Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Sheep, The Goats and the Least of These

An Unconventional Look at

The "Parable" of the Sheep and the Goats  

There have been times when I have sat in church on a Sunday morning and thought "That cannot be what the passage is about." There are passages in the Bible that are, on the surface, confounding. Taken alone, without considering the context, they seem to contradict orthodox Christian doctrine. Reckless, isolated or agenda-driven interpretation leave people confused about the nature of God and man. Well-meaning teachers grasp at straws to rectify what may seem to be contradictions. One of those passages is found in Matthew 25. In verses 31-46 Jesus describes the judgment rendered to the nations by the Son of Man. I believe this is the most misinterpreted and misunderstood passage in God's Word.

Over the years, I have heard many interpretations of the so-called Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.  It is often called this even though it is not a parable. A parable, the way Jesus used parables, is a comparison of two common things used to make a spiritual point. Jesus uses a simile (sheep and goats being separated by a shepherd) to describe the scene of judgment but the passage is describing a future event. It is prophecy.

In the passage, The Son of Man is described as sitting on His throne in judgment. He divides the nations, welcoming some into the kingdom and sending some away into eternal damnation.

The Passage

31“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.  

32“All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;  

33and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. 

34“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  

35‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;  

36naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’  

37“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?  

38‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?  

39‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’  

40“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ 

41“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;  

42for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink;  

43I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’  

44“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’  

45“Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’  

46“These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  

Method and Standards  

I believe it is imperative that we study God’s Word bound by three principles. First, the best commentary on God’s Word is God’s Word. There are many helpful resources such as commentaries, dictionaries, lexicons and others. However, it is entirely possible and appropriate to study God’s Word using only God’s Word. This requires an accurate translation and some are more accurate than others. Among the Bible translations currently in production, the New American Standard and English Standard Version are probably the most reliable. 

Secondly, the most important factor in Bible interpretation is context.  We must never simply take lines of scripture in isolation. Doing so will lead to, at best, shallow, and at worst, heretical conclusions. We must recognize that the correct interpretation of any passage will agree with the message and meaning of the rest of the book in question as well as the overarching message of the bible as a whole; that being the reconciliation of man to God by means of Christ’s substitution for us on the Cross; and His resurrection.  God’s Word is clear: 2Pe 1:19-21  19"So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. 20But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." 

The phrase, "One's own interpretation" includes ancient words translated into English phrases. There are many English phrases that would be better translated more literally. An example is Luke 2:14. The angels declare to the shepherds, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." This is often assumed to be referring to the kind of world peace that is wished for by beauty pageant contestants. This would mean peace among men. A better translation of the original language is, "Peace toward men on whom God has shown favor." In other words, peace between God and those he chooses to favor.

Finally, we must read each book and passage of the Bible as it was intended by the author. We must recognize when Christ is using metaphor, analogy, idioms or sarcasm and when He is intending His words to be taken literally.  

Conventional Wisdom  

For as long as I have been a student of God's Word, it has seemed to me that conventional teaching on this passage has been short sighted. The interpretation I have heard most often and the one I believed (for lack of a better option) is that the sheep enter the kingdom because of their right response to God. The evidence for this right response is their treatment of "the least of these."
In other words, the good works of the sheep toward the least are evidence of their salvation. The question then is: just who are the least of these?

The least, according to some, are followers of Christ who are in need. The Goats apparently did not commit similar acts of charity and were not aware that the Lord was watching them the entire time. Many times, I have heard Christians say, "Make sure you are charitable to people. You never know when the person on the receiving end will really be Jesus." The more I examine this passage, the further I move away from that view.
There is also the idea that the least are ministers of the Gospel. Some teachers have said that the sheep and goats are being judged on the basis of their treatment of Christian ministers. The idea is that a Christian will welcome and care for a Christian minister and a lost person will demonstrate their lostness by not doing so. In this interpretation, charity is still the evidence.
Some see Matt 25: 31-46 in a political light. They claim Christ is talking about the pursuit of “social justice” and freeing the oppressed. Those who hold to a social gospel, in which people are saved by their works, consider The Sheep and the Goats to be foundational. In their view, the sheep are people who have been charitable to the poor. The goats are the people of material means who have been stingy and selfish, keeping their riches for themselves.
Matthew 25: 31-46 has even been used to justify a socialist political agenda. Some evangelical leaders (this is one reason why I do not self-identify as evangelical) have advocated for higher taxes on the wealthy in order to redistribute wealth through the many avenues of the government welfare system.

