Pp. 199-230 in eds. Alan Avery-Peck, Daniel Harrington and Jacob Neusner, When Judaism and Christianity Began (Leiden: Brill, 2004)


“Deception, Ambiguity, and Revelation:
Matthew’s Judgmental Scenes in Social-Science Perspective”

@ Jerome H. Neyrey 2002
Forthcoming in the Anthony Saldarini Festschrift

“Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream” (H.M.S. Pinafore)


1.0 Introduction, Hypothesis, Models

Matthew’s gospel contains numerous instances of deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity, which are the focus of this study. Yet, we examine them not as isolated semantic phenomena, but as part of a common and expected social strategy found in Israelite (Roberts 1988:211-20; Freund 1991:45-61),  Christian (Pilch 1992, 1994; Neyrey 1998a),  and Greco-Roman literatures (Detienne and Vernant 1978; Haft 1983; Verdenius 1981; Vernant 1988; Walcot 1977). To this end we employ materials from cultural anthropology which interpret such phenomena, in particular the sociology of secrecy (see Tefft 1989;  Neyrey 1998a) and symbolic cosmologies  (Malina 1981; Neyrey 1986a, 1987, 1990). With these lenses we are able to observe how our data operate as part of a common, expected social strategy.

We take this inquiry one step further by examining how Matthew’s understanding of divine judgment must be first and foremost an “apocalypse,” that is, an act of pulling back the veil on all deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity. Thus God can finally render a just judgment which separates the good from the bad and the wise from the foolish. Then God can remedy the chronic injustice of a deceptive world where evil succeeds while good fares poorly. Since justice consists of a revelation, God’s unveiling of deception etc., entails a shock and surprise when mortals, both bad and good, find the world not as they thought it to be. And so, we give special attention to the three parables in Matthew 25, as illustrative of the hypothesis we are arguing about the unveiling of deceit, secrecy, and ambiguity. Thus this study takes its readers through several stages: (1) data on deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity; (2) secrecy as a common social strategy; (3) the cosmology of a world filled with deception; and finally (4) interpretation of the parables in Matthew 25.

2.0 Data Describing a Deceitful, Secret, Hypocritical, Ambiguous World

Our claim that Matthew’s world is rife with lying, deception, hypocrisy,  secrecy and ambiguity includes the following data, which are based on a study of the semantic word field of ambiguity, lying and deception (Darton 1976:107-110; Louw and Nida 1988:388-445). Of the many items available, we list only those relevant to the argument of this study

1. deception (_πατη): Matt 13:22; to deceive (πλαvω): Matt 18:12, 13;22:29; 24:4, 5, 11, 24; deception (πλαvη): Matt 27:64

2. hypocrisy (_πoκρισις): Matt 23:28; hypocrite (_πoκριτης):Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13,

 14, 15; 24:51

3. lying (ψευδoμαι): Matt 5:11; to bear false witness (ψευδoμαρτυρεω): Matt 19:18; false testimony (ψευδoμαρτυρια ): Matt 15:19; 26:59; a false witness (ψευδoμαρτυς Matt 26:60; false prophet (ψευδoπρoφητης): Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24; false Christ (ψευδoχριστoς): Matt 24:24

4 secret (κρυπτoς ): Matt 6:4, 6; 10:26; secret (κρυφαιoς ): Matt 6:18; to hide/make secret (κρυπτω): Matt 5:14; 11:25; 13:35, 44; 25:18, 25

5. to appear, seem (δoκεω): Matt 3:9; 17:25; 18:12; 21:28; 22:17, 42; 26:66

6. to reveal (_πoκαλψπτω): Matt 10:26; 11:25, 27; 16:17

Matthew also narrates scenes where deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity occur, even though the semantic terms just noted are not used. Taking note of these data should increase our appreciation of how secrecy and deception phenomena permeate this narrative world.

2.1  Deception.  Even Jesus mandates deception (see Neyrey 1993a:38-42).  For example, he commands those who fast: “Anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (6:17-18).  In regard to alms, Jesus ordered, “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (6:3).  All acts of piety must be done “in secret” (6:4, 6, 18).  To outsiders, then, the disciples of Jesus will appear to be non-observers of traditional piety and thus deceive outsiders.

