Visiting of the sick was reckoned, by the Jews, a very worthy action: they speak great things of it, and as what will be highly rewarded hereafter.”

There is a question of application here – usually this verse is used to guilt people into giving to a food drive or money to a homeless shelter.  While that application is fine (I am a big fan of helping the poor), but I am not so sure that is what Jesus is talking about.  The people who enter “eternal life” are those who have actually done the will of God by caring for the least of the brothers.  In every other text in the gospel of Matthew, the brothers of Jesus are the disciples, the Jews who are following Jesus.  It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.

13 thoughts on “The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 2)

  1. This is interesting to me. We also see in the Zakah of Islam that what we have as surplus should go to those in need. The Ideal of passing that which is overflow to those around you appears to be a transcendent mode of Holy living through-ought the middle eastern cultural tapestry. What is also interesting is that the Zakah says “Even meeting with your brother with a cheerful face is an act of charity”. This is a form of “Sadaqah” or voluntary Charity and reflects upon visiting with those who need it (The sick or Imprisoned.) I was very intrigued to see the connection between Sirach, Tobit, The Testament of Joseph and even the Quran on this very specific topic.

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    • While the connection to Islam is interesting, Mat, it is not really helpful since it comes from more that 600 years after Jesus. It is true, all mid-east peoples consider alms cornerstone to their religious practice, the sources I cited would be more appropriate since the come from closer to the first century and would have been current ideas when Jesus was teaching. I suppose I could quote Poor Richard’s Almanac as well, but that will not help illuminate the meaning of Matthew 25.

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  2. To continue just a little more. Sadaqh could be considered any act of Charity. Voluntary as it is this reflects a deeper sense of conviction to visit the sick and imprisoned. It is the factor of being voluntary that makes these charities so worthy of praise. And that also reflects in the Judeo – Christian calls to be generous with ones money, clothing, time, and comfort.

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  3. I really like when P. Long writes this statement “Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved. Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are things which the person of God does because they are God’s people (Prov 25:21, Ezek 18:7-9). I feel like all Christians should do this. Everytime I’m in NYC and i see the homeless begging for something to eat or drink, it just breaks my heart to see people like that and I feel like all we need to show them is love. Also, our church went into the city and packed lunches and we gave them tracts and showed them our love and I saw a ton of smiles and just thanks from these people. Blomberg states “Jesus, the coming king, will divide his followers, who will enjoy his presence forever, from those who are to be condemned to everlasting punishment. What is the criterion for making this separation? At first glance it seems to be good deeds done for the poor and needy of this world (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc). (Blomberg, 380)

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  4. “The people who enter “eternal life” are those who have actually done the will of God by caring for the least of the brothers. In every other text in the gospel of Matthew, the brothers of Jesus are the disciples, the Jews who are following Jesus. It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.” – Plong

    Yeah, Plong, I do think you hit the nail right on the head. The issue here is caring for the least of these. It is interesting that you say for those that are following disciples, narrowing it down even further than just those that are “the least.” Is it necessary to make that distinction? I wonder how this passage would challenge those who say that when we tend to the least of these, we are actually caring for Jesus [Shaine Claiborne, etc…]. Does that still apply? I do think that seeing the passage in this way gives us greater clarity on the cost of following Jesus, specifically that part of who we are is to take care of the poor, the hurt, and the lowly. HOWEVER, a task that might even be greater than that is taking care of Jesus’ brothers, those that are suffering for Jesus’ name. While this conclusion does not settle with me all the way, it does however challenge us to consider all that Jesus commands of us when we decide or have decided to follow Him.

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  5. Nicely put Moses. After reading the post I don’t think it’s Plong’s intent to disregard the poor, I do think he recaptures the original audience in what is intended with the Scripture.

    In this section a Jewish nobleman was regarded as one who took care of the poor. I know this is might be a terrible point and movie to reference from but it came up in my mind. The movie “the Kingdom of Heaven” demonstrates some of these virtues in the main character (He’s portrayed as Christian tho rather than a Jew). There is a couple scenes where he demonstrates love for his enemies and one of his main pursuits is to take care of the people he rules over . There is also a scene where he is digging wells for the poor people to drink. Something neat the director of the movie pulls out.

    Here is another thing that comes to mind: (found in Luke4)

    16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

    18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

    I believe part of this text was pulled out from a theology class prior to represent t hat part of Jesus message was to proclaim the good news to the poor.

    I’d have to study this next point but I have heard that in I think it was the Roman culture the church was one to reach out to those who weren’t they’re own. Perhaps Josephus has something to say regarding the Christians and the movement that took place in the first century. Just some quick thoughts.

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  6. It is interesting that in this story Jesus is referencing to goats and sheep. I know it is weird that I am referencing these animals first, (if you must know growing up I was a ZooBooks fiend!). To me sheep and goats are pretty similar animals. First off both are stupid, but yet somewhat adorable animals. I myself, and I have heard other people mix up the difference of sheep and goats. I find it interesting that these are the two animals, because these animals are so similar they can be mistaken for the other. It takes someone with a keen eye to see the differences between the two especially at a younger age.

