Is Christian faith inherently judgmental and divisive?

It is a common charge that Christianity divides and fragments.

Matthew 25:31-46 is a biblical text that may appear to support a vision of Christianity as inherently judgmental and divisive. But a careful look can provide a different way of hearing this difficult text.

Jesus tells the story of a king who is going to “gather” “all the nations” before him and

separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Matthew 25:31,32)

The division of “the sheep from the goats” is decided on the basis of how the “nations” treat those Jesus describes as “the least of these brothers of mine” (“heni touton ton adelphon mou ton elakiston”).

Who are “the least of these brothers”?

The NRSV answers that question by paraphrasing the Greek “adelphon mou ton elakiston” to read, in English “the least of these who are members of my family.” “The nations” will be judged on how they treat followers of Jesus.

Who are “the nations“?

In verses 31, 32 Jesus says,

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

The word translated “nations” in Matthew 25:32 is “ethnos.”

According to the J.B. Smith Greek-English Concordance To The New Testament, “ethnos” appears in the New Testament 164 times. Of these 164 appearances, “ethnos” is translated as “Gentiles,” ninety-three times, as “nation” sixty-four times and as “heathen” five times, and simply as “people” twice.

So “ethnos” can be “Gentiles,” “nation,” “heathen,” or “people.” In the context of the New Testament, the words “Gentiles” and “heathen” both refer to people who are not followers of Jesus.

So the majority of New Testament occurrences of the word “ethnos” are viewed by translators as referring to “unbelievers.”

In the the early years of the church Christians frequently faced persecution from “unbelievers.” It would perhaps be some comfort to those who were about to experience persecution to be assured that, ultimately God’s justice will be done. But the translation “unbeliever” in this context suggests another possible way of understanding this passage.

It seems plausible that, in the midst of the persecution Christians were going to face in the early years of the church, that there would be occasions when Christians might encounter kindness from those who were “unbelievers.”

Just as there were non-Jewish people during the persecution of Jews in Germany under Nazi rule who protected Jews, so it is likely there would have been non-Christian Romans (“unbelievers“) who would have protected their vulnerable Christian friends.

What were Christians to make of these loving, charitable and kindly “unbelievers”? What were Jesus’ followers to make of people who fed them when they were hungry, perhaps visited them in prison, offered them protection, and welcomed them into the shelter of their homes at great personal risk?

What are we to make of the kindness of strangers? How do we deal with the undeniable generosity of those who are not followers of Jesus and yet demonstrate by their actions the presence of those qualities we see embodied in Jesus?

The parable implies that we are to view these loving “unbelievers” as serving Jesus.

Why would Christians service other Christians ask,

“Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?”

Believing sheep would have recognized Jesus in those they served. The sheeps’ question makes more sense if asked by “unbelievers.”

Those designated as “sheep” have served Jesus without recognizing it was Jesus they served. They have treated followers of Jesus as if they were Jesus himself.

In performing acts of grace and mercy, these “unbelievers” have responded to the prompting of love and have opened themselves to the presence of Christ in their lives.

Christ is bigger than the small community of those who identify themselves as Jesus followers.

Wherever it may be found, the love we Christians call the presence of Christ unites all humanity. We are bound together by the reality of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is the common bond that makes us most truly human uniting us across all sectarian divisions. [1]

This parable points to the surprising nature of God’s kingdom. It demonstrates that, at the final judgment, there will be those who are welcomed by God whom we might not have deemed worthy God’s favour. There are people who open to the prompting of love in their hearts and in doing so, they welcome the presence of Christ, that Christians see embodied in Jesus.

This parable may not be so much about separation as about discernment. It challenges us to discern God’s hand mysteriously at work in the most unlikely places, even among “unbelievers.”

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[1] I am indebted to Brian Stoffregen for the intriguing possibility that “ethnos” should be translated as “unbelievers” in this context. See http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt25x31.htm

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