October 22, 2013

The Life of Faith

Many people misunderstand Jesus’ final parable in Matthew 25: the sheep, the goats, and the end-time judgment. We think that when Jesus says, “What you have done unto the least of these,” He primarily means how we treat those who are poor and needy. Caring for poor and needy people is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, but that isn’t His focus here.

To grasp the true meaning of the “least of these” of Matthew 25, let’s consider the chapters around it.

In Matthew 23 Jesus stands in the Temple and makes a final desperate appeal to His beloved Israel. It was to Israel that Jesus had once offered the cup of His covenant on Mount Sinai, promising to make them His “treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5). Israel received the cup and said, Yes, we want to live forever with You in the land of promise.

But again and again the unfaithful wife wandered from her Husband, breaking His heart. He desired to commune with His beloved, yet her love was like the morning mist. Here, at the Temple, Israel rejects Jesus a final time—and divorces Him. Looking into her eyes, He says, “Your house is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:38).

Yet Israel’s days of rejecting Jesus aren’t completely over. “I am sending you,” Jesus says starkly, “prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth. . . . Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation” (verses 34-36).

Who are these “prophets and sages and teachers” that Jesus will send? They’re the people Jesus addresses next: His disciples, His new bride.

In Matthew 24 Jesus warns His followers, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matt. 24:9).

To summarize: In Matthew 23 Jesus turns from His chosen people, the 12 tribes of Israel. In Matthew 24 Jesus turns to His new chosen people, the 12 disciples and all who follow Him.

In Matthew 26 Jesus will propose to His newly chosen. (When a Jewish man wanted to marry a Jewish woman, he invited her to drink from the cup of his covenant. If she did, he would then go back to his father’s house to prepare a place for them to live. When the father finally declared the place ready, the son would return to his bride—with great fanfare—to bring her home. In the meantime, he sent his best man back and forth with messages.)

So if the focus of Matthew 23, 24, and 26 is so clearly on the disciples’ gospel ministry, would it logically follow that Matthew 25 would focus there as well?

When Jesus says, “Whatever you did/did not do for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did/did not do for Me” (see Matt. 25:40-45), He’s talking about the way we treat His followers. (In the book of Matthew, whenever Jesus uses the term brothers or brethren, He’s always referring to His disciples or followers. See, for example, Matthew 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14.)

Does this mean caring for poor and needy individuals isn’t important? Of course not. Jesus calls us to care for all who are downtrodden. But this isn’t how we’re saved. The focus of Jesus’ final parable—and His final judgment—is the way we receive those who bring the gospel of Christ—ministers, missionaries, all who participate in the Great Commission of Matthew 28. Our response to Christ’s followers is our response to Christ.

There are good people all over the world who care for those who are poor but have no time for Jesus. Sometimes it’s those who most champion social justice who most malign salvation through Christ—and the Christians who preach it. Our salvation is determined not by what we give but by how we receive the gospel of Jesus Christ.