 In all of the conventional interpretations the passage is thought to focus on the charitable works of the people being judged.
I have come to the conclusion that this passage has nothing to do with good works, charity or evidence of salvation. I have come to this conclusion, in part, because our world is full of good-deed-doers who don't know Christ. The Gospels are full of these people as well. Good works may be a sign of self-deception as easily as they may be an evidence of salvation. A reading of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) makes it clear that the Pharisee believed he was justified by his charity. That kind of self-deception is the issue at the center of the judgment of the sheep and goats.
In order for the conventional interpretations to be true, we must ignore verse 34. The Kingdom has been prepared for believers since the foundation of the world. Since before time began, Christ has known who would be entering and who would be denied. He chooses those whom he will choose. He does not require evidence and He does not need to convince us of anything. Score one for God's sovereignty and predestination. 

We must also ignore passages in which Christ is asked directly about the standard for salvation and the work of God. In john 6:28, 29, Jesus is asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of god?” He answers, “The work of God is to believe in the one whom he has sent.” 

For us to interpret that the least of these are the materially poor and socially oppressed requires us to come to the conclusion that God maintains a three-tiered class system. In this system, there are sheep and there are goats and then there is that underclass, the least of these. And that underclass is doomed in their life on Earth to always and forever be that underclass. It is as if these poor people are a prop in the theater of our lives. That cannot be. God is no respecter of persons.
The view that the least of these are the materially poor and the sheep to be those who have been charitable to them also promotes a subtle brand of self-righteousness. Those among us who declare themselves sheep by this standard consider themselves the great benefactors to the perpetually helpless. It is an elitist approach.
We know from God's Word that He does not maintain a multi-tiered class system. The sheep and goats are not divided top to bottom but rather from left to right. In God's economy, there are two groups of people. Those he welcomes and those sent away. That is all. I am sure most people imagine this scene, taking place in some kind of great throne room. The son Of Man sits on His throne. Humanity stands before him in two groups to his right and left. The least of these, by necessity, must come from within that multitude.  

The Problem  

The reason why Christ isn't really talking about charity is simple. That interpretation is inconsistent with the context and message of the chapter as well as the Gospel of Matthew and the overarching message of the Bible as a whole.

Before studying this passage, one must read all of Matthew. If Christ wanted to tell us that our salvation was riding on our charity, or if He wanted to make it clear that eradicating poverty was his personal mission, or if He even wanted to make it clear that charity was what He required of His followers, He had opportunities to make that clear. In Matthew 11, we read:
2 Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples
3and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?”
4Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and report to John what you hear and see.
5 the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 
6“And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
It makes sense on the surface that the blind receive sight and the lame walk. Those would seem to be their greatest physical needs. But wouldn't the poor need to be fed or given clothes or a roof over their heads? This would have been an opportunity for Jesus to say that the poor were being showered with charity. But that is not what he said at all. He said the poor were having the Gospel preached to them.

At other times Jesus used the words poor, blind, lame, sick (lepers) and dead to refer to people's spiritual condition.  With regard to what Jesus means when he actually uses the word poor, Jesus preached in the synagogue before he ever started teaching in parables, and he quoted Isaiah 61. The passage reads:
18The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.
Allow me to quote from a transcript of a sermon by John MacArthur:     “ is a word that enriches our understanding greatly; it is the word ptochos, p-t-o-c-h-o-s if you transliterate it, ptochos. It is from a verb that means, “to cringe” quite interestingly, or a verb which means “to shrink back,” or “to cower.” It conveys the idea of a beggar; it is the word that refers to a beggar, someone who cringes in the shadows. Classical Greek used the word to refer to a person in total destitution who crouched somewhere in a corner begging. And in classical Greek the image was that one hand went out and the other hand went over the face to hide identity. This was so shameful. Here was a person who had reached the point of abject destitution. Here is a point where there is utter and total bankruptcy of all resources…It is not the ordinary word for poor. The ordinary word for poor, penichros, means somebody who has very little.”
An example of the use of the word ptochos is in the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5: 3. Jesus says, “Blessed are the [ptochos] in spirit…” From this we see that before Christ ever began teaching in riddles, he declared that his mission was to the poor in spirit, those oppressed by sin.

