|A Prayer of Jesus||I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.|
When Bible scholars turn to the gospels to investigate and comment on the teachings attributed to Jesus, they customarily interpret his utterances from the perspective of Twentieth Century academics, which of course they are. My impression is that they are almost universally motivated to relate his teachings to the issues of modern life – to those issues that are of immediate and vital interest to the interpreter and/or the institutions he values. Some will therefore apply specific utterances to the support of social programs for the poor, others to a particular political ideology and yet others to eschatological expectations that they believe will finally resolve all the ills of the world. By this methodology they produce very carefully crafted documents, impressive and convincing, covering almost every subject of interest to modern man. Reading such documents leaves me much impressed by the sagacity and perspicacity of the authors, and I am tempted to be envious. I would be, were it not that I am assured their literary creations are not worth the paper on which they are printed.
You see, Jesus brought into the world, in the form of his utterances, a discrete, consistent, perfectly integrated and internally cohesive body of absolute truth. And, because it is absolute, it is not relative and is therefore absolutely irrelevant to the particular interest and values of any place, time, nation, culture or individual and, it follows, to the interests of Twentieth Century Bible scholars, who tend to be culturally bound. Therefore one can only interpret Jesus correctly in the light of Jesus and his absolute concern, not in the light of modern issues and concerns. Thus, when Jesus spoke of the poor, saying,
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,
we are inclined to see in it a blessing on the poor of this world, as though their poverty somehow made them fit candidates for the kingdom. But when I examine the context and see that Jesus was addressing only his disciples, saying you poor (that is, you disciples, who are poor), and when I see from Luke 14:33 that in order to become a disciple one must renounce all (thus becoming radically poor), I must conclude that the saying has relevance only to his true disciples, to those who have impoverished themselves so as to qualify for that position. This saying is not applicable to the poor in a general sense, and thus it is irrelevant to the poor of this world. This mode of interpretation must be applied to all his utterances, including specifically the one discussed below, which is one of the most abused passages in the gospels.
We find Jesus' description of the last judgment in its most detailed form in the Twenty Fifth Chapter of Matthew's Gospel, where he divides all the nations into two groups, the sheep and the goats. This passage has long been misinterpreted so as to support the agenda of Christians who really do not listen to Jesus. Typical of this misinterpretation is that found in Helmut Koester's recent article in Bible Review (October, 1996), entitled, "The Second Coming Demythologized." There he identifies the sheep, those that are "Blessed of my Father," as Jesus expressed it, as those who minister to their fellows in certain specific ways. He implies that they are those who can respond positively to the judge's questions: "Did you clothe those who were naked? Did you visit those who were dying of AIDS? Did you write letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience? Did you cast your vote in favor of illegal immigrants? Did you support a shelter for homeless people?" This identification supports Koester's "demythologizing" of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, which, according to Koester,
allows us to realize that the good news of Jesus' message will have run its course and accomplished its purpose when all people in all the nations – regardless of their religious persuasion – feed the hungry, give a drink to those who are thirsty, welcome the stranger and visit those who are sick or in prison, even if they do not know that they are doing this for Jesus, whose Second Coming has already happened in our midst, among all his poor and hungry and imprisoned brothers and sisters throughout the world.Nothing could be further from the truth. Altruism is not the basis of the final judgment, and we are not to identify Jesus with the poor and hungry of the world. We are not to be saved or condemned according to our ministry, or lack thereof, of clothing the naked, visiting AIDS patients, voting in favor of illegal immigrants, sheltering the homeless, or writing letters on behalf of prisoners of conscience. There is nothing there that supports the idea that our eternal destiny depends upon ministering to the needy of this world, or that the poor and hungry and imprisoned of the world are thereby the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Such interpretations are possible only where the words of Jesus are not really taken seriously, including this, his portrayal of the last judgment. Before we go any further, let's set his words before us:
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 them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?" And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." Then he will say to those at his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?" Then he will answer them, "Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."So, what's the problem?" do you ask? "Isn't he rewarding those who minister to the needy with eternal life, punishing those who do not with eternal punishment? There it is in black and white: taking in the stranger, visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry and thirsty, clothing the naked? And hasn't Jesus elsewhere emphasized the importance of loving our neighbors by responding to their needs? Don't we have the Parable of the Good Samaritan to teach us this?"
