Bart Eherman, in his lecture series on the New Testament, uses this passage to represent his vision of the historical Jesus. Although this passage is only found in one source, he says, it is likely to be Jesus because it is so unlike the early church. While I might disagree as to the nature of the early church with Professor Eherman, this passage certainly represents the message and actions of Jesus in the book of Matthew.
And Jesus is not the church of the fourth or twenty-first centuries. Jesus has a distinct theology and practice that does not reflect the church (at large) at any point since the second century. This passage discusses the unique viewpoint of Jesus, which has challenged the church all these millenia. This Jesus is not foreign to us, but as we delve deeper into this passage, we find that this is not the Jesus we worship or follow.
1. The Son of Man
Jesus is the Son of Man, the fulfillment of Daniel 7:13, where “one like a son of man” comes from heaven to rule the earth. This is the culmination of Jesus’ “kingdom of God”. This is confirmed in Matthew in Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin in chapter 26.
2. Heaven is a Place on Earth
It is commonly assumed that the hope of the Christian is in heaven, but in the NT, the hope is actually a utopia on earth, collecting the merciful both living and dead, giving them a chance to establish a kingdom of justice in a way they never had before.
3. Not just believers or Israelites
The kingdom is open not just to Israel, nor to a group of believers but to all the “nations” or “gentiles.” This opportunity to enter the kingdom, or test for those already on the land, is not limited to a certain group, but open to all people on earth.
4. Population Divided
Everyone on earth is divided into those who are welcomed into the kingdom and those who are exiled from the kingdom. This is also reflected in the parable of the drag net in Matthew 13:47-50 and the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13:24-30. Matthew, John and Revelation make a clear divide of two distinct groups in the final judgement. This is also implied in Luke’s version of the beatitudes.
5. Not a parable
This passage is a final judgment description. Other passages in Matthew describe the judgment in parables (The following parables: tares, dragnet, good and faithless servants, ten virgins, talents) , but this final portion of Jesus fifth and last sermon in Matthew is a straightforward description. There is an allegory in the midst of this description (sheep and goats divided by a farmer), but this is a not a full parable, it is intended to be read straightforwardly.
6. Good and Bad
There are two actions being determined: who is good or bad, and who will establish the utopia with the spiritual King.
7. Not faith, action
The actions judged are not strictly those of faith. There are no indications of belonging to a certain religion, adherence to a certain doctrine, or obedience to a certain priestly class. Thus people of any religion or non-religion are potentially accepted and people of orthodox belief can (and will) be rejected. Jesus indicates this in Matthew 8:11-12.
8. Salvation by Charity
One’s acceptance or rejection to the utopia is indicated by practical acts of mercy to those in desperate need. Specifically, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, housing the wanderer, visiting those sick and in prison. These are not a complete list, nor are they always as essential in certain societies. As Jesus often does, they are general examples of acts of mercy, all of which would be praiseworthy. Other acts of mercy might be, giving shoes and socks to those without, giving warmth to the cold, providing cleaning to the dirty, giving work for pay, etc. The fact that the list of merciful acts is repeated three times indicates it’s importance.
9. Who are the brothers?
“My brothers” is a phrase used only of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew (Matthew 12:48-49). Specifically, they are the disciples sent out in Matthew 10. Jesus summarizes this whole pattern at the end of chapter 10 (40-42), where those who accept his disciples accepts him and even if all they do is give a cup of water to one of his disciples will not lose his reward.
A common Catholic teaching of this passage, popularized by Mother Teresa, claims that Jesus “brothers” are all the poor. I think that more likely anyone of the poor could be one of the brothers, but aren’t necessarily. Jesus sends out certain people to take on the role of the stranger, the immigrant, the hopeless in order to test individuals and cities. Not everyone who is poor is a brother, but we don’t know who is who until the end.
10. Beggar's evangelism
This all indicates the nature of the evangelism pattern Jesus has his disciples go through. They are to look homeless, like wanderers or immigrants from place to place. They are to give the extra indication that they represent God by their healings, exorcisms and preaching of the kingdom. The towns that accepted them and gave them sustenance indicates the merciful nature of the town, even if they didn’t believe the message of the kingdom. Those towns that refused to help the disciples in their helpless state are judged eternally (Matt 10:15, 11:21).
11. Re-creating Sodom
The testing of the towns are compared to Sodom and Abraham, who had strangers sent to them. Abraham received them with generous hospitality while Sodom intended to harm them severely, indicating their attitude toward immigrants or the poor. Thus, the consistent NT support for the poor, helping strangers or immigrants. (Genesis 18, 19; Hebrews 13, Galatians 1, etc)
12. Nature of the kingdom
It is easy to consider that the purpose of the judgment is simply reward and punishment, but given the context of entrance into or exile out of the final utopia, we also need to consider that the judgment is simply an immigration exam, indicating what kind of kingdom Jesus is intending to create. A kingdom is made up of the people included. If everyone in the nation are people of mercy and kindness, that forms the identity of the kingdom at large. In this kingdom there is little need for a bureaucracy of welfare. Nor is there an economy based on selfishness. Rather, it is run almost completely on the generosity of its citizens.
The punishment of the stingy isn’t just exile from the kingdom, but entrance into another realm: eternal fire. This fire was prepared at the beginning for rebellious angels (messengers) and the devil. It is considered appropriate that the servants of the devil also enter into this realm of punishment. It is to be noted that it is the “fire” that is eternal, the realm, not the people within it. Is the fire a symbol of torment (like Luke 16?) or a symbol of destruction? In Matt 13 there is the Markan phrase, “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, which indicates torment. But how long? Is the torment eternal or just the place?
14. Ignorance of the judged
Both the sheep and the goats express their ignorance of the one they call “Lord”. On the one hand, they are abashed at the fact that the King declares that they have met, when they clearly haven’t. But a Christian would recognize that Jesus didn’t mean that they had literally met face to face. Perhaps they would have considered that they had met through the Spirit, but the phrase “you fed me” wouldn’t disturb them. This seems to indicate that the masses aren’t people who have knowledge of Jesus’ teaching, for the most part. They are probably assumed to be pagans or people unfamiliar with the gospel. Again, this indicates that welcome into the kingdom doesn’t require knowledge of the gospel, but doing acts of mercy to those in need, whoever they be.
Jesus' final story affirms what has been said throughout Matthew: that Jesus is looking for those who help people in need to fill his nation. Evangelism is simply a test to see who is already on board with this kind of gospel and the final judgment makes a determination as to who is actively generous and who is stingy. The stingy are aligned with the devil, and so punished like him. The kingdom of God is on earth, full of people who create their own economy of charity.