Never underestimate the power of one word. This ancient proverb rings true in our lectionary text this week. A closer look at the word “nations” calls into question the traditional understanding of this text.
Traditionally speaking, the sermon would encourage the congregation to be sheep; caring for the “least of these”. However, a closer look at the meaning behind the word “nations” challenges that assumption. The periscope opens with Jesus and his angels gathering the “nations” before them. Jesus sets about the shepherdly duty of separating the flock. The sheep are set to the right and the goats to the left. The dividing factor is the record of action (or inaction) toward the “least of these”. Visually the text reads like this:


Now let us dive into an nontraditional view. We begin our focus on the word “nations” with the author’s use of the word. The writer of Matthew uses ethnos 3 additional times in this gospel (Matthew 24:9, 24:14 and 28:19).

  • 24:9 Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.
  • 24:14 And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.
  • 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In each instance the Greek word ethnos or nations means outsiders or those not like us. In chapter 24, Matthew writes that the non-Christians will hate those Christians who are tortured and killed and the testimony is to go to the non-Christians. In chapter 28 disciples are to be made of all non-Christians. The meaning of these three examples is obvious. According to Matthew’s meaning of the word ethnos, visually the text looks like this:


Matthew wrote the gospel to a poor community who may have suffered hunger, thirst, nakedness, imprisonment and sickness. Did they receive help from compassionate non-Christians? If so, Matthew’s message is clear. God welcomes those into his kingdom when they do the work of Christian compassion.  The sticking point that challenges the traditional views lies in asked the question “which kingdom“?  The kingdom now (as experienced when charity is shared) or the kingdom to come (after life judgement time)?
Also, could this story be a message of evangelism to those non-Christians who helped those Christians in need? Perhaps the helpers hearing from those they serve that they were already doing the work of Christ may have endeared them toward the movement. Secondly, does this offer still apply today?