Matthew Chapter 25:31-46

So far in the chapter, we’ve had the parable of the Ten Maidens and the Parable of the Talents. Jesus is still talking, but he shifts gears and goes into more or less a straight narrative about the coming of the son of man. I don’t think a lot of intermediate commentary will be necessary.

31 Οταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ καὶ πάντες οἱ ἄγγελοι μετ’ αὐτοῦ, τότε καθίσει ἐπὶ θρόνου δόξης αὐτοῦ:

32 καὶ συναχθήσονται ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, καὶ ἀφορίσει αὐτοὺς ἀπ’ἀλλήλων, ὥσπερ ὁ ποιμὴν ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων,

33 καὶ στήσει τὰ μὲν πρόβατα ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ τὰ δὲ ἐρίφια ἐξ εὐωνύμων.

“And when the son of man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon the throne of his glory. (32) And then will be gathered before him all the peoples, and he will separate them one from another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (33) And the sheep will stand on his right and the goats on the left.

The son of man comes in his glory, and sits on the throne of his glory. This is not the reflected glory of God, but that belonged to the son of man alone. This is a marked departure from the verbiage in Mark, in which the son of man would come in great glory. Yes, it’s great, but it’s not his and his alone. Rather, he’s likely to be partaking in the glory of the father. In fact, that is how I would think that Mark should be understood, which would be of a piece with the son of man not being divine in his own right. As such, Matthew here takes us further along the track to a divine Jesus. There is also the mention of his throne, he being the son of man. That I find to be less decisive. After all, Jesus says that the disciples will have thrones to judge the twelve tribes. A throne can be given. Or taken. But then, I suppose the same can be said about glory.

31 Cum autem venerit Filius hominis in gloria sua, et omnes angeli cum eo, tunc sedebit super thronum gloriae suae.

32 Et congregabuntur ante eum omnes gentes; et separabit eos ab invicem, sicut pastor segregat oves ab haedis,

33 et statuet oves quidem a dextris suis, haedos autem a sinistris.

34 τότε ἐρεῖ ὁ βασιλεὺς τοῖς ἐκ δεξιῶν αὐτοῦ, Δεῦτε, οἱ εὐλογημένοι τοῦ πατρός μου, κληρονομήσατε τὴν ἡτοιμασμένην ὑμῖν βασιλείαν ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου:

35 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ ἐποτίσατέ με, ξένος ἤμην καὶ συνηγάγετέ με,

36 γυμνὸς καὶπεριεβάλετέ με, ἠσθένησα καὶ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με, ἐν φυλακῇ ἤμην καὶ ἤλθατε πρός με.

“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Follow, ones blessed of my father. You will inherit the kingdom having been prepared for your from the foundation of the cosmos. (35) For I hungered and you gave me to eat, I thirsted and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you led me together, naked, you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. 

The first thing to note is that the king is not the father. Now, the idea that a son should succeed to the kingdom of his father is hardly unusual; quite the opposite, in fact. But it shows, once again, a gradation in the relative powers of the two. The kingdom is of the father, not the son, regardless of who happens to be sitting on the throne at a particular moment. For example, it’s never referred to as “Solomon’s Kingdom”, but as that of David. The latter founded it, the former inherited it. Just so is the implication here. This is another indication of the gradation of the deity; Jesus is in some way inferior to the father. This is a holdover from Mark, and it’s also part of the original Jewish conception of the messiah: in Jewish tradition, the messiah was human. So we’re on the road to the apotheosis of Jesus, but the record still contains traces of the earlier attitudes.

Second, we have ordination from the foundation of the cosmos/universe; the word is also frequently translated as “world”. This is no more inaccurate than universe. In Greek, “kosmos” means “order”, or “organized”. So the kingdom has been set aside for those on the right from the time that the foundation of the current order was laid; this current order is opposed to the chaos that had come before. In some ways, this idea is more Greek than Hebrew; however, I don’t want to push this too hard because I don’t read Hebrew, so I can’t really say what the story of Genesis tells us. But this idea of creating an order from chaos is very Greek; while this idea is arguably implicit in Genesis, it’s very explicit in Greek myth.

