Matthew 25:31-46 – Serving Christ's Brethren
Read Matthew 25:31-46
This passage in Matthew's Gospel is widely (almost universally) cited as a basis for all kinds of diaconal ministries in the local community and in the world.1 The appeal is weighty, for eternal life and eternal condemnation hang upon our response to our Lord's words and to the needs he mentions. However, careful exegesis shows that applying this passage to all kinds of diaconal ministries in the local community or in the world (such as famine relief, civil justice causes and prison ministries) is not what our Lord intended.
Why make an issue of the correct interpretation of this text? Certainly not to dampen zeal for proper ministries of mercy in a needy world.2 My reasons are two:
- to protest against the widespread misuse of this passage of Scripture; and
- to promote the application intended by our Lord.
Who are Christ's Brethren?
Because Christ rules his church through his Word, we must endeavor always to understand clearly just what Scripture actually says so as to be truly governed by the Word of the Lord. We must resist every temptation to misuse the Word, whether the source of that temptation is found in tradition, a cultural or countercultural establishment, revolutionary forces or the latest evangelical fad. Nearly any evil can be promoted by the misuse of Scripture. We are not far from that when we misuse Scripture to promote what is good. If we and our churches become accustomed to the latter, we may no longer be able to detect the former.
What, then, does our Lord require in Matthew 25:31-46? Our Lord designates the object of the ministries named as “the least of these brothers of mine.” A study of Matthew's Gospel shows that our Lord does not have in mind the poor and needy of the world in general, but the poor and needy who are his disciples.
Who are our Lord's brethren? Consider Matthew 12:46-50 where Jesus asks the question, “Who is my mother and who are my brethren?” Matthew records his answer: And stretching forth 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.”
Consider also Matthew 28:10, the words of our risen Lord to the women who had just left the empty tomb that Easter morning: “Do not be afraid; go and take word to my brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they shall see me.” Jesus' brethren were those who had believed and confessed that he is the promised Christ, the Son of the living God, and had committed themselves to him as King and to the kingdom of righteousness which he brought.
We may go further and say that in Matthew 25:31-46 our Lord has in mind his disciples as they are carrying the treasure of the gospel to the ends of the earth. (Compare this with the preceding parable in which the talents should be understood to mean not individual gifts and abilities given to various ones in the church but the treasure of the King, the gospel message entrusted to the church.)
I see a connection between Jesus' brethren who are hungry, thirsty and homeless in Matthew 25 and the instruction he gave the Twelve in chapter 10. The immediate occasion for the teaching of Matthew 10 is our Lord's commissioning the Twelve for a preaching mission “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vs. 6). But as Matthew's record unfolds, our Lord's words take in far more than the immediate situation. They come to embrace the mission and struggle of the church in the future and into distant lands (vss. 17-23, 27).
Our Lord sends his disciples out homeless, depending for food, water and shelter on those who will receive their message. He also envisions them encountering rejection, persecution, imprisonment – even death. Whoever rejects them and their message of the kingdom comes under God's condemnation: “It will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city” (vs. 15). This corresponds to the judgment pronounced in 25:41,
Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat …
In commissioning the Twelve to preach to Israel, our Lord anticipated the later commission given to them and to the entire church to “go and make disciples of all the gentiles.” As our Lord promises to be with the missionary church to the end of the age, and he identifies with and stands behind those whom he sends out with the gospel. He will judge the world according to how people receive his messengers and their message. To reject them is to reject him; to receive them is to receive him and all he gives.
Why would those who follow Jesus be hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick or in prison? Why would such suffering befall those who proclaim the good news of the kingdom? Matthew's Gospel tells us why. “I send you as sheep among wolves … You will be hated by all on account of my name … A disciple is not above his teacher … I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:16, 22, 24, 34).
The kingdom of heaven is at war with the powers of this world, and the conflict often goes hard on those in the kingdom. “Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you;” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10-12). Christ is building his church in demonstration of his triumph over the devil and hades (16:18; 12:28, 29). But just as he suffered to ransom the church, so those who “come after” him are called to follow him in suffering and to boldly confess him regardless of the cost to themselves (16:21-28; 10:24-43).
Thus in Matthew 25:31-46 our Lord does not confront the church with the poor, needy and oppressed of this world defined in socio-economic terms. Rather he confronts the world (the gentiles, vs. 32 and also 28:19) with the messengers of the kingdom who go forth in his name. In the eyes of the world they may be despised nobodies. But the question of eternal life or eternal punishment nevertheless hangs on how they are received.
When our Lord comes again in his glory to be enthroned as Judge of the nations, he will say “Come, you who are blessed by my Father” to those who received, identified with and ministered to the needs of “the least of these my brethren” in defiance of the powers of the world.
How are They Served?
In considering the intended application of this passage we must take into account the fact that in it our Lord is speaking to his disciples and that through Matthew's account he is speaking to the church – the church for which Matthew wrote and the church throughout the age, the missionary church. With this in mind we find a three-fold application.
First, our Lord assures the church that he fully identifies with us as we seek to disciple the nations in his name. Whatever hardships may come our way on account of the gospel, the Lord here grants us strong encouragement to remain steadfast in view of the final overthrow of our enemies and our vindication on the Last Day.
Second, our Lord provides the church in its gospel proclamation with a basis for warning the world to take its message seriously. The church may stand against hostile powers and boldly warn them of the dire consequences of rejecting and persecuting Christ's messengers; and it may promise eternal life to those who stand with them. In view of Christ's promise we summon men and women to embrace his despised church and the life-giving truth she proclaims, though they in turn may suffer loss and rejection by their culture.
- Third, while our understanding of this passage removes it from the list of proof texts for diaconal ministry to the world, there is a clear diaconal dimension to what it requires. For if by God's grace we have received the church's message, then we must not only join with the church at the risk of personal loss. We must also endeavor by all means available to succor and encourage those who are suffering for the sake of Christ and his gospel. Hebrews 10:32-39 must be true of us; we must become sharers with the persecuted church.
As our knowledge of these needs is now global, so our concern must be also. And these needs must come before those of the world, for these are the needs of the household of the faith.