If these are your questions, you have overlooked something very important and central to this account of the last judgment: the fact that Jesus identified himself as the object of this seeming ministry to the needy. Jesus said, I was hungry . . . I was thirsty . . . I was a stranger . . . I was naked . . . I was sick . . . I was in prison. . .. This self identification is of supreme importance. The last judgment is based solely on our response, or lack thereof, to the needs of Jesus himself.
You are not alone in misunderstanding this parable. It appears that both the sheep and the goats will require an explanation. Even the sheep are thinking, "When did we minister to him?" And so they have to ask, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and feed thee . . . thirsty and give thee drink . . . a stranger and welcome thee . . . naked and clothe thee . . . sick or in prison and visit thee?" Now here is the kicker: the King will answer them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." And to the goats, the answer is similar: "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."
So what differentiates the sheep and the goats? Only one thing: their response to Jesus himself whenever he appears before them, at their doors, hungry or thirsty, or as a stranger or naked, or sick or in prison. There is nothing here about ministering to the poor and needy of this world, unless we can identify Jesus (the King and Judge) with the poor and needy and them as his brethren. The key question for the correct interpretation of this depiction of the last judgment is therefore, "With whom does the King identify in this world?" Koester (with many others) obviously identifies Jesus with anyone in the world who is in need of food, drink, clothing, shelter, or companionship in illness or in prison, especially including illegal immigrants, AIDS sufferers, and the homeless. They automatically become his siblings based only on sharing certain needs. But whom does Jesus identify as his brothers and sisters, and with whom does he identify himself?
This is an easy question to answer -- so easy that there can be no excuse for any of us not having answered it correctly, because Jesus was very careful to specifically identify those who are his brethren. First, consider whether he identified himself categorically with "the poor." He did not, as is evident from his response to the indignant disciples who grumbled at the woman who anointed his head with the expensive ointment, saying, "Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor." Jesus responded,
Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me (Matthew 26:6-13).Jesus carefully distinguished himself from "the poor." Were he to identify himself categorically with the poor, he would surely not have responded in this fashion. We should note that the poor in this story are in exactly the same position as the needy persons in the account of the last judgment; that is, they are fit objects of charity, and if Jesus were identifying himself with the poor at the last judgment, we would expect him to do so here if he were consistent. But no, he makes a careful distinction!
Who, then, are the hungry, thirsty, naked, strange, sick and imprisoned individuals whom he calls his brethren and with whom he identifies himself? He provided this identification when his mother and her other sons came to inquire of him and he said,
"Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And then he stretched out his hand toward his disciples and 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 (Matthew 12:46-50)."This is really all we need to know; those hungry, thirsty, naked, strange, sick, and imprisoned individuals are not the poor of this world. They are
These, again, are his disciples, specifically so identified at the close of his commissioning of the twelve to go out and preach the kingdom in the cities and villages if Israel:
He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward (Matthew 10:40-42).Not only do we see with whom the King identifies himself, but we see also the same criteria as set forth at the last judgment, where "I was thirsty, and you gave me drink." Then, yet something else most remarkable: when one ministers to a disciple because he is a disciple one qualifies for the reward of a disciple, so that in the last judgment there will be no distinction between the disciples and those who ministered to their needs because they were disciples. Note carefully: one qualifies to inherit the kingdom at the last judgment not by ministering to the poor because they are needy, but by ministering to the disciples when they are in need because they are disciples.
Now, by examining the entire context of Jesus' commissioning of the Twelve to go out and preach in the cities and villages of Israel we will discover yet more light. He sent them out saying:
Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, not a staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matthew 10:9-15).Think about it. When a disciple enters a new town or village, he comes in as a stranger. The question arises, Will they receive him and hear his words? Remember, he has no clothing, no money to buy food, no shoes, only one tunic and no shelter. In other words, he is poor. He may be ill and is definitely hungry and thirsty. His one tunic may be in rags so that he is nearly naked. And for all he knows, the people of this town may throw him in prison. It is whoever takes in this stranger who will share the reward of this disciple, this prophet, this righteous man; it is whoever gives to this stranger bread to eat, or even a cup of cold water to drink, who will in no wise lose his reward. It is the one who comes to see him when he is ill, or who visits him when the authorities have cast him into prison, who is so intimately identified with the disciple that he shares in the reward of the disciple at the last judgment. And it is only his disciples, those who do the will of the Father, with whom Jesus intimately identifies himself. Also, whoever ministers to the needs of a disciple, because he is a disciple, is at the same time ministering to the need of Jesus himself, just as though it were Jesus himself, because in a profound way, it is.