Finally, just a couple of vocabulary notes. These are mostly fun facts to know & tell rather than anything really important for understanding the text. The word for naked is “gymnos”. You will recognize this as the root of “gym/gymnasium”. This is because the Greeks exercised naked. So, you went to the “place you get naked” to do your exercise. Second, the word that usually gets translated as “visited”, in “I was sick, and you visited me” is derived from the same root whence we get “bishop”. The idea is one of oversight, and not so much the sense of visiting the sick from compassion. Again, hardly a game-changer, but this is another one of those places where a particular translation has become standard, even if it isn’t really all that exact. But, it gets the point across. 

34 Tunc dicet Rex his, qui a dextris eius erunt: “Venite, benedicti Patris mei; possidete paratum vobis regnum a constitutione mundi.

35 Esurivi enim, et dedistis mihi manducare; sitivi, et dedistis mihi bibere; hospes eram, et collegistis me;

36 nudus, et operuistis me; infirmus, et visitastis me; in carcere eram, et venistis ad me”.

37 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται αὐτῷ οἱ δίκαιοι λέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα καὶ ἐθρέψαμεν, ἢ διψῶντα καὶ ἐποτίσαμεν;

38 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ξένον καὶ συνηγάγομεν, ἢ γυμνὸν καὶ περιεβάλομεν;

39 πότε δέ σε εἴδομεν ἀσθενοῦντα ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν πρός σε;

40 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐρεῖ αὐτοῖς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἀδελφῶν μου τῶν ἐλαχίστων, ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.

“Then the just will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungering and feed you, or thirsting and giving you drink? (38) When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ (40) And answering the king will say to then, ‘Amen I say to you, upon whenever one of the least of my brothers you did (it) for me’.

Along with the Beatitudes and Paul’s description of love, this story is justifiably one of the most beautiful and meaningful stories in the NT. It also, I believe, demonstrates an attitude markedly different from what had come before. This attitude is not exactly novel; it builds upon the Jewish tradition of social responsibility for the lesser of society, and maybe borrows a bit from the Stoic idea of universal siblinghood. (Thought perhaps I’d coined that term, but it’s in Google.) Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, perhaps it’s not the thought or the idea that’s so novel, but it’s the level of emphasis this attitude receives with the NT. It’s been very interesting to note how vague the NT writers are with ideas like salvation, the soul, and eternal life. Of course the big one here is whether–and in what way–Jesus was divine.

In the same way, thinking about the Hebrew Scriptures, the message of social justice is not the one that comes to mind first and foremost. I mean, there’s not much about social justice when Moses is parting the Red Sea, or Joshua is bringing down the walls of Jericho, or Daniel is in the lion’s den. But this is the problem with only really being familiar with the highlights of HS. One misses the message of Ezra and some of the others (which I cannot name off the top of my head). The point is that the innovation of Jesus and his followers was the emphasis put on social justice, and I think the emphasis point on social justice towards individuals. I really hate getting all general here, but there is a sense in which Judaism is more about the collective than the individual; they are the Chosen People, but Jesus talks about chosen individuals. Honestly, though, I don’t think this was a big part of Jesus’ message; rather, I would suggest that it’s something that came about later, as the number of pagans grew in the various communities. There had to be a de-emphasis on the collective idea of a chosen people in favour of a creed that embraces individuals regardless of national or religious origin since this was the direction the proto-church was heading. Paul led the way, with there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, etc. Here, I think we’re seeing the full assimilation of that attitude into the “mainstream” of the Christian communities. At least one of them, that of Matthew, anyway.

One implication of this, of course, is that this was not necessarily part of Jesus’ original message. That thought is probably disconcerting to a lot of Christians; and it should be. In support of this, it needs to be pointed out that this “for the least of my brothers” is not in Mark; nor is it in Luke. This latter means that it cannot have been part of Q, even if this unicorn of a document had ever actually existed. So it comes down to Matthew, and Matthew alone. Of course it’s possible that Matthew had a source that traced to Jesus on this while bypassing Mark. There is nothing remarkable about this, because that’s the definition of Q, except that Q managed to survive to reach Luke before disappearing without a trace. Really, it comes down to deciding whether this source of M material is a more likely explanation than the possibility that Matthew invented material on his own. That it bypassed Mark isn’t too hard to get around; in fact, the existence of separate threads of tradition, mutually unknown to each other in the early days, is more likely than not, IMO.

