The Least of Whom? Tracing the Element of Surprise in Matthew 25:31-46

For many centuries—and throughout this semester—the conclusion of Matthew 25 has been a touchstone for those who want think about Christ’s appearance in the “distressing disguise” of the poor. This passage offers a profound link between responding to those in need and responding to the incarnate Lord himself. However, a close reading brings surprises beyond the one experienced by the “sheep” and “goats” within the text. Jesus’ words demonstrate a curious slippage between different categories and genres. Even more strikingly and significantly, his reference to “the least of these” is less straightforward, and perhaps ultimately more surprising, than we might initially assume.

Chapter 24 in Matthew’s Gospel is a prophetic text addressing “the sign of [Christ’s] coming and of the end of the age” (24:3b).[1] Matthew 25 continues that theme, moving clearly to final judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory” (25:31). Here he clearly takes up Second Temple Jewish prophetic language.[2] Yet the last part of Matthew 24, and the entirety of chapter 25 up to this point, have addressed their subject in the form of parables; and as Jesus continues, the genre distinctions of “parable” and “prophecy” begin to blur. He compares the act of judgment to a shepherd separating sheep and goats, and the next verse seems to literalize the simile: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand….” Here the “Son of Man” who acts “as a shepherd” has become “the king”—a familiar term from many of Jesus’ parables.[3] The “sheep,” those “on the right,” are again renamed “the righteous” when they answer him in verse 37 (cf. verse 46). One of the surprises of this text is simply the way its language presents a moving target for the reader.[4] While it never becomes a proper parable, it does introduce parabolic elements. Perhaps this is intentionally disorienting, to prepare readers for what follows.

The great surprise comes when the king informs those standing before him that they have cared for him in times of grave need—or have failed to do so—and makes this the basis for their judgment. A king choosing to describe himself in terms of radical lowliness and abasement is itself shocking: “I was hungry… I was thirsty… I was a stranger… I was naked… I was sick… I was in prison….” But when they express astonishment, he answers with the most surprising statement of all: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).

Who are “these members of my family”?[5] It is possible to read this as a reference to something like what we now refer to as the “human family”; this seems to be the default assumption when we take this passage as a call to care for anyone who is in need. However, such a usage would (so far as I am aware) be unprecedented in the recorded teachings of Jesus. Like later New Testament authors, Jesus uses the language of kinship in a different—though, in his context, radically subversive—way. This is made explicit earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, when someone tells him that his mother and brothers wish to speak with him. “[P]ointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:49-50). Such a reappropriation of kinship language is itself a profound surprise in a traditional culture where familial bonds are fundamental markers of identity. But elsewhere he makes an even stronger act of identification with his followers: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40; see John 13:20). This latter passage continues: “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” (Matthew 10:42; see Matthew 18:5).

So “the least of these” in Matthew 25 seems to have a more specific primary referent than simply “those in need.” Indeed, it can be read as a profound (and profoundly reassuring) expression of Jesus’ solidarity and even identification with those who entrust themselves to him.[6] And this, in turn, could echo the recurring theme throughout the Gospels that the determining factor in a person’s spiritual status is how he or she responds to Jesus. The king’s judgment only makes sense because he takes a response to “the least of these” as precisely a response to himself.

However, certain aspects of the text complicate this reading as well. Those experiencing judgment in this passage are “the nations,” and it is far from obvious that such a comprehensive eschatological categorization excludes Christians.[7] Are various followers of Jesus among those gathered on the right hand—or, God help us, those on the left? If so, this cannot be solely a judgment of “their” response to “us” (or to Christ in “us”).

Moreover, this prophecy comes on the heels of a series of parables warning sternly about the need for preparation and the probability that even those who know him will be surprised by his arrival. If this final passage does represent an affirmation of the Lord’s solidarity with those who commit themselves to him, can it really be true that it includes no element of challenge or warning for the disciples themselves? After all, they are the primary listening audience, at least within the text; and the implied hearer of the text is also probably a follower of Jesus, or at least someone seriously considering becoming such a follower. Four times we hear a list of specific needs, the response to which determines the outcome of final judgment. Such particularity seems unnecessary if the message is only one of reassurance.

