A final parable from the book of origins: on sheep and goats, on judgement and righteous-justice (Matt 25)

This Sunday, we are approaching the end of Year A, the year when we have been tracing the story of Jesus was it is reported in the book of origins, the Gospel we attribute to Matthew.

During the month of November, we have heard a series of parables–stories which Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven. Just in case the disciples didn’t actually get the message about what it will take to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus uses this string of parables to end this last section of his last long teaching block, as we have it reported in the book of origins.

After launching in to a dramatic depiction of the coming times—wars and famines, etc—Jesus tells four stories, one after another, each ending with an admonition to be alert, be prepared; each one ending with a dire warning about what will happen to those who are not adequately prepared. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

A story about an unprepared slave (24:45-51) ends: “He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (24:51). To conclude the story of the ten virgins, some prepared, others unprepared (25:1-13), the final words of Jesus to those unprepared are, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (25:13).

At the end of the story of the talents given to various slaves (25:14-30), Jesus concludes, “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (25:29-30).

And towards the end of the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46), Jesus says, “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (25:41), and he concludes that “these will go away into eternal punishment” (25:46).

All of these dire warnings are consistent with the teachings of the Matthean Jesus, who warns about “weeping and gnashing of teeth” when he tells a story about weeds sown in a field amongst the wheat (13:42), another story about good bad fish caught in the same net (13:49), and a later story about a man who attended a wedding banquet with inappropriate dress (22:14). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/06/darkness-weeping-and-gnashing-of-teeth-the-scene-of-judgement-matt-22/

This is the same Matthean Jesus who also predicts that evildoers (a better translation would be, “those who do not live by the Law”) will be “thrown into outer darkness” (8:12), as will the poorly-dressed man at the wedding banquet (22:13) and also the slave who buried the talents that he was given (25:30).

It is the same Matthean Jesus, in the much-loved ‘Sermon on the Mount’, who tells those who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers [lawless ones]” (7:23). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/17/the-missing-parts-of-the-sermon-on-the-mount-matt-6-and-7/

It is the same Jesus who pronounces a series of woes upon the scribes and Pharisees, accusing them of being “hypocrites” (multiple times), children of hell (23:15), blind (23:19), neglectful of the Law (23:23), self-indulgent (23:25), full of filth (23:27) and lawlessness (23:28). He ends this series of invective denunciations with the clear condemnation: “you snakes, you brood of vipers—how can you escape being sentenced to hell [Gehenna]?” (23:33). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/26/sitting-on-the-seat-of-moses-teaching-the-law-but-they-do-not-practice-what-they-teach-matt-23/

It’s a perspective that presents us with quite a challenge!

This particular Gospel highlights and intensifies the theme of judgement. Is this something that the author of the book of origins has created, as some interpreters might suggest? My sense, on the other hand, is that even though this message is very strong at so many places in this book, the author of the book of origins gets this from the historical Jesus.

In Luke 13:28, as Jesus speaks about the narrow way, he warns his followers, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers! There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.”

That saying is a doublet, found also (in a modified form) at Matt 8:11-12. It is thus part of what is known as the “Q material”—sayings of Jesus found only in Luke and Matthew, but not in Mark, and thus hypothesised to have come from an early oral collection of sayings of Jesus (called Q, after the German Quelle, meaning source).

This saying is not unique to Jesus, however. It draws on language from a number of Psalms. In Psalm 6:8, the writer cries out: depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. Psalm 9:17 declares that the wicked shall depart to Sheol, and Psalm 139:19 offers the prayer, O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and the bloodthirsty would depart from me. The command to the wicked to depart has good biblical warrant.

Likewise, the image of the wicked gnashing their teeth is found in Hebrew Scripture. In Psalm 35:16, lamenting the activities of “malicious witnesses” who attacks the Psalmist, the writer accuses them: they impiously mocked more and more, gnashing at me with their teeth. The same phrase appears in Psalm 112:10, where the psalmist declares that, in the face of the grace and justice demonstrated by “the righteous”, the wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. (There are similar descriptions of gnashing teeth at Lamentations 2:16 and Sirach 30:10.)

So Jesus stands in the tradition of the Psalms, affirming the righteous-justice exhibited by those who faithfully live by the Law, and imploring God to exercise divine justice in dealing with those who are wicked.

And alongside these Psalms, we can invoke many of the prophetic oracles, decrying the injustice and failure to live by the covenant, disregarding the commandments and statutes of the Law. Consistent with the prayers of the Psalms, the oracles of the prophets call on God to be good to God’s word and adhere to the punishments prescribed for the wicked.

