IF you have followed along in my first two posts, you are aware of my critique of the way Christian tends to connect our faith to charity. I have called charity part of the lowest common denominator (LCD) or morality, suggesting it is a more or less universal human concern rather than a specifically Christian concern. In contrast, I have tried to show how Jesus had a much less common attitude that was much different view as it came to concerns about poverty: one should identify with the poor rather, rather than trying to be their hero “from above.”1 The former is an attitude known as the poverty of spirit in which the way one looks at life dramatically alters one’s behaviors; the latter can be genuine, and in the cases of charity by the poor in spirit will so, but is an easy way to share up one’s own bases of power and influence, or even prop up one’s own sense of self-identity. The effect of all of this is to say that being Christian isn’t about helping the needy, though a Christian will help the needy.
However, there is one hurdle to this view of Jesus: Matthew 25.31-46. Here is the whole passage, discussing Jesus’ judgment of the nations:
31 “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. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”2
Here we see a pretty strong statement Jesus provides about the way people treated the marginalized. There is no getting around it if one takes the Gospels seriously: Jesus means business when it comes to how one responds to the needy.
However, there is something important to grasp: the commandment to charity would not have been the most notable thing about what Jesus said originally. Herbert Basser and Marsha Cohen point out that the order of actions Jesus uses follows that of the Midrash Tehillim 118.17:3
When a man is asked in the world to come, What was your work? And he answers, I fed the hungry, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did feed the hungry. When a man answers, I gave drink to the thirsty, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did give drink to the thirsty. When a man answers, I clothed the naked, it will be said to him, This is the gate of the Lord. Enter into it, O you that did cloth the naked. This will be said also to him that brought up the fatherless, and to them that gave alms or performed deeds of lovingkindness. And David
said,I have done all these things. Therefore let all the gates be opened for me. Hence it is said, Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will enter into them, I will give thanks unto the Lord.
Such calls to charity was a common theme. What Jesus was saying about concern for the needy and marginalized and being granted entrance into the presence of God would have perfectly fit into the Jewish world he inhabited. The charitable actions Jesus describes wouldn’t be new teaching to the disciples.
What would be noteworthy, however, is that first, Jesus places himself in the role of the Lord here. Jesus is the ruler who judges, who welcomes and receives those who showed hospitality and kindness to those in need. This is a strong claim about Jesus’ own identity. Most of us in orthodoxy Christianity wouldn’t find this
Before explaining it, it is important to read this discourse of Jesus within the context that Matthew places it within. It comes on the heels of Matthew 24, where Jesus warns his disciples about the future catastrophe that will take place before the “coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus then advocates for his disciples be watchful about themselves and make sure they are careful with how they treat one another and not get distracted from their purpose. (Matthew 24.36-51).
Jesus then provides two parables, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (Matthew 25.1-13) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30), each of which connects people’s behavior in regards to their designated purpose with their reception or exclusion when the bridegroom/master arrives. Each of these reinforces the message about being watchful and staying on the task Jesus had given to his disciples.
So how does the story of the judgment fit into this? Notice that there is a shift here from those who are charged with a specific task (i.e. the disciples) to “all the nations.” There is an echo from the Abraham narrative in Jesus’ words. In speaking of “all the nations” and speaking of the sheep as those “blessed by my Father,” Jesus echoes words that God spoke about Abraham in Genesis 18.16-21:
16 Having risen up from there, the men looked down on the face of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was going along with them, accompanying them. 17 The Lord said, “Will I hide from Abraham,w my servant, what I am doing? Abraham will become as a great and numerous nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him. 19 For I knew that he will appoint his sons and his household after himself, and they will guard the ways of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring on Abraham all the things that he said upon him.” 20 The Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has been multiplied, and their sins are very great. 21 After going down, therefore, I will see if they are perpetrating according to their crying that is coming to me, and if not, in order that I may know.” 4
Jesus envisions his disciples as proclaiming the message throughout the world (Matthew 24.14), so the disciples are regarded as participating in this purpose that Abraham’s children
Matthew 25.31-46 is not placed there to warn the disciples and Christians “You better be nice.” It is placed there as part of the understanding of the eschatological purpose of their mission: to be a blessing to the nations so as to reverse the cursed state of the world that lacks hospitality, resembling Sodom and Gomorrah. The criteria of judgment Matthew 25.31-46 is not a statement about the Christian mission; it is a statement about how Christ will judge the entire world. The disciples will be judged according to how they as servants fulfilling their purpose as the previous two parables elucidated; the world will be judged based upon how they fulfill this basic concern for the needy.
