Matthew 25 and Christian Social Justice

Interesting that most evangelicals who call for social justice today refer not to Paul, but to Jesus. This is because Paul (like the ancient Stoics, see my other blog) was less concerned about changing society and more concerned about changing the individual in terms of his outlook on society. So those who call for social justice must pit Paul against Jesus or ignore Paul in favor of Jesus.

Even with citing Jesus, there is little to go on. Many in the social justice movement refer to Matthew 25:31-46, the judgment of the sheep and the goats as the basis for their teaching that Christians must pursue social justice.

A few things stand out about this text. Note first that it is the judgment of “the nations.” The overwhelming majority of the time, this word is used to refer to Gentiles. (It is, once or twice, used to refer to all nations including Israel, but that’s probably not the case here.)

Because of this, those of the Classical Dispensationalist persuasion (and some Revised Dispensationalists, but few Progressive Dispensationalists) see in this a statement about the treatment of Israel since it comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching about the end times. Few now hold to this view.

It is most often referred to today, as I noted above to support a call to pursue social justice in terms of ending poverty, judicial injustice, inequalities such as racism, etc. in our society. While those are noble goals to which most everyone would and should seek to happen, this text does not say that.

The portion of the text often referred to in this respect is the statement used in verses 40 and 45: “the least of these.” Note, however, that Jesus tells us exactly to whom he is referring when he uses it in v. 40: “the least of these my brothers.” The term “brothers” (the gender-inclusive “brethren” was used in older translations) is used almost exclusively to refer to believers. (The only times it doesn’t is when it refers to actual genetic brothers.) In addition, the term “least” is always used in Matthew’s Gospel to refer to the disciples.

So the problem with using this passage is that unless one believes the old liberal notion of the Universal Fatherhood of God and the Universal Brotherhood of Man (and most evangelicals, by definition, would reject this), this verse cannot be applied to a Christian’s responsibility (or even a Christian group’s responsibility) to care for the poor of a society.

While there are plenty of verses to support the view that the righteous ought to have compassion on those less fortunate, especially their fellow believers (e.g., Gal. 6:10), and while we all ought to seek justice and peace for all for the good of society, this passage does not condemn to hell those who object to this or that social program or those whose churches give to missions instead to ending poverty or malaria or AIDS or anything else.

See Kevin DeYoung’s helpful post on this passage, too.

 

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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