"All the nations..."

Recently I've also been comforting myself with another reading of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31-46). This interpretation also entered into my story "The least of these my brethren." I'd had questions about the usual interpretation, i.e. that when we help the poor we're helping Jesus (and the implication that we are saved according to how well we did "good deeds," feeding, clothing, etc).

Lots of things didn't seem to fit. For example, the phrase "the least of these my brethren" is not very clear. Who is this referring to? It's usually taken to mean any person in need, but is Jesus really identifying himself with every poor person? He never does that anywhere else. And anyone who has had much experience with working with the poor and needy knows that they are often not very Christlike--so it becomes very hard to "see Jesus" in them, if that's what we're trying to do. I also had questions because many of the things that Jesus commends the sheep for, he rarely did himself. Clothing or welcoming people, for example. Or feeding them (just the one or two recorded miracles). Or visiting people in prison; he didn't even visit John. It just doesn't seem to make sense that in this one parable Jesus is presenting a whole new identity for himself or a whole new "works" ethic for his followers.

So I took a closer, longer look at the parable and here's some of the things I found. It begins:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him..."
I noticed the word "nations" and looked up the Greek. It's ethnos. Which can be translated "people" or "nations," but is often translated as "Gentiles." For example, in these other places in Matthew:
"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things..." (Mt 6.31-32)

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you..." (Mt 20.25-26)
In these places the nations (ethnos) are contrasted with Jesus' followers: "Do not be like them." The term takes on connotations similar to "the nations" in the Old Testament, where it referred to all the nations besides Israel. The pagans. The Gentiles. Those who are not considered part of God's people.

That begins to make the scene look very different. More later...