Characters in the narrative regularly practice deception. To all appearances, Pharisees and Sadducees come to John at the Jordan for purification.  But John perceives deceit in them, and exposes their hidden evil: “You brood of vipers. . .” (3:7-10).  Deception constitutes the latent peril in Jesus’ temptations by the Devil.  Outwardly what is suggested to Jesus seems reasonable and good, but therein lies the snare.  Evil is disguised as good.  Jesus’ prophetic role enables him to unveil this hidden evil, and so avoid ruin (4:1-13). Moreover, people regularly ask Jesus questions, not seeking information from him but “to trap” him (16:1; 19:3; 22:18) -- a deception meant to harm; others flatter him: “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man” (22:16). Finally, Judas Iscariot seemed to be a loyal disciple yet was secretly plotting with Jesus’ enemies for his death, a deception he maintains up to the Passover meal when Jesus unveiled his fraud (26:21-23).

2.2  Lying.  Matthew narrates scenes in which lies are told, even if the words such as  ψευδ- and  πλαv-  do not occur.  For example, Herod tells the Magi to follow the star and report back to him, “That I too may come and worship him” (2:8).  This king, who was “troubled” when he first learned of “the king of the Jews” (2:2), lies to the Magi; for he really seeks to find and kill this newborn rival (2:16-18).  After Jesus’ death the religious elite describe him as “that deceiver” (πλαvoς) who falsely predicted his vindication (27:63). With Pilate’s approval they post a guard to prevent Jesus’ “lie” from being realized by the theft of his body (27:62-65).  Yet this guard sees sights at his tomb which acclaim the truth of Jesus’ prediction (28:4) and tell them to their superiors (28:11).  In the end, the guards were bribed to tell a lie of their own, namely, that Jesus’ disciples stole his body (28:12-15; Cadbury 1937:106-8).

2.3  Hypocrisy. Like deception, hypocrisy refers to the mismatch of exterior behavior and internal states (Wilckens 1972:559-71; Garland 1979:96-123). Hypocrites are people who practice piety, not that God may be honored, but that others might notice (6:2, 5, 16). Hypocrisy describes those who find the smallest speck in another’s eye, but are blinded themselves (7:5), who wash the outside of cups, but not the inside (23:25-26). Pretending to make proselytes, they bind them with burdens so they cannot find God (23:15). Matthew describes Jesus as adept in penetrating this duplicity and deception (Minear 1974:76-93).

2.4  Secrecy.  Jesus instructs his disciples to absent themselves from the public arena where typical villagers perform public acts of piety. Ostensibly Jesus’ disciples will then appear non-observant, perhaps even neglectful of God and scornful of piety.  Yet in fact they are not, for they are instructed to give alms in secret, to pray in secret, and to fast in secret (6:1-18).  This is not a secrecy which hides valuables from the envious gaze of onlookers or protects family matters from village gossips and nosy parkers. This secrecy is calculated to create a false impression.

Earlier Jesus told  his disciples that they must be visible as a city on a hillside.  Their good deeds should be manifest for all the world to see (5:14-16). Nevertheless they are later commanded to “secrecy” (6:1-18; Räisänen 1990). Jesus himself strives to keep secret his powers (8:4) and his identity (16:20).  He appears not to practice what he preaches.  His strategy in telling parables is to reveal the secrets to the few insiders, while keeping them from the many outsiders: “To you it is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (13:11).  Even God keeps secrets: “Thou has hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will” (11:25-26).  Clearly, then, it is acceptable for God to withhold information and to keep secrets, just as it is for Jesus and his disciples to act secretly. One of the most vexing topics in gospel