Furthermore, Jesus does not expect, or lead the disciples to expect,
persons will minister to their needs. I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.
(Remember, it is the sheep who are rewarded at the last judgment.)
"Men . . . will deliver you up to councils, flog you in their synagogues . . . you will be dragged before governors and kings (and thus imprisoned) . . . and you will be hated by all for my name's sake . . . when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . so everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven (the sheep); but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven (the goats).We are identified with Jesus only when we are his true disciples, bearing his words out into the cities and villages of this world, or when we take in those true disciples and thus become his sheep at the last judgment. And there is no difference between those who proclaim the word (the disciples) and those who feed, cloth, and shelter them, for the latter share equally in the rewards of the former. This was the case when he commissioned the Twelve, and as we read in Luke, it was also the case when he commissioned the Seventy.
The same pattern holds in both cases. I think also that we can say it holds as well for all disciples throughout the ages who, receiving the Great Commission, go out to all nations to preach the kingdom and with whom Jesus is intimately identified, having said,
Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age (Matthew 28:20).This is a pattern, then, that prevails always and in all places till the close of the age, and so it must prevail today. Jesus sends us out, as he sent out the Twelve and later the Seventy, to proclaim the Word to all nations and the same rule, the same pattern, the same identifications and the same reward prevails till the close of the age. Then, when he comes with all the holy angels, he will, as he said, gather all nations and sort them. Those who are disciples, or who have ministered to the needy disciples (there is no difference, for the reward is the same), will be placed on his right hand with the sheep and will be among his sheep and receive the rewards of the sheep. But those who are not disciples, and who have refused to minister to the disciples, will be placed at this left hand with the goats.
Koester makes one valid point when he begins to discuss the identity of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment:
"If we who have committed ourselves to Jesus as our personal savior expect that we will be judged worthy of the kingdom, we will be in for a big surprise."I have already carefully identified the sheep as being the disciples together with all who have ministered to the needs of the disciples so as to share in the reward of a disciple, and I have great concern that most of those who "have committed themselves to Jesus as their personal savior" fall far short of the qualifications of a disciple. Jesus was most careful to provide a list of qualifications, which is found in its most concise form in Luke:
Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:25-33).Do you see the problem? I am forbidden to judge another individual, but I know of no one and no church whose members take these qualifications seriously and honestly attempt to conform so as truly to become disciples. Nevertheless, we have the words of Jesus to the effect that only his disciples, and those who minister to the needs of disciples, will be counted with the sheep, whereas all else will be counted with the goats. The goats will surely constitute a great and innumerable host, whereas the sheep will be few. This, of course, is precisely what Jesus once said when he was pointedly asked, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" His answer, from Matthew:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7:13,14).There are only two classifications on that day, no more -- the sheep and the goats. Anything that might have distinguished a disciple from anyone who was not a disciple but only fed and gave drink to a disciple disappears and they are all alike sheep, all alike blessed, all alike identified with each other and with Jesus. When they, on that day, ask the King (Jesus), "When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?" His answer, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me, reflects directly back on to themselves, that is, on to these. And when he responds to the goats, Inasmuch as you did it not unto one of the least of these, he again refers back to that little flock to his right that has already been confirmed.
What a radical dualism that allows for no third category at the last judgment! One would think that there should be at least a third – persons who maybe never heard of Jesus, and perhaps a fourth and a fifth – persons who were not very fruitful, or who were not among the sheep but who didn't do anything much to oppose or hurt him, who were not really all that evil. I don't mean to infer that there are no degrees of reward of punishment, for Jesus elsewhere specifies that such do exist. But the degrees of reward are all among the sheep, of punishment among the goats, and at the bottom line there is only sheep and goats, reward and punishment, blessed and accursed, and nothing else matters. But what is the bottom line sin of every goat? Not murders and adulteries; not lies and cursings; not thefts and treasons; not violence and destruction; not treason and deceit. No, it is simply closing the door on a stranger who is a disciple. That alone is what separates the blessing from the curse, and there is no in between. Notice please that all this has absolutely no reference to humanitarian benevolence.
