Is Social Justice the Point? A Re-examination of Matthew 25:31-46

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Even as a relatively new Christian, there are numerous times that I have heard an impassioned exhortation from the pulpit for social justice, and perhaps more specifically, a call to serve the “least of these” and by doing so to serve Christ.

The preachers and teachers are referring to a well known parable found in Matthew 25:31-46 where Jesus is establishing everyone’s final destiny on the basis of whether or not they gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited those who were imprisoned. Jesus is clear, that which was done or not done to one of the “least of these” had correspondingly affected him personally.

If the text is purported to indicate the basis for our final destiny- that in Jesus’ words is to either “inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world” or to “go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:34,46)- it is exceedingly significant that we seek to understand what is being communicated.

I began taking my time to look at the text intentionally. What I discovered surprised me, and I began to ask the question-

Is social justice the point behind the text?

The conclusion that I have come to is: no.

Though such luminaries of the church as Augustine, Chrysostom, Benedict of Nursia, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley have interpreted this text in such a way, not to mention contemporary expositors of the Bible, the most accurate reading of the text does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  This is not to obviate the necessity of social justice, rather it is to highlight that this text in fact is not exhorting followers of Christ to that end.

A key to understanding this is to note that what Jesus actually says is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it for me.” (Matt. 25:40)

Nowhere in the New Testament is such language used to refer to all people in general. In fact, earlier in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:48) He then progresses by “pointing to his disciples, (saying), ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)

In effect, this is a parabolic manner of communicating what Jesus states explicitly in John 13:34-35, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What, according to these verses, determines our eternal destiny? The answer to the following question, “Does the Spirit of love that compelled Christ to the cross indwell us in such a way that we love one another with a similar sacrificial disposition?”

Just to substantiate this point further, hear the words of the apostle James, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that.” (James 2:15-16) Do you hear the echoes of the parable from Matthew? James is using this point to highlight whether or not a person has living faith or not.

The apostle John also adds his voice to this conversation by stating, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17-18) Such tangible sacrificial love toward other disciples of Jesus Christ, in his eyes, is indicative that they “have passed from death to life.” (1 John 3:14)

Hopefully, by now, it is evident that there is sufficient support to question the commonplace interpretation of Matthew’s parable. Rather than being an exhortation to engage in social justice, the parable is a clarion call to love other disciples of Jesus in the same sacrificial and selfless manner with which he loves us all. Considering that this passage is often presented as determining our eternal destiny, this is a substantial shift.

However, the subsequent question is, “So what? What are the implications of this shift in thinking?”
Rather than seeking to exhaustively answer this question, let me suggest some preliminary questions that we can be thinking about, while leaving substantial room for further engagement. Perhaps this can be the impetus for a communal discussion in the comments section below.

Given that the parable highlights the global scope of its vision, “all nations will be gathered before him” (Matt. 25:32), how should a wealthier Western church respond to impoverished churches in other parts of the world?

How may this shift in thinking affect the way that churches engage one another across socio-economic and denominational lines in a particular city?

How might this shift of thinking be engaged to encourage deeper mutual awareness within a congregation?

What are ways that God may be inviting me to respond to this shift in thinking? Who may he be asking me to love in such a way?

What questions or comments does this shift in thinking stir up for you?

Though I am not obviating the necessity of engaging in social justice concerns, with Paul, I am saying, “whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal. 6:10)

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For the past several years, David and his wife Mary Beth have been working inter-denominationally with the Inspire Movement in the U.K. and the U.S., assisting local churches to develop and implement the vision and practice of robust Wesleyan-style discipleship. This reflects his passion to encourage other believers to flourish in their God-given giftings and to reclaim a biblically grounded spirituality that interweaves discipleship, evangelism, prayer and incarnational living.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this, David. I was exploring this passage in the same way a few months ago. I came across R.T. France’s New International Commentary, and he reached similar conclusions. I think your preliminary questions are right on. So much of our witness to Jesus is how those within His community treat one another.