At the beginning of Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus with the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” This was a question the Lord had to answer more than once. Jesus does not say the greatest in the kingdom is the one who was the most charitable to the poor nor does he say the greatest is the one who treats followers of Jesus with kindness. He calls a child to come to him and says,
“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
When Christ had other opportunities to declare good works, charity or the keeping of the Law a factor in our salvation, He confounded his audience. In chapter 6, Christ says:

6:1"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 

      6:2  "Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 

Here, Jesus treats giving to the needy as a foregone conclusion. Of course people will give to the needy. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that hypocrites, as well as the righteous, will engage in acts of charity. Jesus focuses on the motivation of the giver. 

Likewise in Chapter 23, Christ speaks in the temple. He warns His disciples about the Scribes and Pharisees. He says of them: 

5 "They do their deeds to be honored by men...

6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the temple 

7 and respectful greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by men...

11 But the greatest among you shall be your servant...

12 Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted"

Consistent Language 

In order for us to conclude that the passage is about charity and evidence of salvation in our works, we must read the passage differently from the way in which we have been reading the immediately preceding passages and the entire Gospel of Matthew. 

Chapter 24 begins what is known as the Olivet Discourse. Chapter 25 is a continuation. Christ is speaking to the disciples as he sits on the Mount of Olives. This occurs after he and His disciples have left the temple, where Christ was teaching.  

In Matthew 24 and 25, Christ is responding to the disciples’ question, "Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (24:3) His response includes the Parable of the Fig Tree, the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the Parable of the Talents, leading to the description of the judgment by the Son of Man. In this passage and prior, Christ teaches in parable, analogy, allegory and metaphor. In fact, 13:43, in the midst of describing a series of parables Christ was teaching says, “All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.”  

He said nothing to them without a parable. With that in mind, let us examine the statements Jesus makes in 25:31-43 against the kind of statements he makes in the passages in which He uses similar language. 

'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat;

Compare that to the statements Jesus made to His disciples in Matthew 16: 

7 And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, "We brought no bread."

8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, "O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?  

9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 

10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 

11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees."  

12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, 'HE GAVE THEM BREAD OUT OF HEAVEN TO EAT.'"  

32Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.  

33"For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world."  

34Then they said to Him, "Lord, always give us this bread."  

35Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.

Compare I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink…

"And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward."

10Jesus answered and said to her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."

“…and he who believes in Me will never thirst.”

Compare “I was a stranger, and you invited Me in…”

“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks.

25"Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, 'Lord, open up to us!' then He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know where you are from.'

20'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”

Compare “naked, and you clothed Me…”

"And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."

Compare “I was sick, and you visited Me…”

" It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Compare “I was in prison, and you came to Me…”

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed”

All of this leads me to believe that it is not reasonable to say that Christ is suddenly switching to a literal mode in Matt 25:31. Our Lord, Jesus Christ spent an awful lot of time speaking figuratively for us to come to the conclusion that He, all of a sudden, decided to really talk about food and clothing. Christ is not telling us to prove our faith by being charitable any more than he is really talking about a wedding party or sowing seeds in the previous verses. He is using language consistent with what he has been saying all through the Gospel of Matthew. 

This brings us back to the question to be answered: By what standard is Christ judging? My concern is particularly with vs. 35-45.  

Ah, Hah! 

Our lives are full of those ‘ah ha!’ moments when the light bulb suddenly clicks. The Christian is saved at the ultimate ‘ah ha!’ moment when he/she finally owns his/her sin. We who know the Lord are allowed those ‘a ha!’ moments, to one degree or another, every so often as our lives move toward eternity. The Sheep and the Goats is a picture of the final ‘ah ha!’ moment. This is the moment when the Lord either welcomes you in, or not. Like many other parables and allegories, this is a picture of true and false converts. 