Therefore, Matthew does the right and fair thing, by depicting Jesus as consistently and insistently holding the people of Israel in his time to account: live your lives in accord with righteous-justice, or be prepared to face the fate that is in store for you if you breach the covenant by ignoring the Law. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Of course, this is destabilising and disturbing for us today. Did not Jesus establish a movement founded on love and grace? (Thank you, Paul.) Did he not carry out a ministry that was invitational and attractive, calling people to the excitement of discipleship discovery? (For some, that’s a way to read Mark.)

Surely he spent his years reaching out beyond traditional barriers, offering an inclusive vision of the kingdom, throwing open the doors of welcome to all comers? (Luke, take a bow.) And was he not the very image of God, enfleshed in our lives, speaking truth and love, offering abundant life? (That’s how John portrays him.)

Yet, for Matthew, Jesus speaks truth, calls out sin, adheres to standards, advocates for a deep righteous-justice. The perceived negativity of the attack mode, the damaging denunciation of those who fall short, is harnessed in the service of advocating the positive, affirming the heart of covenant relationship with God. It is not only the teeth-gnashing, wailing, cast-out wicked ones, that are in view for Jesus.

Rather, it is the blessing that he offers to “the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives” (24:46). It is the affirmation of the wisely prepared virgins who were ready, who “went with him [the bridegroom] into the wedding banquet” (25:10). It is the slaves who made constructive use of the talents that they were given, who are commended with the words, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21, 23).

And it is in the abundant welcome offered to “the sheep”, whose good deeds lead them to be invited, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34), and who, as “the righteous”, will inevitably experience “eternal life” (25:46).

And how is it that these people “inherit the kingdom” and experience “ eternal life”? They feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison (25:35-36).

Each of these actions, of course, is carrying out a commandment of the Law. Ezekiel 18:5-9 includes amongst actions undertaken by a righteous person who “does what is lawful and right”, the fact that such a person gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment (the same phrase is repeated in a subsequent list at Ezekiel 18:16). Similar actions are noted at Job 22:7, when Eliphaz the Temanite condemns Job from Uz with you have given no water to the weary to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry.

Care for those “in bonds” is noted at Psalm 70:33 and liberty for the captives is clearly part of the mission of the one anointed by the Spirit at Isaiah 61:1. Care for the stranger and their inclusion on the festivals of Israel is exhorted in the laws set forth in Deuteronomy 10:18-19, 16:11,14, and commended in Psalm 146:9. Visiting the sick is commanded in Sirach 7:35.

A larger list of such actions is canvassed at Isaiah 58:6-7, which poses the rhetorical question from God, “is not this the fast that I choose … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”.

What “the sheep” have done, is demonstrate an unflinching commitment to the way of life enjoined by the Law. They live, breathe, and offer righteous-justice in what they do.

And the kicker in this story is that “the sheep”, those who carry out these good deeds in adherence to the Law, are not drawn entirely and exclusively from the people of Israel. They are drawn from “the nations”–a phrase that is usually translated as “the Gentiles” (τά ἔθνη is translated this way, in the NRSV, at Matt 4:15, 6:32, 10:5, 10:18, 12:18,21, 20:19,25, and most famously of all, 28:19).

In this parable, the usual biblical description of Israel as “sheep” (Psalms 78:52, 95:7, 100:3; Jer 23:1, 50:6,17; Ezek 34:1-31; Micah 2:12; Zech 10:2) is turned completely on its head. Amongst the people outside of Israel, there are many who are now “the sheep”, who follow the way of righteous-justice.

So the faithful sheep are not just those within Israel who live by the Law, they also include many Gentiles, drawn from the regions surrounding Israel. They provide encouragement, they stand as role models, they live out the faith that is required to “inherit the kingdom that is prepared … from the foundation of the world” (25:34).

And they exhibit righteous-justice, the heart of the covenant, in contrast to lives which are lived without reference to the Law. There is no justice with judgement. There is no justice without righteous deeds. And righteous deeds require fidelity to the Law. Not in Matthew’s account of Jesus, and not in Hebrew Scriptures. Righteous-justice and fiersome judgement are the two sides of the one coin. We can’t have one without the other.

Belief in Jesus, as Messiah, as the authoritative Teacher of the Law, thus requires faithfulness to the ethical demands and instructions taught by Jesus—which themselves are drawn entirely from Hebrew Scriptures. The way of Jesus, according to Matthew, is the way of righteous-justice, the way of faithfulness to Torah.

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012). I am particularly grateful to Elizabeth for the ways in which her research and our conversations over the years have deepened my understanding of Matthew’s “parable of the sheep and the goats”.