A third, related and more serious complication: why does the text place such an emphasis on the kind of brethren with whom the “king” expresses a particular identification? This is not merely an act of solidarity with his “brethren,” but especially with a subset of them: those who are most likely to be overlooked or forgotten or neglected. At a minimum, this suggests that Jesus is also reasserting his repeated upending of the usual order of things: “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). The ones of whom the king says “that was me!” are the subset of his followers who seem least king-like, or—to put it more strongly—whose worldly need and suffering provides the least external evidence of divine concern. In other words, the God revealed in Jesus is the same God who, according to the prophets, sides with widows and orphans and strangers. This matters.

The most significant complication of all, though, is the fact that the basis for judgment really does come as a surprise. In R. T. France’s words, “the striking feature of this judgment scene is that both sheep and goats claim that they did not know that their actions were directed toward Jesus…. They have helped, or failed to help, not a Jesus recognized in his representatives, but a Jesus incognito.”[8] Whatever reassurance Jesus is giving his disciples through his act of solidarity, the act of judgment emphasizes that his “distressing disguise” is precisely a disguise.[9] When the “Son of Man” arrives in glory, he already will have arrived—frequently, and to all “the nations”—in ways that none of them expected.

This has two effects, one theological and one practical. Theologically, it underscores the nature of the incarnation itself: that the second Person of the Triune God becomes poor, a person without a home and reliant on others (see Matthew 8:20 and the description of the women in Matthew 27:55). He “emptied himself” and was “despised and rejected… a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Philippians 2:7, Isaiah 53:3). The “distressing disguise” of Christ in the poor underscores the fundamental realities of divine self-revelation.[10]

Practically, this “element of surprise” may be the reason why Christians—both in the early Christian era and today—have taken Jesus’ words as a general call to respond with charity and care, not only toward fellow believers (certainly a priority in the early Church), but also beyond the bounds of “these members of my family” to every person in need. They, too, bear the image of God.[11]

But there is a final paradox here: the attempt to meet every stranger as if they were Christ is, in a certain sense, an attempt to circumvent the surprise. It is easy to imagine that if one always feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits those in prison, and so forth, then when the other sheep say “When did we see you?” one can smile quietly and whisper, “Aha! I thought so.” But here the parable challenges us once again. Christ’s coming is not subject to our expectations.[12] No one in the story avoids surprise—except for the king himself.

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[1] Biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] As has often been noted, “the Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite term of self-reference. This passage echoes Matthew 16:27 and prepares the way for the climax of Jesus’ trial-scene in Matthew 26:64, where the allusion to Daniel 7:13 is made explicit. There is also quite possibly an allusion in these Gospel texts to the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 69:27-29: “And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the whole judgment was given to the Son of Man, and he will cause the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from the face of the earth.  And those who led astray the world will be bound in chains, and will be shut up in the assembly-place of their destruction, and all their works will pass away from the face of the earth.  And from then on there will be nothing corruptible, for that Son of Man has appeared and has sat on the throne of his glory….” M. A. Knibb, The Ethiopic Book of Enoch, vol 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

[3] The Hebrew Scriptures’ link between shepherd and king, embodied especially in David, may also be at play here.

[4] The two destinations also undergo renaming. The “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” of verse 41 becomes “eternal punishment” in verse 46, just as “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” of verse 34 becomes “eternal life.”

[5] The Greek is literally “my brethren.” This is the language of close kinship bonds, which carry with them a high degree of commitment and obligation. The Greek masculine plural can (and here almost certainly does) refer to a mixed-sex group.

[6] For another instance of this, in a quite different context, consider Jesus’ words to Saul of Tarsus when the latter is carrying out acts of violence against followers of the Way: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

[7] The fact that this is a judgment of “the nations” may also suggest that it has a corporate, and not just individual, character.

[8] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 959. Emphasis original.

[9] This also recalls the verse in Hebrews about “entertaining angels without knowing it” (13:2).

[10] Arthur Sutherland, in another of our readings, points out the ways that Jesus in his earthly ministry actually experienced the characteristics of those with whom the “king” at the end of Matthew 25 identifies. I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 2-4.

[11] This responds also to Jesus’ more general instructions in the Sermon on the Mount: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). There is substantial Biblical basis for a Christian call to care for those in need, regardless of how one reads Matthew 25. My point here is simply that “the least of these” in Matthew 25 does not lead us to that general Christian call as straightforwardly or easily as we often assume.

[12] This is true eschatologically as well as in Christ’s first coming; preparation does not negate the unexpectedness of the event when it arrives. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father…. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:36, 44).

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