There were particular people who encountered Jesus and had their Aha! moment. And when they did, Jesus essentially said, "This person gets it." One was the centurion described in Matthew 8:

 5 And when [a]Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him,

 and saying, “[b]Lord, my [c]servant is [d]lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented.”

7 Jesus *said to him, “I will come and heal him.”

But the centurion said,"Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just [f]say the word, and my [g]servant will be healed.

For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

10 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel."

Another is the Canaanite woman described in Matthew 15:

22And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”  

23But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.”  

24\But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  

25But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”  

26And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  

27But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  

28Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once. 

Obviously, these two very different people from very different backgrounds have one thing in common. They both declared themselves unworthy to be even in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus does not say anything about their good works or acts of charity. It is their humiliated repentant hearts that signify their faith.

In Jesus's narrative, after the Son of man has spoken to the goats they respond to Him:

44 "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'

The Goats are standing before the Lord and they don't get it. They stand before the Lord presenting their good works, their charitable gifts, and their hospitality towards others. When the Lord says, "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to drink..." the goats reply, "Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?” They say this not because they had neglected some poor person who was really Christ in disguise, but because they HAD been feeding people and doing other good works and they are asking the Lord, "What, didn't you see us feeding people and meeting their felt needs?! How could you possibly miss our righteousness?”

I think if the goats were to expand on their response, they would sound just like the Pharisee standing next to the tax gatherer (Luke 18:9-14). "I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I gain." They might also sound just like the brother of the Prodigal Son, who thought his own legalistic approach would assure his place with his father.  

The bottom line is that the goats will one day stand before God, cloaked in their human righteousness, and say, "Lord, we ran a food and clothing pantry at church. We bought a homeless person a super- sized Big Mac meal. For crying out loud Lord, we drove hybrids! How can you possibly miss our righteousness?!” 

By the time Jesus shares the prophecy of the sheep and the goats, He has already spent a great deal of time talking about true and false converts and the self-deceived. The goats are those to whom Jesus referred when he said…"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.”

22"Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'

23"And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” 

The Lord is reiterating in Matthew 25 what he has been saying all along.

The sheep don’t immediately get it either. It is an ironic paradox that their assessment of themselves leaves them convinced of their unworthiness. Yet, that very attitude is what makes them acceptable to God. 

Who Are The Least of These?

If we conclude that Christ is speaking allegorically, we must ask again the question: Who are the least of these? If Christ is not talking about physical charity or social justice, then He also is not speaking of the materially poor and socially oppressed when He speaks of the least of these.

Ray Comfort, in the Way of the Master series, said more often, that God gives the Law to the proud and grace to the humble. We see this repeatedly in the Scripture. Jesus said the last shall be first. He said: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn (over their sin). All of these phrases are speaking of people who have realized their helplessness and hopelessness. From one perspective, the sheep consider themselves to be the least, the lowest. They are not just humble. They are humiliated in spirit. If we who are believers want to see who Jesus means when He refers to the least of these, perhaps  all we have to do is look in the mirror.

Sheep and Goats

Sheep are generally timid scared creatures who will stray but are easily corralled. They rely totally on the shepherd. Goats, on the other hand, are rather obstinate, stubborn animals who take what they want. My neighbor has a goat. It has a habit of straying into our yard. Once, I found it on top of our car. When I have led the goat back to its home, it has often reared up on its hind legs attempting to resist my help. Sheep don't do that.

The passage says nothing about whether the sheep and goats are standing. I imagine that while the goats are standing upright to the Lord’s left, the sheep are to His right, on their faces. If there is one thing of which we who believe will be excruciatingly aware when the Son of Man comes, it will be our own unworthiness to even be in His presence at all. 

When he encountered the Lord, Isaiah said, ""Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." No one stands upright before the Lord.  