But the fact remains that this is the sort of idea that probably makes more sense in the post-diaspora world than it does in the days of Jesus. After all, Jesus did not spend a lot of time worrying about non-Jews. Of course, evaluating this perspective depends on the degree to which you see this as directed to non-Jews. There is no reason it has to be, but I believe it makes more sense in that context. As the horizons of the new movement expanded to include more non-Jews, eventually becoming a movement of mostly non-Jews, breaking down the connection to Israel while building up the connection to preferred behaviours–peacemakers, the meek–emphasizing the least of my siblings–makes an increasing amount of sense. The message becomes more tailored to an unspecific audience, people who act a certain way, rather than people united only by common descent.

37 Tunc respondebunt ei iusti dicentes: “Domine, quando te vidimus esurientem et pavimus, aut sitientem et dedimus tibi potum?

38 Quando autem te vidimus hospitem et collegimus, aut nudum et cooperuimus?

39 Quando autem te vidimus infirmum aut in carcere et venimus ad te?”.

40 Et respondens Rex dicet illis: “Amen dico vobis: Quamdiu fecistis uni de his fratribus meis minimis, mihi fecistis”.

41 Τότε ἐρεῖ καὶ τοῖς ἐξ εὐωνύμων, Πορεύεσθε ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ [οἱ] κατηραμένοι εἰς τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον τὸ ἡτοιμασμένον τῷ διαβόλῳκαὶ τοῖς ἀγγέλοις αὐτοῦ:

42 ἐπείνασα γὰρ καὶ οὐκ ἐδώκατέ μοι φαγεῖν, ἐδίψησα καὶ οὐκ ἐποτίσατέ με,

43 ξένος ἤμην καὶ οὐ συνηγάγετέ με, γυμνὸς καὶ οὐ περιεβάλετέ με, ἀσθενὴς καὶ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐκ ἐπεσκέψασθέ με.

44 τότε ἀποκριθήσονται καὶ αὐτοὶ λέγοντες, Κύριε, πότε σε εἴδομεν πεινῶντα ἢ διψῶντα ἢ ξένον ἢ γυμνὸν ἢ ἀσθενῆ ἢ ἐν φυλακῇ καὶ οὐ διηκονήσαμέν σοι;

45 τότε ἀποκριθήσεται αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐφ’ ὅσον οὐκ ἐποιήσατε ἑνὶ τούτων τῶν ἐλαχίστων, οὐδὲ ἐμοὶ ἐποιήσατε.

46 καὶ ἀπελεύσονται οὗτοι εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον, οἱ δὲ δίκαιοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

“And then to those on the left, ‘Go away from me, those having been accursed, to the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (42) For I hungered, and you did not give me to eat, I thirsted and you did not give me to drink. (43) I was a stranger among you and you did not gather me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick or in prison and you did not come to look in upon me’. (44) Then they will answer saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungering or thirsting or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and we did not minister to you?’ (45) Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Amen I say to you, upon so much you did not do for one of the least, you did not do for me’. And they will be destroyed in the eternal punishment, but the just (will go) to life eternal.”  

Well, if the kingdom has been prepared for the just since the foundation of the universe, then it stands to reason that the fire has been as well. Or has it? This was prepared, supposedly, for the devil and his angels, but that rebellion did not take place until…when?