    Next, this topic has been one that I have been struggling with for so long. As you mentioned P. Long this is the verse that so often we hear in a sermon guilt us into giving money to the needy, and getting rid of our old coats for the winter to help those who need them. Just like you, I am not against this idea at all. We as Christians are called to champion the call to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves. But how you then hear people saying that if you are not living the way Shane Claiborne lives then you aren’t truly relying on God or following him.

    Now I understand your logic P. Long but what do we do with the term sisters in verse 40? From my recollection there were no female disciples, (no offense ladies). My question again is could this be looking to far into scripture?

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  7. It amazes me how self righteous many of us “Christians” are. A lot of us have a Darwinist approach on the poor and needy. We think that they put themselves into that situation, so they can get themselves out. It is sad that the love of God cannot be seen through the actions of those who say they follow Him. This passage encourages us to take care of those who are in a position to minister and reach the lost, and those that have suffered and endured many hardships. In my personal life, there is not a lot of suffering I have to deal with. There are many people on the mission fields (inner city, third world countries, etc…) that have died and been persecuted for sharing the Gospel. Our wealth, time, and prayers should be put into these “brothers and sisters”.

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  8. I don’t like to guilt people into doing stuff, this will result in their “hearts being in it for the wrong reason.” It should be done out of the gladness in their hearts. It is interesting the way that caring for the needy, has went from a household thing to something that an organization does. Only in rare circumstances do we do it individually. Sure we do it individually; we have operation Christmas Child which is a sweet program. But, that box is only delivered once a year. In reference to the Christians usually rely on a group to do the “dirty work” that I really don’t think is so dirty. In our culture it is really rare for a family to be able to make a claim like Job does “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32). These rare families most likely are running some kind of house is designed specifically for this purpose. Why has this changed from Bible times? Is it our culture? Or is it the belief that somebody else will take care of it?

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  9. In relation to what Moses was saying, I think that it can be unsettling to find that passages that we have heard over and over again, and heard preached on, and used in reference, all with a particular meaning, may mean something else. But, I think we need to be flexible when the evidence points to something other than the traditional. We may prefer the text says what we had thought it said (and there may be plenty of other scripture that says just that) but that’s not the real point. The real point, is what is really actually being said here, what was the speaker trying to get across? What was the writer trying to convey? I too feel a little uncomfortable thinking that this, passage that is so familiar to me, is actually about the disciples or those who are suffering for the name of Christ, as opposed to the sick and poor.

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  10. I like what Tuttle had to say about this. It seems that people look at the commands of Jesus as simply that. A command. Just another aspect of being a Christian that we have to figure out, and should spend time analyzing who we should be serving, what it looks like to be serving, how our rewards will look like, and if anyone else will notice the serving that we’re doing. The heart of serving is completely lost in our “obedience of commands” that we must keep, and in trying to be gain blessings out of the sacrifice we make. I did find this passage interesting though in what Jesus is specifically talking about. Yes he may be talking about people specifically, or even specific rewards, but I have to ask the same question as Jed. Is this looking too far into scripture? I realize that it’s cliche to say it’s just a matter of the heart, but that is indeed the center of our relationship with Christ. Is it too much for us to look into the scripture like this or is it worth our time to ask these questions?

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  11. I cannot lie, I have always taken that piece of scripture for face value in thinking that Jesus simply wants us to give to those who are less fortunate than us. I don’t think Jesus is “disregarding” this, but I do think there is more to it. Plong states “It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.” After reading this is sat and thought about it, and understood that there is a deeper meaning. We as Christians tend to be selfish and give to those less fortunate than us. I like what Moses said when he stated “I do think that seeing the passage in this way gives us greater clarity on the cost of following Jesus, specifically that part of who we are is to take care of the poor, the hurt, and the lowly.” I really like this because I completely agree. Jesus wants us to know following him is not an easy task. We will have troubles and trials and will be hated by others. In John 15:18 it says “If the world hates you, keep in mind it hated me first.” This is a scripture that reminds me of what we are talking about.

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  12. I do have to agree with Simms and Tuttle. I do not like trying to make people do things out of guilt. That just seems like manipulation and it does produce a wrong heart (although there does seem to be times where it is nice to use guilt). Also, commanding people to do things do make people a little more discontented and if we are commanding people to give then it usually comes with discontent. However, the Bible commands his children to do a lot of things. In the Old Testament there were a ton of commandments that the nation of Israel was supposed to do, but they were supposed to do them out of a right heart. Sometimes the command must be in place so that the habit must form. There are people in this world that are not good at giving. However, if they are consistent and obedient to giving, then that habit can form in them and they may come to give out of a thankful heart. This was something that the group from “life center” disagreed with. They said that if there was no desire in a person’s heart to do something then they should not. They sought the ideal that a Christian would do his devotions and obey God because they wanted to. They said that if a person does not want to do his devotions then they should not. They highlighted the Grace of God in this present dispensation. I do not know if I would agree with them in that. There is a lot to say to obeying God’s command and spending time with him every day, even when we do not have the desire to do so. God can speak to us when we are down or angry if we just give him the time. Also, as we continue to spend time in his Word we come to understand that we desperately need that time with him and that only comes with the discipline of doing that every day.

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