When the Lord says, “Come ye, blessed of my Father…” the sheep will dare to raise up their heads and say, “Who, me? Us?” The sheep have not declared themselves to be sheep. They are amazed that God would declare them so. Why has he declared the sheep to be the sheep? BECAUSE THEY HAVE DECLARED THEMSELVES TO BE THE LEAST OF THESE.

Examples of Sheep

Some examples of the least of these elsewhere in the Gospels would be the tax gatherer on his face next to the Pharisee: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Or the Prodigal Son when he returns: “I have sinned against heaven and before thee I am not now worthy to be called thy son.” The harlot who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears and hair is another example. The Canaanite woman of Matthew 15: 21-28 who, when Jesus said, “It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She said “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.

There are others. What they all have in common is that they have realized their brokenness, their hopelessness, their helplessness. Jesus never condemned anyone who came to him humble and poor in spirit. He only condemned those who were satisfied in themselves. 

The goats, on the other hand, look away from themselves to find the least of these. It couldn't possibly be themselves. The Goats are replying to the Son of Man, not with regret or amazement or wonder or even curiosity. Like the unrepentant thief on the cross, the goats are angry. They are replying with contempt for God and His standard.

We see this dichotomy between the proud and the humble pictured all the way back in Genesis. Cain presents to God an unacceptable sacrifice. Abel presents a blood sacrifice acceptable to God. The sacrifices are representative of their attitudes toward God. Cain is so angry, at God's rejection, he murders his brother. God maintains his standard from the beginning of scripture to the end.

Hunger, Thirst, Nakedness, Sin

Once we conclude that Christ was speaking allegorically rather than literally, we must come to an understanding of the statement, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, thirsty and you gave me something to drink…” In each of the examples, what is happening is that the sheep have brought to the Lord exactly what He requires. He might have said, "If I were hungry, would you bring me a stone? If I were thirsty, would you bring me a cup of sand?" Hunger, thirst and nakedness are severe, acute conditions which require specific remedies. So does sin. 

The Lord is expressing to the sheep that they have brought him exactly what He requires, a broken and contrite heart.  

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51)

The King is expressing to the goats that they have not brought Him what He requires.

The Key to My Thesis  

This leaves us with the dilemma of what to do with vs. 40 and 45. They are translated: 

40"The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

45"Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'

The key to these verses is found in one greek word.  

 poieo (English spelling), poy-eh'-o,  ποιέω  

This has been conventionally translated, in verses 40 and 45, as to do, i.e. to do something to or for someone. That is not necessarily the meaning of the word. The word appears 563 times in New Testament with 96 different meanings. It is translated “do” as in, do to or for someone, 170 times. The rest of the time it is translated many different ways but with a similar theme.   

Poieo may be translated "to put forth," "to produce," "to make," or "to render," "to fulfill" “to make something into something” “to fashion” and "to present." It is a very common word in the New Testament and is translated to mean all of those other words in different places. 

With the acknowledgement that I am not a Greek language scholar, I believe a better translation of verse 40 would look something like the following expanded paraphrase. 

To the extent that you, like these brethren of mine, have presented yourself to me as the least among them, the lowest, a helpless, hopeless sinner, you have presented yourself to me in the acceptable manner.  

In the story of the Prodigal Son, the son finally comes to his senses and decides to approach his father and say "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men."' The son presents himself to his father as lower than his father's servants. The father doesn't even wait for the son to reach him before he runs to the son and embraces him. 

Final Answer? 

If Paul called himself the "chief of sinners," where does that leave the rest of us? The question is: How will you present yourself to the Lord? You are a thief on the cross, but which one? When your time comes, will you present yourself and your good deeds to God or will you fall on your face and declare yourself the least of these?

1 comment:

Johnny said...

We'll that sure takes the beauty out of the passage. Jesus isn't actually interested in his followers serving the poor and oppressed, unless their suffering is only over their sin? While I think poverty and oppression need nuanced definitions that speak more broadly of darkness and not just of material poverty, I think your definition of sin is awful abstract and mystical. Isaiah 58? I'm not talking about being trendy and holding up social justice as a banner, I'm talking about really serving those who suffer. Then your light will shine like the noonday sun.