2.5  Ambiguity.  Although Matthew never uses the word “ambiguous/ambiguity,” things are seldom what they seem: one cannot tell a man by the clothes he wears (Mt 23:5).  External actions do not serve as reliable indicators of internal states. And so, most situations and persons are often fundamentally ambiguous.  For example, the Gospel begins with Joseph learning that his espoused wife, Mary, is pregnant with a child not his. Outwardly, the scene bespeaks sexual immorality to Joseph, but an angel assures him that in truth Mary has conceived by the power of God’s spirit (1:20-21). Things are not what they seem, either for good or ill. Jesus himself appears as the most ambiguous figure in the Gospel. Matthew reports positive interpretations of him: Son of God (3:17; 17:5; 27:54), Son of David (9:27; 15:22), Christ (16:16), and prophet (21:11).  He does mighty works (11:2-5), teaches Torah (5:3-7:27), and attends the synagogue (4:23; 9:35; 12:9).  Yet in the perception of some, his actions do not correspond to his claim as God’s anointed agent.  They perceive him as a deceiving sinner who breaks the Sabbath (12:1-8), eats with tax collectors and sinners (9:9-13), disregards purity rituals (15:1-20), and profanes the Temple of God (21:12-14).Observant Israelites do not do such things! Which version is correct? and how can we know (Malina and Neyrey 1988:81-88, 118-30)? Indeed the very gospel itself is testimony to Matthew’s attempt to remove that ambiguity by proclaiming Jesus’ prominence.  But he does so in the face of formidable alternative interpretation by the Jerusalem and Temple elite.

One should not ignore the ambiguity contained in many of Jesus’ statements.  His evaluation system turns social perceptions upside down: those who are shamed, reviled, dispossessed, etc. he acclaimed “blessed” or honored (Hanson 1994:99-101).  Life is gained by losing it (16:25), and greatness, by being least and servant (20:26-27).  The normal categories of experience, then,  are painfully ambiguous: last is first, low is high, empty is full, and losing is saving.

2.6  Say One Thing, Do Another.  Finally, the Gospel contains many stories about people who say one thing and do another (see Neyrey 1993b:59-63).  The parable in 21:28-32 tells of a father who asks his two sons to go and work in his vineyard.  One said “Yes!” and did not go, while the other said “No!” but went.  From a cultural reading of the passage, the one who said “No!” publicly insulted his father, bringing shame on him; yet the story ironically implies that he is the better son.  Ostensibly he shamed his father, but in the end honored him by his obedience.  Appearances, then, are fundamentally misleading. People say one thing and do another. See 7:21-23.

What, then, is the world of Matthew like?  The evangelist describes his world as a place of profound deception, lying, hypocrisy, secrecy and ambiguity.  Speech does not match deeds; people say one thing, but do another.  Externals provides no safe indicator of internal states.  Persons and events regularly outwardly appear either good or bad, but in fact are otherwise.  Yet ambiguity is too kind a term for the world Matthew describes.  All characters in his narrative expect to be lied to and deceived. They,  too,  practice secrecy and deception. All regularly hide from others their true thoughts, authentic deeds, knowledge and piety.  They are alert to masked compliments, feigned requests for information, flattery and the like.  Moreover, they are formally warned to expect false prophets, false Christs, and false apostles. False testimony is often given. But as we said earlier, we err if we take these data as isolated phenomena; for they constitute part of a common and expected social strategy. Matthew’s world is a cosmos where all characters both deceive others and expect in term to be deceived.

3.0 Secrecy: A Common Social Strategy, Even in Matthew

3.1 The Sociology of Secrecy.  Dvornick describes the secrecy system in antiquity in his The Origins of Intelligence Services (1974). He examined records from Egypt, Assyria-Babylon-Persia, Greece, Rome and Byzantium in light of governmental secrecy and intelligence services, a formidable system indeed. Besides international espionage and spying, scholars too have undertaken the systematic analysis of "secrecy," beginning with Georg Simmel's publication of "The Secret and the Secret Society" (1906; 1950). Simmel's work has been newly reexamined by sociologists who study this phenomenon in cross-cultural perspective (Hazelrigg 1969:326-30; Tefft 1980; Frizby 1994). Even some biblical scholars have begun to tap into this material for the purposes of biblical interpretation, notably Pilch (1992; 1994; see Neyrey 1986b; 1998a). The secrecy model, then, has been profitably used to interpret New Testament documents.

3.2  Secrecy Defined.   Tefft defines secrecy as "the mandatory or voluntary, but calculated, concealment of information, activities, or relationships" (1980:320-21). Thus, secrecy is a formal, conscious and deliberate concealment of information. Secrets, moreover, are "a social resource (or adaptive strategy) used by individuals, groups, and organizations to attain certain ends" (Tefft 1980:35). As a strategy, secrecy may be employed aggressively against rivals or defensively against attackers (Tefft 1980:36). Secrecy enables certain types of associations to avoid political persecution or destruction while it allows other groups to maintain an exclusive monopoly on esoteric knowledge.