This is what happens when stories grow. They start to lost internal consistency. This is exactly what happens when people lie to cover up either a high crime or a misdemeanor: if the lie can be a one-and-done, then it’s easy enough. Yes, I took out the garbage. But in the case of a complex situation, the lie often has to be elaborated. Then what happens is that the liar has to create other lies to explain the first, and then additional ones to bridge the gaps, until he or she creates a flat contradiction. This is the stuff of detective fiction. And, after all, what is a lie but a piece of fiction, or a story. The first story, “let there be light” is simple enough. But where in there is the rebellion of Lucifer? If Lucifer = Satan, then he existed prior to creation, because he was there to tempt Adam & Eve. But when? Before the creation, or just before the creation of the world? But–never mind. The point is that, if God created the kingdom for the just, that was because God realized that this kingdom would be necessary, because there would be people, and some of them would be just, and so they would need to be rewarded. So, if God understood that, surely God also knew that there would be unjust, and would have known that some of the angels would rebel, which means that both the kingdom and the eternal fire were created from before the beginning. Since God created these creatures knowing that they would warrant damnation, we have a perfect case for Double Predestination: creatures created knowing that they would be damned. It took until the time of Calvin for his interpretation to be widely accepted.

But that’s all very fine and theological. The important part of this, the lesson that needs to be learned here is that we have a very explicit statement of the reward and punishment theme that is so very central to Christian belief. Is it the central tenet? Or would that be the Resurrection? Probably the latter, because the reward and punishment depends to some degree on the Resurrection having occurred, since this was the event that ended death, and made life eternal both possible and real. You may recall from the essay on Josephus, that this idea of reward and punishment was not exactly Jewish; rather, Josephus–who, recall, was Jewish–credited this belief to the Greeks, that they were the ones who conceived this idea. This makes sense since the idea of an immortal soul is Greek rather than Jewish. 

Given this, it is sorely tempting to seize on this as an “aha!” moment. As in, “I told that Matthew was a pagan, and Aha!, it is he who makes the most explicit case for the binary choice of reward and punishment. This would be to overstate the case. The truth of the matter is that, as I write this, I’m not at all certain that neither Paul nor Mark said something just as definitive. This is the sort of thing that requires a bunch of textual comparison, to see when ideas appear and how they develop over time. This may be no more than a terminus ante quem, the stake in the ground showing that the idea of reward and punishment has been established at this point, and that the reading of anything written after this has to be done with the reward/punishment motif as a datum, a given, something that has to be read into whatever else Luke or John or the later writers of epistles will say. In and of itself, that is important. Such markers are necessary if we’re really going to analyze this text in the way it needs to be done: as a progression, rather than as a number of different writers all explaining the same set of ideas, a set that was fixed before any of them started to write. One hopes that, by now, we all realize that we simply cannot read the NT like that. It was not, or it did not start as a set of fixed ideas, but ideas that were in flux, and that only became settled as time progressed, said progression continuing to occur for several centuries–or more–after the last bit of the NT was written.

The proof of that is the idea of Double Predestination. It’s pretty much here, if you have any feel for, or sense of how theological or philosophical argumentation and interpretation operate. The logic of this passage is pretty much inescapable, no less so for not being completely explicit. But a millennium and a half would elapse before Calvin made it stick. There were trial runs before Calvin, but The Church was, prior to that, always able to squelch them. Even now, I have a sense that this idea of Double Predestination is not exactly the central theme of any denomination descended from Calvinism. It doesn’t suit us, it undermines free will, it is remarkably similar to the pagan idea of ineluctable fate. Is that another clue that Matthew was a pagan, someone who had grown up with this idea in his mind, a buried assumption? Perhaps. But in the realm of argument for and against Predestination, Romans looms large. No real conversation on this topic can be held until we have considered Romans in detail and in its entirety. 

41 Tunc dicet et his, qui a sinistris erunt: “Discedite a me, maledicti, in ignem aeternum, qui praeparatus est Diabolo et angelis eius.

42 Esurivi enim, et non dedistis mihi manducare; sitivi, et non dedistis mihi potum;

43 hospes eram, et non collegistis me; nudus, et non operuistis me; infirmus et in carcere, et non visitastis me”.

44 Tunc respondebunt et ipsi dicentes: “Domine, quando te vidimus esurientem aut sitientem aut hospitem aut nudum aut infirmum vel in carcere et non ministravimus tibi?”.

45 Tunc respondebit illis dicens: “Amen dico vobis: Quamdiu non fecistis uni de minimis his, nec mihi fecistis”.

46 Et ibunt hi in supplicium aeternum, iusti autem in vitam aeternam ”.

 

 

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 29, 2016, in Chapter 25, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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