NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
To put this in perspective, Jesus is saying that good or bad the evidence will either convict or acquit the person being judged. For instance, let’s say you tell your son to go rake the leaves in the yard while you went to the store. When you got back, you called him and said: Why didn’t you do what I asked you to do? He may ask, how did you know. After all, you weren’t at home to see if he did or not. You can easily say: I know you didn’t rake the leaves because they are still all over the yard. So in other words, it is the leaves that have judged him, not you.
Another early church scholar sees a moral lesson in what Jesus said: “This can also be said of teachers who gave the food of learning to those hungry for righteousness, so they might be fed and grow healthy in good actions; who administered the drink of truth to those thirsty for the knowledge of God. Teaching in the Word, they certainly fed them and also gave to drink, baptizing in the Holy Spirit those who are strangers in the world. For all souls are truly strangers on this earth who can say, ‘For I am your passing guest, a sojourner, like all my fathers.’1 Preaching the word of faith, they welcome souls from the spreading of error and make them fellow citizens and family members of the saints. They welcome Christ Himself and clothe, by teaching righteousness, those who are naked and even without a garment of righteousness. As is written: ‘Put on, then, compassion, faith, peace and kindness.’2 That is to say, they clothe Christ and baptize them in Christ, as is written: ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.‘3”4
Then Origen has a unique way of interpreting this part of the parable. He writes: “In the same way, we have woven a garment for the cold and shivering Christ. We have received the fabric of wisdom from God that we may impart knowledge to some and clothe them with ‘compassion, chastity, kindness, lowliness’ and the other virtues. All these virtues are the spiritual garments of those who have listened to the words of those who teach these virtues, according to him who says, “Put on, then, compassion, kindness, lowliness, gentleness” and so forth, more so Christ himself, who is all these things to the faithful, according to him who said, ‘Put on the Lord Jesus.’5 Therefore, when we have clothed with garments of this type ‘one of the least’ who believe in Christ, we have apparently clothed the Lord Himself, so that the word of God in the world will not go naked. But we must also welcome the Son of God who became a stranger and the members of His body who are strangers in the world, untainted by all mundane actions, even as He says about Himself and His disciples: ‘They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.’6 And Christ asks the Father to permit them to be with Him where He is.”7
And finally we have this ancient commentary: “Why then, my most beloved? Does our Lord hunger and thirst? Is He Himself the one who made everything in heaven and on earth, who feeds angels in heaven and every nation and race on earth, who needs nothing of an earthly character, as He is unfailing in His own nature, is this one naked? It is incredible to believe such a thing. Yet what must be confessed is easy to believe. For the Lord hungers not in His own nature but in His saints; the Lord thirsts not in His own nature but in His poor. The Lord who clothes everyone is not naked in His own nature but in His servants. The Lord who is able to heal all sicknesses and has already destroyed death itself is not diseased in His own nature but in His servants. Our Lord, the one who can liberate every person, is not in prison in His own nature but in His saints. Therefore, you see, my most beloved, that the saints are not alone. They suffer all these things because of the Lord. In the same way, because of the saints the Lord suffers all these things with them.”8
Put together, these expressions may be taken as holding the view that acts of love, graciousness, and mercy were done by believers to fellow believers. For how else could Christ claim that it was done to Him if He does not live in the heart of the person receiving such compassion. Since His most often verbalized commandment was to love one another, then it would seem to be that this is upon which when a believer stands before God he or she will be judged as being compliant. This does not eliminate the love and compassion all believers should show like the good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable.
Verse 41: “Then the king will say to the evil people on his left, ‘Get away from me. God has already decided that you will be punished. Go into the fire that burns forever—the fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
We must make special note that in this parable, Jesus is having the king say that God is the one who will punish them. We also notice that this punishment is the unquenchable fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Therefore, this fire was not originally prepared for Adam and Eve, and their descendants. The Jewish concept of Gehenna where the fire burned is something the disciples could easily relate to. Gehenna was often used as a metaphor for the type of punishment that only the worst of sinners would have to endure. So instead of having their conscience at peace because they did the right thing, their minds will be in torment knowing how wrong they were and cannot undo their wrong to make it right.