  2. David; I can see “a” point to be made here, but I am wondering what the point is you are getting at in the larger sense. (I hope that doesn’t sound to contrary – just looking for bit of clarification here) While there is merit to what you say about Matthew 25:31-46 not being the poster child for a call to social justice that is often used to make the case for broadly encompassing social ministries, and though it is not my main point, I am not convinced that such ministry is not at least partially called for in the over arching parable of sheep and goats. First, I would suggest that there is a call in this parable to a wider audience than one relegated to only believers alluded to in vs. 37-38 that the people on the “right”, whom the King called to himself, did not know who it was they were helping when they gave aid to “the least of these.” However, I think the real danger of misunderstanding of intent here, and in any other scripture, occurs when folks pluck a passage such as this out of context and use it to make supposedly factual theological arguments. As you suggest yourself, there is plenty of evidence throughout the Bible that speaks to a calling from God that points the believer directly towards helping those in need. For instance, if you look at this scripture from Matthew in the context of the parable of the good Samaritan and say, Deuteronomy 15:11, then it seems to me there is an expectation of attending to the hungry and impoverished in a universal sense. But as you also appropriately point out, this scripture in and of itself does not necessarily suggest a call to blanket mercy ministries. I have not fully researched the context of this scripture and the historical support for social justice you mention above, but I am of a mind that traditional views ought to carry a fairly heavy burden of scrutiny before dismissing them, with which I am sure you would agree in principle. So, even taking into consideration it can be legitimately argued that the parable of the sheep and goats does not support social justice ministries in and of itself, where is the shift in thinking you suggest? Isn’t the point of Christ-like love that we engage God’s children everywhere and in every sense as a matter of spreading the gospel, making disciples, and teaching them what it means to live the kingdom in the here and now? And isn’t the motivation for do so that we have been so filled by the Holy Spirit that we are driven to such ministry out of the love we have experienced as new creations in Christ Jesus? And if these are so, and there is a need in the third world for social justice ministries, ought they not be attended to by those who feel called to it? Just some thoughts I had as I read your article.

    • Ted, thank you for sharing your thoughts and posing some questions!

      A couple of preliminary thoughts could be shared rooted in the gospel of John. Jesus highlights the love that his disciples have for one another (John 13:34-35) and the unity they share (John 17) as signs that they were in fact his disciples and revealing to the world that the Father had sent him respectively.

      Furthermore, the gospel of John states that although all of humanity are God’s creations, not all are his children. It is only those who believe in Jesus Christ (John 1:12) and are born from above that are adopted into the family of God.

      As I mentioned in the article a couple of times, I am not obviating the importance/necessity of engaging in social justice issues. However, what is our motivation in doing so? If we are solely meeting physical needs with no eye on spiritual ones, i.e. that the people we are serving in the love of God and power of the Spirit would come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and be invited into the family of God… then there is nothing overtly Christian about what we are doing, secular humanists can do the same.

      However, as I reflect on this, a necessary question that I ask is this: if through our service of others through various social justice projects leads them to come to faith in Jesus Christ… are our churches healthy environments in which men and women can be nurtured as disciples of Jesus Christ? This question has arisen out of time spent both engaging in street evangelism and missions projects. Ultimately our calling is to make disciples of Jesus.

      The reason why I am encouraging a shift in thinking is because I perceive that at times we embrace a vision for serving the world while turning a blind eye to our other brothers and sisters at best, and at worst we tear one another down while judging one another according to our self-made standards. It is a fascinating study to explore the ethical sections of the NT and to see how much of the emphasis is on all the ways we should “one another”, whereas there is far less space focusing on engaging those in the broader culture.

      My concern is to encourage communities of faith to become environments marked by holy, sacrificial love for one another that create a space of grace where those who come to faith can be nurtured as disciples. The shift in thinking that I am advocating in essence is, without becoming insular, to recognize the critical importance that Jesus has placed on ‘getting our house in order’- particularly in bearing witness to the world whose we are. As many august thinkers throughout history have noted… often the strongest deterrent to faith is the life of Christians and the way that they treat one another.

      I agree with you that there are various places in Scripture that challenges us to take care of the needy, however that does not change the interpretation of a particular passage. It is important that we allow the Scripture to speak within its context as clearly as we can, so that we do not distort its message to support out agenda… no matter how well intentioned.

      Hopefully I may have answered some of your concerns. Thanks for engaging the piece Ted! It is good to hear from you!

      • David, thank you for responding, and yes, you answered the questions I had. It wasn’t clear to me in the article that your focus was on “getting our house in order”, though I know that to be your heart. It is my passion in serving the Church, as you may already be aware, to bring about exactly this kind of transformation so that we can do as you suggest and become a body in Christ “marked by holy, sacrificial love for one another that creates a space of grace where those who come to faith can be nurtured as disciples.” Thanks for your in-depth article and the clarification on my behalf. Glad to hear you are returning to the states by the way, though I know it probably seems way too soon for you guys. Blessings brother.

  3. I had to study a lot of Moltmann for my postgrad, and my research supervisor (Richard Bauckham) pointed me to a journal article by the Jesuit Martin Tripole which points out similar things to you. It isn’t at all that Matthew expects us to believe that Christ dwells in every human being.

    • David… what a wonderful blessing to study under Richard Bauckham, he is such a gift to the body of Christ! His book Theology of the Book of Revelation helped me to see the value in contextual biblical studies!

      Your final point is well taken, and one I agree with. While I affirm our common humanity with all people, at times we do so in a way that denigrates the ‘new birth’, indicating that we are really just the same as everyone else. If this is true, then the indwelling Holy Spirit does not make much difference… something that I do not agree with.

  4. Hi David, I’ve really appreciated Klyne Snodgrass’s work on this passage. He also assesses the language of ‘brother’ among other things, but comes to a different conclusion. I’ve written it up here.

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