Andrew Perriman over at P.OST has been thinking about the judgement of the sheep and goats as related in Matthew 25, and he has come to an interesting conclusion — one which I share:
The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.
The implication is that at the final judgment people will be judged according to how they treated other people—“the least of these my brothers”—when they were hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or in need of hospitality. It is sometimes put forward as a biblical argument for a social justice gospel. I have some sympathy for the missional end, but not for the exegetical means.
The problem with this reading is that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel “the least of these my brothers” are clearly the disciples (cf. Matt. 10:16–42), who would face great hardship and persecution as they went about their mission in the period leading up to the Jewish War against Rome. So what is the criterion for judgment? Quite specifically, it is whether or not the nations took care of the disciples. …
When the Messiah comes, he will judge the nations not according to general ethical or religious standards but according to how they have treated Israel. Nations which have not known Israel, and more importantly have not oppressed Israel, will be spared. Those nations, however, which have ruled over Israel and trodden down the seed of Jacob—Rome at the forefront—will be given up to the sword.
As I noted, I share this conclusion. “The least of these may brothers” is typically thought to refer to the poor and needy — the people we who are followers of Jesus are supposed to help. This passage is frequently used by supporters of the social gospel as a justification. And it’s a solid interpretation from power — this is, it presumes Christians are or even should be a people in a position to help others. But I’ve grown less convinced of that. I think Jesus is speaking about his disciples — about us, the church — when he says “the least of these my brothers.”
For Perriman, this is about God’s coming judgment upon the pagan world. I don’t disagree with that, but I also see a larger horizon to this as well. The implication is clear — God will judge the world according to how it treats the church.
Again, as we find ourselves living in an increasingly hostile post-Christendom world, in which the church finds itself powerless and in exile, this is one more thing we need to remember. There will be those who are not followers of Jesus who will visit us when we are sick, or in prison (yes … prison; you ready for that?), who shared basic necessities with us. Food, clothes, water. A hostile
pagan secular world will also be full of people who will respond to us, the church, in our suffering with compassion and mercy.
God’s got this. The world, its peoples, will be judged by how they treat the church. However we might feel about the condition of the world, God has got it covered.