We should not be surprised at Jesus' radical segregation of the people of all nations into only two groups, for he clearly ruled out any other possibility. He did this, first, by announcing to the disciples that
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters (Matthew 12:30).This is clear enough, but to avoid any excuse for misunderstanding, he turned it around and said also, He that is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40). If we think about it a little, we will realize that this can only be the case if the message and ministry of Jesus, and of his disciples, is such as to be extremely offensive to everyone who cannot receive it -- so offensive as to elicit hatred and persecution, and to obviate any assistance to the disciples by anyone who is not positively committed to their cause. Thus, when entering as a stranger into a village and proclaiming the words given to them by Jesus, a disciple will offend nearly everyone. You will, Jesus told them, be hated by all for my name's sake. The hatred will be so intense that any exceptional person who is not offended by the words of the disciples will have to think twice before doing anything to assist them, such as receiving them into his house, or feeding them, or giving them a cup of cold water for their thirst, or visiting them in the jail when the multitudes have thrown them in prison because of the inflammatory nature of their message, for to do so will be to identify with them and to share the brunt of the hatred of his neighbors. This exceptional person will almost certainly be abused even more intensely than the disciples because, as one of their own, he will be classified as a traitor who has given aid and encouragement to the enemy. The disciples came in as strangers, but "this fellow is one of us who should certainly know better!"
I conceive that there may be a few persons in such a village who would like to take in these strangers with their inflammatory message, but who do not because they count the cost in terms of lost friends, lost business, persecution by neighbors, upsetting of the family, loss of property, and even of life, and decide that, as much as they would like to help, they just cannot do so. Thus, they too, seeing Jesus hungry (in the person of his disciples) and do not feed him, thirsty and do not give him drink, naked and do not cloth him, a stranger and do not receive him into their homes, sick or in prison and do not visit him – they too must take their eternal places among the goats on that day. Just as one receives the reward of a disciple if he ministers to a disciple, so also shall one who does not minister to the disciple for whatever reason receives the punishment of those who actively persecute the disciples, cast them out, do not receive them, stone them, imprison them, for, as Jesus said, He who does not gather with me scatters.
When anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, Jesus said, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on that day than for them (Matthew 10:14,15).Of course, this is exactly what Jesus is describing in detail in the depiction of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25.
The poor have no option on righteousness, and to suppose that they merit eternal life and the inheritance of the kingdom simply because they are poor, or that they are identified with Jesus simply because they are poor, or are to be counted as his brothers and sisters simply because they are poor is the utmost folly. The same is true for persons who are ill, or are imprisoned for crimes committed. It all becomes totally irrational when we add, in addition, that Jesus so intimately identifies himself with the sheep at the last judgment as to call them "my brethren" and to specify that anything done to them is the same, the very same, as if it had been done to him personally, because it was done to him personally.
To imply, as Helmut Koester does, that AIDS patients, illegal immigrants and homeless persons are to be automatically identified with Jesus as his brethren, and as representative of his person, and as qualified for eternal life and the inheritance of the kingdom is so senseless as to be laughable if it weren't so very serious, if so very many people were not in agreement. What is really a matter of great concern is that Jesus has made his own identification of these parties very explicit in Matthew 10, and Koester and others simply choose to ignore him – because Jesus also informed us of the destiny of those who do not receive him and his words:
Whosoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this sinful and adulterous generation, of him shall the son of man be ashamed when he comes . . . with all the holy angels (Mark 8:38).Jesus mentioned the last judgment many times in the course of his preaching the word, the very word throughout his ministry. In almost every case, the basis of the separation of the blessed and the cursed devolves to the very same foundation. The following passage is a good illustration:
Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:33-37)In Mark 8:38 above, it was . . . whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the son of man be ashamed . . . ; in Matthew 10, it was . . . if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words . . ., that is, the words of the disciples. The Great Offense to the world is the words, the very words that Jesus uttered in the world. This is the bottom line of the last judgment: can we receive those words and those who utter them, as Jesus uttered them in the days of his flesh? Can we bear witness to them so that they also become our words, and so also that we can be classified among the sheep? Remember how he characterized the sheep?
My sheep hear my voice, and they follow me (John 10:3,27).It is only when his words become our words that he identifies with us, and identifies us with himself. The great malady of Christendom is that church men and women are too busy listening to the words of Paul, and of their pastor and other church leaders, who are also too busy listening to the words Paul and to such men as Helmut Koester, to pay much attention to the words, the very words, of Jesus.
Men and women of the villages of Israel did not receive the disciples
because they did not like their words; they would not feed them or give
them drink because they hated the message; they cared not that they were
ill, and often cast them in prison because they hated their message. Hungry?
They fed them not. Thirsty? They gave them not so much as a drop of cold
water. A stranger? They did not receive them. Sick? In prison? They did
not visit them. Naked? They did not clothe them. That was long ago, but