3.3 The Secrecy Process.  Tefft describes secrecy as an adaptive device containing five interrelated processes: 1. security (control of information), 2. entrusted disclosure, 3. espionage, 4. evaluation of spying, and 5. post-hoc security measures. He notes that all peoples engage in some form of secrecy or information control (1980:39). Kees Bolle, too, made the same claim: "Not only is there no religion without secrecy, but there is no human existence without it" (1987:1). Families do not want their squabbles, embarrassments, plans, strategies, private interactions or finances discussed outside their houses (du Boulay 1976:391-96), nor do groups, organizations and governments. All practice some form of information control, whether they base it on the right to privacy, the nature of interpersonal relations or the politics of business and administration. All engage in some form of "security," that is, information control, and hence secrecy.

Within families or organizations, certain people are privy to what is withheld from others. In fact, who knows what may serve as an index of status or ranking within a group. Not everybody knows all things. Thus secrets are entrusted to some, but not others, who may or may not know that secrets are withheld from them. Governments use of sliding scale of increasing degrees of classified information, such as “secret,” “top secret” and "for your eyes only." Thus there tends to be an inner circle which is "in the know."

Then arises some sort of "security system" in terms of who can or should be entrusted with secrets. It is a known fact that group members who develop bonds of mutual loyalty pose less security risk than those of low morale. Nevertheless, groups tend to develop security systems to secure their secrets, simply because not all group members can be counted on to have highly developed bonds of mutual loyalty. Such systems can include a number of steps in securing its secrets, such as: 1) required loyalty tests for old and new members, 2) total obedience to the group at the expense of other ties, 3) gradual revelation of secrets to members, and 4) imposition of strict norms of silence . .

Secrets invite snooping, espionage and disclosure, which is due in part to fear that secrets may be used to harm others (i.e., a planned coup) or to shut others out from certain benefits (i.e., technological formulae; discoveries). Thus people deem it a matter of vital self interest to know what others are up to. Whatever the reasons, outsiders tend invariably to engage in some form of espionage to learn the secrets of others.

By "espionage" is meant "acquisition of information held secret by another group or individual" (Tefft 1980:333). Spying, whether done by persons or technology, entails a body of people who watch, scrutinize, lie in wait, trap, trick, etc. others so as to learn their secrets. They may investigate records, interrogate associates, plant informers and spies, and so forth. If successful in gaining access to controlled information, an evaluation process must take place. Is the new information of any value? is it a cover? a false lead? "Leaks" of information may be intentional to distract those engage in espionage from more vital secrets or to lull them into thinking that they have cracked the secret.

If individuals, groups, or governments learn that their secrecy has been breached, they are likely to engage in a post-hoc program to identify the spy, plug the leak, bury the secret deeper, etc. New loyalty tests may be demanded. But the "secrecy process" is hardly over, for with the renewed interest in keeping secrets, those who control information invite a new round of espionage and evaluation, which may result, if successful, in new post-hoc programs to shore up security. And so the cycle repeats itself again and again and again.

3.4 Extra-Group and Intra-Group Secrecy   Sociologists distinguish two types of secrecy. Manifest secrecy describes the formal, overt actions of certain groups to hide ceremonies, rites, information, and the like from the curious and perhaps dangerous eyes of others. In contrast, latent secrecy is practiced by groups as the additional and unintended consequences of certain structural arrangements, such as covering up unintended actions. We focus on the specific functions of manifest secrecy, also distinguishing extra-group secrecy from intra-group secrecy (Brandt 125-27).

            Extra-group secrecy may be practiced for aggressive or defensive purposes (Tefft 36). Aggressive secrecy describes actions and strategy used by secret groups to organize political rebellion or provide secret leadership for revolutionary organizations. Moreover, groups subject to coercion deal with their antagonists by hiding information or resources as a way of neutralizing superior power. Alternately, groups often employ defensive secrecy strategy to protect themselves. . Alienated groups, which are embattled minorities within a larger hostile society, use secrecy to escape persecution or destruction (Tefft 324; Brandt 131).