Sodom and Gomorrah were characterized as a city full of evil in the Old Testament. It is often assumed Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of homosexuality. While the mention of their sexual behavior in Genesis certainly is part of the portrayal of the extent of the wickedness, homosexuality was not the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah that merited destruction. A similar story was told about the people of Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 19.22-30, but this time they end up raping a concubine of an elderly man. It is a heartbreaking story of sin begetting even more sin as the old man kills the raped concubine simply in order to send a message. The sin being discussed in both Sodom and Gomorrah and then in Gibeah is that of rape, characterizing an attitude of exploitation of the weak and powerless.
We see Ezekiel take this theme in his characterization of Israel as a sister of Sodom in Ezekiel 16.43b-50.
Have you not committed lewdness beyond all your abominations? 44 See, everyone who uses proverbs will use this proverb about you, “Like mother, like daughter.” 45 You are the daughter of your mother, who loathed her husband and her children; and you are the sister of your sisters, who loathed their husbands and their children. Your mother was a Hittite and your father an Amorite. 46 Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. 47 You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little
timeyou were more corrupt than they in all your ways. 48 As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. 49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excessof food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. (NRSV)
To be clear, Sodom is not literally being characterized as solely inhospitable, as Ezekiel compares the “abominations” of Israel to Sodom.5 Rather, their lack of concern for the poor and needy is reflective of the type of people they are; in their pride and abundance, they do whatever they wish including behaviors deemed shameful and abominable while they disregard those who have little self-regard and live in scarcity.
So, when Jesus castigates people of the nations for their lack of hospitality, it isn’t meant simply as “you aren’t charitable enough.” It is understood as more reflective of their entire attitude and
Thus, Matthew 25.31-46 is Jesus’ giving the purpose to the disciple’s mission as it relates to the eschatological future when Jesus comes in judgment. The disciples are to be sent out into the world to be a blessing of Abraham, so that the nations may be blessed rather than falling into and remaining in the attitude of Sodom and Gomorrah that is corrupt and filled with injustice.
If Matthew 25.31-46 refers to the judgment of the world, but what preceded in Jesus’ discourse is warnings towards the disciples to fulfill their purpose or they will be judged, then the universal judgment is not referring to disciples. They already know Jesus; it is absurd to suggest that the disciples would have thought “when did we receive Jesus?” Rather, it is the world that did not recognize Jesus. Jesus regards their hospitable, charitable attitude towards the marginalized as if they had received Jesus Himself. After all, Jesus lived and ministered in such humble circumstances, so to receive the needy would mean that one is the type of person who would receive Jesus.
Thus, in the end, I would suggest Matthew 25.31-46 is not characterizing the Christian ethic and way of life. It is about how Jesus will judge the world. But when it gets transferred into a statement about what it means to be a Christian, it reduces the Christian life to LCD morality. However, in so doing, it undercuts the very power of the life contained in genuinely following Christ that can accomplish the Abrahamic mission Jesus sets out for his disciples. Mere charity and teaching others to be charitable will not transform the world. Something more must be present.
So, charity is not Christian; it is a universal human principle of morality that Christ will judge the world according to. But it is not what defines the Christian life; Christ sets out a mission for His disciples that extends beyond simply charity.
- The echoes of the incarnation exist in this idea.
- Herbet W. Basser and Marsha B. Cohen, The Gospel of Matthew and Judaic Traditions. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015), 649-650.
- Lexham English Septuagint. I quote from the English translation of the Septuagint because this would be closer to what Jesus would be familiar with.
- It may be relevant in other contexts to note the same Hebrew word is used in Leviticus 18.22 against the prohibition of a man having sexual activity with another man as he would a woman, but that doesn’t mean that Sodom was judged simply due to sexuality.