by Father Mike Stubbs
Sometimes, academic discussion can look too arcane to serve any practical purpose.
That can easily happen with a discussion about the Bible. How can historical details about a document written 2,000 years ago make any difference to us? Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 25:31-46, offers a good example of that.
The principal controversy among scholars concerning our Gospel reading revolves around the identity of the “least brothers of mine” who are alternately either neglected or cared for by those judged by the Son of Man, Christ the King.
There are two schools of thought. The first holds that the “least brothers of mine” refers to all humanity in need. This universalizing approach corresponds well to the broad scope of the scene of the Last Judgment, in which all persons receive the verdict of reward or punishment for their deeds of mercy or sins of omission.
By the words, “least brothers of mine,” Jesus Christ then reaffirms his identification with the human race. Even though he is the Son of God, he is also one of us. This interpretation is the most popular. Whoever you hear preach this Sunday will most likely follow it.
The second school of thought holds instead that “least brothers of mine” refers more narrowly to believers only, to members of the church. Those arguing in favor of this position point out that this phrase resembles other phrases in Matthew’s Gospel with this more restricted meaning. This interpretation would result in the Gospel passage offering encouragement to believers who face a potentially hostile crowd of outsiders. The believers can take comfort in the thought that those outsiders will be judged on the basis of how they have treated the believers. Believe me, this interpretation does not lend itself to a homily. Nonetheless, many exegetes prefer it.
Both positions can claim significant arguments in their favor. An easy resolution of the dilemma does not appear forthcoming. At the same time, does it really matter?
Consider this: Both those who have cared for the least brothers and those who have neglected them do so without knowing that it is Christ who they are dealing with. Presumably there are others not mentioned in the judgment scene who suspect that Christ might be embodied in the downtrodden of the world. We who have heard the Gospel reading should fit into that category. But that is not brought up, because it is beside the point. It does not matter if we realize that it is Christ. The only thing that matters is how we treat him.
It does not matter if we know who the least brothers are. The only thing that matters is how we treat them. And since we do not know who they are, just as those in the Gospel reading did not know who Christ was, it behooves us to treat all people well.
The bottom line is not knowing who the person is, but how we act toward them. We will be judged on the basis of that.