This is the third of a four part series of posts in which David Williams shares some historical and theological observations on the Bible passages studied at the Urbana Student Missions Conference 2015. The passages under consideration are Matthew 8:1-17, Matthew 20:1-16, Matthew 25:31-26, Matthew 27:57-28:15. In follow-up he will post an application piece. We’d also love to hear how would apply in your particular campus context.
If you’re at Urbana15, please swing by and hangout at the Emerging Scholars Network/Graduate & Faculty
- booth (626/628)
- and/or lounge.
Thank-you to David for contributing to the ESN blog at Urbana15 :) ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network
Matthew 25:31-46: “The Least of these My Brothers”
More than ten centuries before Jesus trod the trails of Palestine, God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, the land of his ancestors, to sojourn in a strange land that God promised him some day would belong to his descendants.
“And,” God promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3 ESV)
God’s promise to Abraham was not that he would be the progenitor of a parochial people, but that his family would be the family through which the whole earth would be blessed. Indeed, God promises that thereafter the criterion whereby God would determine whether individuals, peoples, nations would receive the divine blessing, on the one hand, or divine curse, on the other, would be the way they treated Abraham’s children.
With good reason most of the Jews of Jesus’s day believed that they, Abraham’s biological descendants, were the decisive family of which God had spoken so many ages ago. But from the beginnings of their ministries both Jesus and John the Baptizer called into question this merely genetic interpretation of the family of God. “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’” said John, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt 3:9 ESV) When Jesus’s mother and brothers, perhaps concerned for their family’s honor, sought to speak with Jesus privately, Jesus said,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then, gesturing towards 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.” (Matt 12:48-50 ESV)
Note well what Jesus said to His followers when He saw the centurion’s, a Gentile, astounding faith in Jesus’s authority to heal,
Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. (Matt 8:10-12 ESV)
The implication is clear: Trust in Jesus, not one’s ethnic pedigree, is what guarantees a seat at Abraham’s family dinner table. Jesus is the true Israel, the true heir of Abraham: God will bless those who bless Him, and curse those who dishonor Him.
Jesus gives the next turn of the screw in His great apocalyptic vision of the last judgment in Matthew chapter 25:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matt 25:31-33 ESV)
Here it finally becomes altogether unambiguous that when Jesus refers to Himself, as He usually does, as “the Son of Man,” He is identifying Himself as the “one like a son of man” in Daniel chapter 7—the one to whom God, the Ancient of Days, would give a Kingdom that would have no end. He is the eschatological judge of all the nations who will establish justice once for all at the end of days, separating the just/righteous/upright (the sheep) from the unjust/wicked (the goats).
On what basis does He differentiate the just from the unjust, the righteous from the wicked, the sheep from the goats? The surprising answer is that those who have blessed the Son of Man by doing concrete works of compassion on behalf of “the least of these [His] brothers and sisters.” One meets the King in the faces of His most vulnerable subjects, those who do the will of His Father, His brothers and sisters. The men and women who have been embraced by this King and who have embraced Him in turn are the true heirs of Abraham, and those who embrace them will be embraced.
If this is true—if Jesus is the King of kings who will judge every nation, and He serving Him means serving His most vulnerable followers—what might it mean for our geopolitics? Can American evangelicals, for example, continue to turn a deaf ear to the cries of fellow Palestinian Christians, languishing in the Gaza strip, out of uncritical support for the State of Israel? Can white American evangelicals continue to turn their backs on their black brothers and sisters when they cry out for equal opportunity and equal justice under the law? What might it mean for Christian missions and ministry? Can wealthy suburban megachurches continue developing their own self-serving programs, building projects, and staff teams, oblivious to the very real needs of the poor, urban and rural congregations only a few miles away? If this is true, how then should we live? How now will we live? How we answer will determine whether we will be a blessing to the nations or whether we will be left to fumble about in the dark.
*Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1836-1902. God’s Promise to Abram, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55535 [retrieved December 30, 2015]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tissot_God%27s_Promises_to_Abram.jpg.