"'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these...'" [Matthew 25:40; NKJV]You can almost hear a tire screech as they stop right there. From this point, like a scriptural Pandora's box, the individual commentator produces a plethora of moral teachings. Everything from the validity of the social gospel to scriptural evidence for universal health care is put forth. I've even read some articles where the pundit quoted this section and declared, "This is the gospel!"
What is the biggest problem with this use of Matthew 25? It isn't the full quotation. In fact, a very important addition that relates to the context is left out. What is it?
"'Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.'" [ibid; emphasis mine]Let us now ask ourselves: what is the context of being a brother of Christ? Let's review the scriptural context, sticking first with the gospel of Matthew.
While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, "Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You." But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?" And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother." [Matthew 12:46-50; NASB; emphasis mine]What makes one a member of Christ's "brethren" is doing the will of Christ's Father. Some might try to twist this into a works-based form of universalism, however let us not forget that part of the will of Christ's Father was the belief in He whom was sent, that is Christ Jesus. It is emphasized over and over again that embracing Christ is embracing the Father (Matt 10:40; John 13:20). Brethren, within the context of Matthew's gospel, are followers of Christ; remember that, as Christ spoke this line, He was gesturing towards His disciples.
Let us likewise review the definition of "brother" in the gospel of John, which goes into more detail than the others.
He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name... [John 1:11-12]Being a child of God, and therefore being Christ's brethren, is not merely being "a good person," but being brought into the fold of Christ's flock as a born again believer (see also John 1:13). Therefore, the "brethren" mentioned in Matthew 25:40 are not simply random people in prison or off the street, but rather are Christians.
What is the fullest context of Matthew 25? The answer goes back to Matthew 24. The disciples had asked about the second coming of Christ (Matt 24:3), to which our Lord responds first with a discussion on the dire signs of the times (v. 4-29), then what will happen upon His return (v. 30-31). He then goes into a lengthy exposition of preparing for that day: He speaks of the time of Noah, where people laughed at Noah and his preparing for the flood (v. 37-41); He compares His return with a master returning to find some of his servants unprepared (v. 42-51); He tells the Parable of the Ten Virgins who were awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom and half were caught unprepared and thus left out (Matt 25:1-13); He tells the Parable of Talents, where the servants were held accountable for what they had earned while the master was away and one was punished for having wasted his time out of fear and apathy (v. 14-30). Then comes the parable of the final judgment (v. 31-46).
Some important factors regarding the few parables preceding the final judgment: they all dealt with servants and thus the entire body of self-professing Christians. In regards to the wicked servants, they represented supposed Christians who believed that it would be a long time before Christ, and therefore they could sin all they wanted; the good servants who were attentive were those Christians who awaited the coming of their Lord with eagerness. In regards to the ten virgins, the metaphors are obvious: the wedding feast was a continual symbol used by our Lord for the fulfillment of Christ's kingdom and the final judgment; the ten virgins were people expected to be ready; the five foolish virgins were those who were not ready and believed they could wait until the last minute to do so, only to be caught unawares and left out of the feast (in other words, damned); the five wise virgins were the ones who were prepared for the coming of the bridegroom (Christ) and were welcomed to the feast. In regards to the Parable of the talents, the two wise slaves were those who used the time they had to reap what they were given before the second coming; the one miserly servant was he who refused to reap and had nothing to offer but excuses when the master (again, Christ) returned, and therefore was punished.
Now we come to the final judgment with the sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats make up one herd, and the King of the parable is separating them as shepherds would do. The goats are the false sheep who may have looked like sheep but were in actuality something else entirely; the sheep are those who are true Christians who sought to only please their shepherd. Most of all, the sheep were those who endured persecution like true Christians. Christ was well aware that great persecution would come to the church, and that many Christians would be poor, hungry, and in prison. There are many stories of Christians who risked their lives to visit their brethren who were in prison, or helped them hide during their travels, or to offer any kind of help for one another. It is these people who are the sheep spoken of here.
There are many wonderful lessons to learn from this parable. One can learn humility: when the king tells the sheep of their good deeds, the sheep are clueless about them (Matt 25:37), and are a fine example of Christ's earlier command "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matt 6:3); the goats, on the other hand, can number their good deeds, and therefore cannot comprehend how they were lacking (Matt 25:44). However, this is not a passage to be used to glorify personal deeds or to present evidence for the social gospel. One can also learn, for obvious reasons, the importance of hospitality within the Christian community and the need for strong brotherhood between believers. What cannot be taught is that this parable teaches being charitable saves, or that individuals performing charitable deeds was the only reason Christ came. We are not saved by our works, be they good or bad.
I realize that many reading this blog post are probably immediately reacting with, "Wait, are you saying the Bible doesn't teach we should help the poor in general?" Not at all. I affirm and affirm again that scripture teaches us to be charitable even to strangers and those outside the church. However, this is not the verse which proves it. That, alone, is my point. Those who would quote it to do so are not only being dishonest in leaving out an important part of the text, but are being erroneous in regards to the context of the entire sermon being given by Christ.