The question How should we interpret ἀδελφός in the New Testament? comes to a head in Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As the parable is popularly conceived, Jesus teaches his followers to work for justice among the marginalized of the world. He outlines a radical vision of the Last Judgement: everyone will be judged based upon how they treated the poor, the sick, the prisoner, and the foreigner. Jesus insists that he so thoroughly identifies with the poor and exploited that he is himself abused when they are abused, comforted when they are comforted.
I want to make the case that this is not what Jesus had in mind. Building upon my previous posts concerning the idea of an early Christian brotherhood, I will argue that the “least of these brothers” of the proverbial king must be identified as Christians, that is, brothers of Christ. But more specifically, they should be understood as Christians living within particular historical conditions. I will fill out these historical conditions fully by the end; but in summary, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats imagines an historical moment of vindication for Jesus’ apostles, those who were sent to preach the gospel to adulterous Israel and the idolatrous Greco-Roman nations. Jesus here unveils what must be suffered by his disciples before the day of judgement. At the same time, he guarantees his workers’ their wages: reward and vindication.
I offer four basic lines of argument. The first will recapitulate what we should conclude about the title “least of these my brothers.” The second will investigate the parable’s context within the unit Matthew 24-25. The third will juxtapose the experiences of the brothers in the parable with the experiences of the first Christian missionaries. And the fourth will compare Jesus’ vision of judgement with two closely related apocalyptic passages.
Least of These Brothers
So who are the brothers? We would do well to recall that only one group of people is identified as brothers of Christ in the New Testament. Jesus says those who do the will of his Father are his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:48-29) and believers are routinely called “brother” and “sister.” As such, the NT writings never refer to non-believers as members of the messianic family. Jesus even excludes his own biological family from this new fraternal relationship with his disciples. The cultic transfer out of one family and into another is too big a topic to address adequately here but we can be certain that the earliest Christians did experience this kind of conversion through the agency of the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). By this spirit, believers became children of God alongside the Son of God, their eldest brother (Hebrews 2:11, Romans 8:29). This adoption into the family of God was not taken flippantly among the early Christians as it represented not only a guarantee of future inheritance (the Father’s Kingdom), but also the abandonment of one’s previous life and status. The brothers of the king in the parable are therefore most likely Christians, Christ’s brothers.
The context of the Sheep and Goats also points to identifying the brothers of the king as Christians. The parable ends the discourse Jesus began in Matthew 24. There is a clear flow of thought spanning the two chapters. In chapter 24, Jesus claims his disciples will soon be tortured and put to death by all the nations (24:9), that those disciples who endure until the end will be saved (24:13), and that the good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a testimony to all the nations (24:14). The coming of the Son of Man is said to occur immediately after this suffering (24:29).
In chapter 25 Jesus then tells two parables in order to instruct his disciples on how they should proceed during this period before his return. Jesus first warns them not to be like the foolish bridesmaid who ran out of oil because “you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). Next he admonished them not to be like the worthless slave who did not use his master’s property faithfully (25:26-27). Both of these stories posit punishment for the derelict disciple and reward for the dutiful disciple. The dutiful disciple will enter the wedding and be praised by his master. The derelict disciple will be shut out and reprimanded.
But a third parable, the final one in Matthew, is no longer concerned with this interim period before the parousia. Nor are Christ’s servants the ones being judged here. Instead the parable begins with Christ’s return and it is the nations that are reckoned. The Sheep and the Goats describes the moment when the disciple’s suffering for the gospel at the hands of the nations comes to a dramatic end. The Son of Man has arrived—the nations have tortured and killed his apostles.
I want to now bring forward evidence that the misfortunes of the brothers in the parable refer to experiences commonly faced by early Christian missionaries sent to the nations. Two texts will be adequate.
In 2 Corinthians 11:21-29, Paul lists the plagues he has suffered for the gospel: nakedness, hunger, imprisonment, thirst, and persecution from gentiles. These map well onto the infirmities listed in the parable: hunger, thirst, sickness, imprisonment, nakedness, exclusion. Matthew also provides an agenda for the early Christian missionary movement in his tenth chapter. Jesus sends out his apostles rather ill-prepared. They must rely on the welcome of others (10:11, 42), they are rejected and hated by towns and nations (10:14-15, 24:9), they are without food, drink, and clothing (10:10, 42), and they are in danger of imprisonment by the authorities (10:17-19, cf. 5:25-26).
Could this then really be the purpose of the parable? To provide hope of imminent vindication and redemption to a beleaguered missionary community? Two parallel passage demonstrate that such thinking was not foreign to Jews.
For then, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down. What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads swiftly and speedily. For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks, removing them far from their own border. But now I will rouse them to leave the places to which you have sold them, and I will turn your deeds back upon your own heads. I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away; for the Lord has spoken. Joel 3:1-8
Much like the first line in the Sheep and the Goats, Joel 3 envisions YHWH “gathering the nations” in order that he might judge them. YHWH judges these nations based on their treatment of His people, Judah. In doing so, YHWH proves Himself to be zealous for His people after they have suffered exile and abuse at the hands of idolatrous nations.
Now see 2 Baruch 72.
Now, hear also about the bright waters which come at the end after these black ones. This is the Word. After the signs have come of which I have spoken to you before, when the nations are moved and the time of my Anointed One comes, He will call all nations, and some of them He will spare, and others He will kill. These things will befall the nations which will be spared by Him. Every nation which has not known Israel and which has not trodden down the seed of Jacob will live. And this is because some from all the nations have been subjected to your people. All those, now, who have ruled over you or have known you, will be delivered up to the sword.
Here the judgement is made not directly by YHWH but through the mediation of the Messiah, God’s Anointed. Again it is treatment of Israel, God’s people, that determines the outcome of the judgement. What makes Jesus’ judgement radical in this context then is not that the reckoning is given on behalf of God’s people, but that Jesus has identified God’s people as his own brothers. Christians, not Israel, will reap the benefits of divine vindication. Christians, not Israel, enjoy solidarity with the Messiah who suffers with his brothers. Notice therefore Jesus’ words to Paul, the persecutor of the church: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Or Jesus’ words to his apostles: “Whoever receives you receives me.”
In closing, Jesus’ disciples were sent to teach the gospel to the nations in the first century. As such, they represented Jesus among the Jew and the Greek. Those who received Jesus’ missionaries received Jesus himself. Those who despised Jesus’ missionaries despised Jesus himself. The parable of the Sheep and Goats assured these missionaries that their abusers would not go unpunished and that their comforters would not go without reward.
“Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:42).