Intra-group secrecy can be employed for a variety of purposes (Tefft 51-53). It may prove significant for group formation, in that some groups form for the overt purpose of engaging in covert actions, such as secret societies. Likewise, secrecy both sets up group boundaries and, when defended, maintains them. Those "in the know" distinguish themselves from those "not in the know." This is called the “superiority syndrome” and the process of guarding this distinction contributes to group cohesiveness. Internal secrecy within groups, whereby only select members know certain information, serves to control access to rank, status and political power. "Elders" or "experts" regularly maintain their special position within groups by monopolizing esoteric information even from other insiders, thus buttressing their own power and status within the group (Brandt 130-34).

3.5  Matthew and the Sociology of Secrecy. In our survey of Matthew’s data, we observe that both Jesus and his enemies formally and intentionally conceal information and relationships. Jesus commands his disciples to perform their pious actions “in secret,” whereas others hide their hostility through flattery or other means of deception. We find, moreover, frequent references to manifest secrecy, that is, the “formal and overt function of certain societies . . .to hide ceremonies, rites, information and the like” from outsiders. John Pilch has argued that this is one of the chief functions of the so-called “messianic secret” (Pilch 1994).

Matthew contains both extra-group and intra-group secrecy. While extra-group secrecy can have both offensive and defensive purposes, Matthew basically describes the defensive one. As noted above, the “messianic secret” serves to deflect the attention of Jesus’ rivals, thus lessening the conflict.

     Matthean Terminology

                                        Sociological Interpretation

1. Deception, deceive

- aggressive strategy:  to harm another by hiding the evil offered (4:1-13; 24:4, 5)

2. Hypocrisy, hypocrite

- defensive strategy: to conceal weakness or evil with a facade of goodness  (23:13, 14, 15, 28)

3. Lying, lie

- aggressive strategy: to mislead others, to trick and harm them (19:18; 24:11, 24; 26:59)

4. Secrecy, secret

- defensive strategy:  to confuse one’s opponents as to intent and behavior (6:4, 6, 18; messianic secret)

- aggressive strategy:  to expose one’s opponent’s secrets (10:26) and to strengthen inner group with superior knowledge (11:25; 13:11, 34-35)

5. Appearances, appear

- defensive strategy:  like hypocrisy, to hide evil or falsehood by display of good ( 3:9; 4:1-12)

6. Ambiguity

- aggressive strategy : to claim some benefit by external display of good or by actions (23:5)

- defensive strategy:  to eradicate external markers of shame or weakness (1:19-26;

7. Say one thing, do another

- defensive strategy : to avoid criticism by false words which appear correct but which hide shameful behavior (7:21-23; 21:28-32)

As noted above, there are steps in the secrecy process, which likewise help to interpret Matthew’s data. .1. Control of Information.  Some of Jesus’ speech is addressed to the crowds, but much of it is directly only to his disciples (5:1ff; 10:1ff; 13:10-17; 24:3ff) – thus control of information regularly occurs. 2. Entrusted disclosure.  Jesus discloses important information only to the disciples, not to the crowds. For example, they are the unique, chosen ones to receive God’s revelation, not the people outside (11:25-27); they are privy to the secret meanings of Jesus’ parables, while the rest go without this revelation (13:11-17, 34-35). To Peter, James and John is given the appearance of Moses and Elijah and the theophany on the mountain (17:1-8). To Peter himself is given special revelation about Jesus (16:17), a private explanation of Jesus’ teaching (15:15), and instructions of halachic practices (17:24-27). 3. Espionage. Jesus’ opponents constantly question his disciples to learn about Jesus’ actions: why does he eat with tax collectors (9:10-13)? why he does not fast (9:14-17)? why does he violate the Sabbath (12:1-8)? does he pay the temple tax (17:24-27)? By their challenging questions, they seek to discredit him (21:15-17; see Neyrey 1998b:658-66, 671-78); they demand signs to “test him” and discredit him (16:1-4). Matthew does not report on their evaluation of their espionage.

