One of the best-kept secrets of New Testament exegesis concerns the interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
Here Jesus says that “the nations”—everybody—will be gathered before him, and he will separate them based on their treatment of “the least of these” (v. 40). Jesus’ dramatic and poignant identification with “the least” has stirred countless hearts for social justice. As the New Jerome Commentary puts it, “This much-loved text presents a practical religion of deeds of loving-kindness.”
So far, so good. The problem, however, is that commentators throughout history have recognized that “the least of these” refers not to the needy in general, but to needy followers of Jesus in particular.
The evidence for that interpretation is strong: When Jesus speaks of his family, as he does here, he’s always referring to his disciples, those who do God’s will (Matt. 12:46-50; 23:8-9; 28:10). Commentators also point out that “the least of these” in verses 40 and 45 of Matthew 25 is similar to “little ones” in Matthew 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14, where Jesus also refers to his disciples. Finally, we see a parallel to Matthew 10:40-42:
He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward (NIV, 1985).
This interpretation is the one chosen historically by no less than John Calvin and John Chrysostom, and more recently by evangelical academic authorities Don Carson, Michael Green, Craig Keener, and others. In fact, the only sources I ran across who support the more familiar interpretation—the one that Jesus is referring to the needy in general, and the one you’ve probably heard in sermons—were Jerome and Ron Sider, the latter in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
If you think about that even a little, you’ll find it unsettling. After all, as Christians we’ve been taught, from the prophets to the Good Samaritan, to reach out to all the needy. We’re not to show partiality, and we’re to see all people as our brothers and sisters. How strange, then, that Jesus would judge us specifically on our treatment of disciples. Doesn’t Jesus care about everyone—from Christians to Muslims to atheists?
To understand what Jesus is saying here, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. Jesus’ statement comes at the end of his “Olivet discourse” in Matthew, delivered to his disciples from the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. This discourse is filled with warnings about the importance of being ready for “the Day of the Lord,” and these are among Jesus’ final words to those who have followed him nearly to the end of his earthly ministry.
His disciples don’t yet know it, but soon they will be scattered following Jesus’ arrest and execution. And not long thereafter they will be sent out into the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry Jesus’ good news to the nations. These same humble brothers and sisters will be Jesus’ ambassadors to the world.
When Jesus says that his disciples—those who remain true to him and pour out their lives in his service—are a litmus test for judgment, he’s saying that they don’t just carry his gospel. In first-century Rome, a world that knew nothing about the gospel, Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the gospel. How natural that those who respond to Jesus would help the poor and vulnerable community of faith.
To become a Christian wasn’t just to intellectually assent to a proposition. It wasn’t merely to embark on a personal spiritual journey. It was to embrace the community of faith, the only one in the world that carries Jesus’ message of hope and freedom.
Who are those clothing, feeding, visiting, and caring for the needy of the church? Surely they are the same ones who have heard and accepted the gospel.
Jesus knows the travail that awaits his brothers and sisters, and he identifies with them in the deepest way possible. Imagine sending your own sibling into a world that will hate and reject him or her. What gratitude you would feel to those who offered protection and support!
In the same way, Jesus’ heart is with all of those in the church who are needy, and his gratitude is for all who care for them in their time of need.
Of course we are to show God’s love to all people—that is deeply embedded in our gospel. But as Calvin says of this passage, “though there is a common tie that binds all the children of Adam, there is a still more sacred union among the children of God.”
Jesus cares very much how you are received when you step out in faith and make yourself vulnerable for the sake of his kingdom. He will not forget how you are treated, especially when you are one of “the least” of his brothers and sisters.
Similarly, let Jesus’ compassion and concern move you to special concern for those who give their lives for him, yet are needy—even thirsty, naked, hungry, or in prison. As Galatians 6:10 tells us, “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
- Before reading this article, how did you understand Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, and how did you seek to live it out in your life?
- How does Collins understand the parable? Do you buy his explanation?
- If Collins is right, what difference would it make in how you live your life?
- Collins states that "we're to see all people as our brothers and sisters." Do you agree? We might agree that we should view (and treat) Muslims and atheists as our neighbors, but should we really consider them family?
- How can you show "special concern for those who give their lives for [Jesus], yet are needy"? Will you?