Verses 42-43: “You must go away because when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me nothing to drink. When I had no place to stay, you did not welcome me into your home. When I was without clothes, you gave me nothing to wear. When I was sick and in prison, you did not care for me.”
Now, Jesus says, the words of the king for those who stood on his left were not comforting. In fact, they were condemning. But even more than that, it ties together all that Jesus has tried to illustrate with these parables, from the foolish women to the worthless servant, to the goats. It’s like saying, you tried to pretend that you were part of what the Kingdom of God is all about, but you came up short on account of being uncommitted and uncaring about the mission given you. So since you showed that you weren’t with me now I’m telling you, that I’m not with you.9
This not only goes for individuals, but for churches as well who profess to be one with Jesus Christ. The remarkable thing is that they are banished from His presence. While training to become a grief counselor and bereavement facilitator, I learned that the difference between grief and disappointment in our loss is that we grieve over losses that can never be recovered, and in some cases, never replaced. This can cause agony and mental torment beyond belief.
Here in our text, Jesus brings up attitudes and actions in these people’s past that have now come back to judge them. What is lost, is that the opportunity to redress these failures is now gone forever. This is why they were told to go away. This is why people need to approach the Lord and inquire if they are guilty of such lack of compassion while it is still time to repent and change.
Verse 44: “Then those people will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty? When did we see you without a place to stay? Or when did we see you without clothes or sick or in prison? When did we see any of this and not help you?’”
This defensive answer seems to correlate with what King Saul told Samuel when he was confronted about not following instructions concerning the Amalekites.10 Also, the people of Judah said they were not aware they didn’t carry out the LORD’S instructions to the fullest.11 God told Israel, it was a matter of respect.12 Also, it’s a case of getting the message wrong,13 as well as misunderstanding that what you do to others is also done to God.14
One early church writer framed it this way: “Oh, the invariable disobedience of sinners! Who does not realize that every evil we do is done not because we are corruptible but because we have a bad intention? Plainly then the corruptible flesh of sinners will die, but wickedness will live on. Did they not hear the Lord saying to the righteous, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me?’15 Certainly, they should have understood that what they fail to do to people, they fail to do to Christ. But those who hear, remain adamant; those who understand, pretend they do not understand. They stand in judgment, and yet they keep on sinning. This also applies to bad teachers … who did not clothe the naked, either by teaching justice or by baptizing in Christ; who did not welcome strangers in the world through the word or introduce them into the house of the church through faith; who did not heal the sick by their words; who did not lead out, through penance, those who were sitting in the prison of ungodliness. If it is ungodly not to offer material things to bodies, which cannot live forever even if they accept these things, can you imagine how ungodly it is not to administer spiritual things to souls that are in danger and could live forever if only these things were administered to them? Since the soul is more precious than the body, it is all the more sinful not to give spiritual alms to troubled souls rather than material alms to bodies.”16
The question that comes up at this point is how can we tie punishment with the devil to followers of Christ who have not obeyed His words nor sought His will? Some find such a connection in what was said about this punishment. That it was prepared for the devil and his angels. This was because they rebelled against God, and as a result were cast out of heaven. Look at the Israelites that were freed from Egyptian bondage, but in the wilderness made a golden calf which they then worshiped as a symbol of God, rather than God Himself. As a result, everyone over the age of 21 was not allowed into the Promised Land. No doubt, because of their penchant not to walk by faith but by sight God ordered Moses to construct the Ark of the Covenant so they could see that God was with them. This is explained later when Jesus would say to Thomas: “You believe because you see me. Great blessings belong to the people who believe without seeing me!”17 Some people may object and ask how can a loving, caring God do something like this? The truth is, it isn’t God doing anything, it is the evidence that justifies the sentence for what people have done to themselves.
1 Psalm 39:12
2 Colossians 3:12
3 Galatians 3:27
4 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 54
5 Romans 13:14
6 John 17:14
7 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 72
8 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 38
9 Cf. Matthew 7:23
10 See I Samuel 15:10-26
11 See Jeremiah 2:23ff
12 Malachi 1:6
13 Ibid. 2:17
14 Ibid. 3:13
15 Matthew 25:40
16 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 54
17 John 20:29