NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 34: “Then the king will say to the godly people on His right, ‘Come, my Father has great blessings for you. The kingdom He promised is now yours. It has been prepared for you since the world was made.’”
Chrysostom makes a special point here that merits attention. He says: “He did not say ‘take’ but ‘inherit’ as one’s own, as your Father’s, as yours, as due to you from the first. ‘For before you were,’ He says, ‘these things had been prepared and made ready for you, because I knew you would be such as you are.’”1 The point here is that heaven and its blessings cannot be deserved, earned, bargained for, or won as a reward. They are a gift and were put in God’s treasure chest before the world was formed.
Another early church writer says: “Why will the king not address first those on his left? Because God is always more willing to praise than to denounce. For He gives good things to those who are good according to His intentions because He is good; but to those who are bad, He reluctantly gives bad things against His intentions because He is a judge. Whatever humanity does against his nature, he does rather hesitantly. If indeed Christ delighted in the punishment of sinners, He never would have delivered Himself up for them. You who sowed one seed on earth will deservedly have a hundredfold in heaven. Indeed, the kingdom of heaven has not been created according to what human righteousness deserves but according to what God’s power can prepare.”2
Again I remind myself, that in the telling of such parables it is best not to get too involved in each and every aspect of the story so as to cover up or distort the original purpose and point. A day of reckoning is coming, says Jesus and everyone will be judged on the basis of what they did with what God gave them to understand. Furthermore, the reward that the righteous will receive has been in storage since God created the heavens and the earth. And the punishment for those who rejected the truth was already announced to the serpent for what he did to deceive Adam and Eve.
Verse 35-36: “It is yours because when I was hungry, you gave me food to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I had no place to stay, you welcomed me into your home. When I was without clothes, you gave me something to wear. When I was sick, you cared for me. When I was in prison, you came to visit me.”
It must be understood that these people on the right did not gain the Kingdom of God by their efforts or labor. This was not a payday. This was recognition day. Everything mentioned here that these people did were part of their kingdom way of living. It was not something that should be considered as going out of one’s way. Their invitation into the kingdom was a gift based on a promise, not on their own qualifications.
The generosity of the people lauded by Jesus in this parable can also be seen in the Jewish Messianic writings concerning what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 9:7: “Solomon said, by a spirit of prophecy from before the Lord; the Lord of the world will say to all the righteous in the presence of everyone, go taste, with joy, your bread which is returned to you, for your bread which you gave to the poor and needy, who were hungry; and drink with a good heart the wine which is laid up for you in paradise, instead of your wine, which you have mixed for the poor and needy, who were thirsty; for, lo! now are your efforts accepted before the Lord.”3
This same theme is found in Jewish verbal teachings: “This is how we learn about the resurrection from the Torah? — From the verse, Your watchmen will lift up their voices; in harmony, they will sing together.4 Not ‘sang,’ but ‘will sing’ is written: thus resurrection is derived from the Torah. Rabbi Judah said in Rab’s name: Whoever keeps the guidelines on how to conduct one’s life from his disciple is the same as robbing him of his ancestral heritage, as it is written, Moses commanded us a law, even the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob: it is an inheritance destined for all Israel from the six days of Creation.”5
The idea of helping others was already placed in the minds of God’s people when they entered the Promised Land, “If someone among you is needy, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which ADONAI your God is giving you, you are not to harden your heart or shut your hand from giving to your needy brother. No, you must open your hand to him and lend him enough to meet his need and enable him to obtain what he wants.”6
I like the way one Jewish Rabbi rendered it: “Do not harden your heart or make a fist out of your hand.”7 One of the earliest Bible patriarchs expressed this sentiment, “I have never refused to help the poor. I always gave widows what they needed. I have never been selfish with my food. I shared what I had with orphans.”8 Even the Psalmist stated, “A light shines in the dark for those who are good, for those who are merciful, kind, and fair.”9 This may have inspired what Jesus said earlier: “In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.”10 Also, Solomon tells us, “Some people give freely and gain more; others refuse to give and end up with less.”11 And one more thing Solomon said that we are to remember: “Whoever takes advantage of the poor insults their Maker, but whoever is kind to them honors Him.”12
Verses 37-39: “Then the godly people will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you with no place to stay and welcome you into our home? When did we see you without clothes and give you something to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and care for you?’”
After listing the things that the king said to the faithful that he appreciated so much, there appears to have been a disconnect because they couldn’t remember having done any such things for the king. But his answer would help them understand. Such a question is natural, when those being addressed by the king cannot remember ever seeing him hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and in prison. Furthermore, some of them may have been in a quandary because it would not have been part of their nature to take the time or effort to care for him were he to become hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, and in prison. So I’m sure that everyone listening to the king was waiting for an explanation.
Verse 40: “Then the king will answer, ‘The truth is, anything you did for any of my people here, you also did for me.’”
This seems like a logical response, and it opens the door for the Lord to teach a principle of God’s Kingdom that few realized until He explains it here. And that is, when we do His will for others, it’s the same as doing it for Him. But it also proffers another principle: “Wisdom teaches you to respect the Lord. You must be humbled before you can be honored.”13 This also allows for another principle to function, “Don’t brag about yourself before the king and pretend you are someone important. It is much better for the king to invite you to take a more important position than to embarrass you in front of his officials.”14 To put it another way, it is alright to brag on God, but let God be the One to brag on you.
Early church scholars had various ways of interpreting what the king said here to those who were faithful and saw their ministry to others as having a direct impact on him. For instance, Chrysostom said: “Then, in order that you may see in another way also the justice of the sentence, he first praises those who have done right. Note that the judgment is in effect made by their fellow servants. This has happened before when the virgins are judged by the virgins and in the case of the drunken and gluttonous servant who was judged by the faithful servant. It happened once again in the case of the man who buried his talent, [who was judged] by the actions of those who produced more. … This is said to bring them to the point of answering, “When did we see you hungry?”15
This is another way of saying that on Judgment Day, those who’ve done right and those who’ve done wrong will not be judged according to the Law. The Law is over, it is finished. Instead, the books will be opened and all that they’ve done with what God gave them will be used as the standard for divine justice.16 Not only will those things done for God directly be used as evidence, but those things done for God to others will count equally. That’s why so many today who think that just by going to church each Sunday, reading their Bible now and then, saying their prayers before they eat or go to sleep is what will get them through heaven’s gates are in for a rude awakening.
1 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 79.2
2 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 54
3 Zohar on Ecclesiastes 9:7
4 Isaiah 52:8
5 Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba said in Rabbi Johanan’s name: Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 91b
6 Deuteronomy 15:7-8 Complete Jewish Bible
7 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 1890
8 Job 31:16-17
9 Psalm 112:4
10 Matthew 5:16.
11 Proverbs 11:24; cf. 14:31; 19:17; 22:9
12 Ibid., 14:31
13 Ibid. ,15:33
14 Ibid., 25:6-7
15 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 79.2
16 Revelation 20:12