Last Things – the accursed

judgmentSolidarity. 40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ The words “Amen, I say to you,” here and in v. 45 emphasize the principle of solidarity. Whether they knew it or not, the people they helped were associated with Jesus, to such an extent that they could be said to be Jesus. The more general principle of Proverb 19:17 that “Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord” is thus here more specifically applied to Jesus and his people.

The terms used in this verse strongly reflect language used earlier in this gospel to describe Jesus’ disciples as “these little ones” (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14) and as Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” (12:50; cf. also 28:10). Jesus has spoken in 18:20 of being present where his people have come together in his name. Here his identification with his people goes further: their experiences are his experiences, and what is done to them is done to him – see, e.g., 10:40, ““Whoever receives you receives me” and 18:5, “And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” This passage thus expands on the message of 10:40–42: how people respond to Jesus’ representatives is both a sign of their attitude to him and the basis for their reward. This sense of solidarity between Jesus and his people will be creatively developed by the author of Hebrews when he explains how it was necessary for the Savior to share the experiences of those he saves, so that he rightly calls them his brothers and sisters (Heb 2:10–18).

Accursed. 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The words spoken to those on the left are the mirror image of those spoken in v. 34 to the “righteous:” “depart” instead of “come,” “accursed” instead of “blessed,” “eternal fire” instead of kingship, and a fate prepared in advance, though in this case not specifically for “you” but for the devil and his angels, whose lot the unrighteous are to share.

The blessing in v. 34 was specifically attributed to “my Father,” but this verse stops short of saying explicitly that these people are cursed by God. This is, however, often the implication of an unattributed passive, and here the reference must be to the displeasure of God that results in their punishment. Nonetheless, it is also possible to read the passage and saying this fate you have chosen for yourself apart from God, just as you lived you life apart from God.

As to the eternal fire, fire has been a repeated image for ultimate judgment; see 3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8, 9. If we are to maintain any parallelism with v. 34, then we would expect “prepared for you since the foundation of the world,” but that is not said here. The kingship prepared from the beginning reflects the desire of God that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). Lacking such fire prepared from the foundation of all things, there is thus a difference between God’s eternal purpose of blessing and the regrettable need for a “plan B” to deal with spiritual rebellion.

The devil and his angels represent all the forces of spiritual evil, probably including the demons or “unclean spirits” we have met throughout the gospel as Jesus’ opponents in cases of exorcism. In much Jewish thought by this time Satan was pictured as the leader of a spiritual host in opposition to God and his angels, and it is the ultimate elimination of all that spiritual opposition which is here envisaged. The theme will be graphically developed in the book of Revelation where the devil and all his followers are thrown at last into the lake of fire (Rev 19:20; 20:10, 14–15; 21:8). There, as here, the same punishment is awarded to human beings who have followed Satan as to his spiritual forces. And there, as here, the offenses listed seem hardly to fit so melodramatic an end: they include the “cowardly” and “liars” as well as murderers and idolaters (Rev 21:8), just as here the failure to provide humanitarian aid may seem to us relatively low on the scale of spiritual evil. But the imagery of this pericope, as of the book of Revelation, allows for only two categories, the saved and the lost; there is no allowance for grades of good or evil.

Notes

Matthew 25:41 fire prepared…his angels: 1 Enoch 10:13 (a non-canonical apocalyptic writing) where it is said of the evil angels and Semyaza, their leader, “In those days they will lead them into the bottom of the fire—and in torment—in the prison (where) they will be locked up forever.”

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