While numerous passages in the Bible are ambiguous in meaning and can be validly interpreted in multiple ways, certain passages are so clear one would have to try very hard to get them wrong. One of those is Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats and Christ’s judgment upon His return. The ethical imperatives that will form the basis of that judgment are the treatment of those people he regards as His “brothers”. Identifying Jesus’ brothers is the key to understanding the passage:
“‘When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vv. 37-40).
Throughout Church history the “brothers” were primarily interpreted as referring to Christ’s followers. More recently however, the modern concepts of social justice and universal brotherhood have influenced the way this text is read and most interpreters wrongly identify “brothers” as anyone who suffers hunger, thirst, etc. But that isn’t what Matthew wrote or intended.
In the Gospel of Matthew the author uses the word brother (adelphos) only one of two ways: either biologically, as in sibling, or in a spiritual sense, as a reference to Jesus’ followers as members of His family:
- Biological siblings: Matt. 1:2, 11; 4:18, 21; 10:2, 21; 12:46-47; 13:55; 14:3; 17:1; 19:29; 20:24; 22:24-25
- Spiritual siblings: Matt. 5:22-24, 47; 7:3-5; 12:48-50; 18:15, 21, 35; 23:8; 28:10
Note the similar Matthean references to Christ’s spiritual identification with His disciples in the passage where Jesus sends forth his disciples to preach the gospel:
“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (10:40).
“And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (10:42).
Suggesting that Matthew’s readers would have understood that Jesus is identifying Himself with all poor, ill, imprisoned, etc. rather than His spiritual siblings is simply not tenable. Matthew would have had to add language that would explain to his readers that Jesus was broadening this identification to include non-followers.
While there’s no consensus regarding the dating of the gospel, I’m inclined towards an earlier dating (50-70 AD) which means Matthew was likely writing during the reign of Emperor Nero, who would initiate the persecution of Christians. But even before that began, missionary work in the first-century would have been rife with dangers. Jesus will base His judgment of individuals on how they treated those who carried his message throughout the world.
Pope Francis, unsurprisingly, prefers the modern interpretation of the passage when he cites it in the following:
“Jesus, the evangelizer par excellence and the Gospel in person, identifies especially with the little ones (cf. Mt 25:40). This reminds us Christians that we are called to care for the vulnerable of the earth” (Evangelii Gaudium, 209).
“Little ones” are only mentioned in Matt. 10:42 and 18:6, 10, 14 where they are clearly identified as Christ’s disciples.
There is nothing wrong or contrary to the Christian message to see the face of Christ in those who suffer. St. Theresa of Calcutta often made such references as she served the dying (though, according to her biographers, she and the sisters would also secretly baptize all their patients). The point here is that Jesus is not identifying with them in Matthew and that means that Christians have a special responsibility to care for other Christians, and will be held to account.
Misinterpreting Matthew 25:31-46 could have unfortunate consequences. Last year, when the pope went to the island of Lesbos to meet with refugees, he brought back 12 of them — all Muslims. Three Christians had been told to pack their bags and would fly the next day for a new life in Rome but were replaced with Muslims by the Vatican at the last minute over a supposed technicality that is suspect. The Vatican is a sovereign state and the pope shouldn’t have left Christ’s brothers and sister in a “…sweltering makeshift camp with the rats, snakes and rubbish,” and by now likely sent back to Turkey.