Who knows what and when? Elizabeth Brandt’s study of the Taos Pueblo provides an  insight into the function of secrecy within hierarchical groups (1980:125-34). Information is restricted even within close-knit groups; not all people know everything. Thus we can plot out status and role within such a group: who knows something serves as an index of group status. Those in the group who are "not in the know" represent persons of low status, who are not well integrated into the social networks within a village. They contrast with the few elites in the group, who are privy to the group's secrets, and who stand atop the status hierarchy in the group and control it in virtue of their monopoly of esoteric information.. Between these two extremes we can observe a diversity of individuals in terms of the kinds of knowledge they possess (Brandt 1980:133; Hazelrigg 1969:324).  In Matthew, God of course knows all things; to a lesser degree, God’s authorized agent, Jesus (24:36). Within the circle of disciples, 1) Peter has the most knowledge and revelation, which warrants his role as “rock on which I will build my church,” then 2) the select disciples with Jesus at the Transfiguration, and finally 3) all the disciples.

What do Peter and the disciples know? They have heavenly revelation of Jesus as “Son of God” (16:17), as well as unique knowledge about God-Father and the Son (11:27). They know secrets hidden from the wise (11:25), as well as “secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11). Not only did they hear Jesus’ five speeches, they learned his distinctive teachings about Sabbath observance, temple taxes, and the like. Matthew, then, informs us that Jesus makes entrusted disclosure of the most valuable information to his disciples and especially to Peter.

The sociology of secrecy provides a useful model which accommodates Matthew’s data, not miscellaneous items but elements that constitute a common, meaningful social pattern. 1. The sociology of secrecy accurately interprets how Jesus himself constantly practices forms of secrecy, even as he engages in entrusted disclosure of his secrets to his disciples. 2. As a defensive strategy, it shows that both Jesus and his hypocritical adversaries practice the conscious defensive strategy of keeping secrets, either to protect themselves or to fend off shameful exposure. 3. And as an offensive strategy, it interprets attempts by Jesus’ adversaries to learn his secrets, to test his public behavior, so as to unmask him as a “deceiver.” His opponents then engaged in espionage to learn his identity and his teaching. 4. If knowledge is related to status and role, God knows all and Jesus knows almost all; nor is God ever fooled. And Jesus has elevated his disciples above the crowds by unique disclosures to them, and Peter above the rest by special revelations and information entrusted to him. 5. The sociology of secrecy, while a modern model, is truly cross-cultural and trans-temporal; as noted earlier “secrecy” was a pronounced element in the governments and in private life in antiquity.

But if secrecy is a pervasive, common social strategy, does it matter in the world of early Christianity if social and even heavenly rewards are given unjustly to deceivers and hypocrites? Does it matter if some deceivers are evil figures who seek to harm, enslave and destroy other persons? Underlying the contextualization of secrecy in Matthew’s world are issues of ethical chaos, sorcery accusations, crisis in theodicy, etc. Hence we now ask of the symbolic universe reflected by Matthew and his audience how the system of secrecy fits in it, and how Matthew solves the crises in such as system.

4.0 The Symbolic Universe of An Ambiguous, Deceptive World

Culture is a social construction. Peoples invest meaning in the elements of their worlds. But what meanings, and to what are they given? Anthropologists provide us with a model for asking these questions, in which they focus on key, regular topics in all cultures which are the object of interpretation, such as the following: 1. purity (is the world ordered or not? how is it ordered?), 2. rites (what boundaries exist, how crossed or maintained?),  3. the human person (group-oriented or individualistic?),  4. body (is it a symbol of unity or a stage of deception?), 5. sin (is it rule breaking or pollution?), 6. God and cosmic order, (who’s in charge?) and 7. suffering and misfortune (is suffering just or unjust?). We focus on these seven standard topics and ask what meanings they have in the culture of Matthew and his audience? Although secrecy is a common social strategy, how do we put it in the larger context or a symbolic universe.

We have a reliable model for sketching the symbolic universe of Matthew in the work of Mary Douglas (1982), its application to second-temple Judaism by Neusner (1973; 1975), the synthesizing of Douglas’ materials by Malina (1986:1-27), and its systematic use for interpreting New Testament materials by Malina (2001:161-97), Malina and Neyrey (1988:3-32),) and Neyrey (1986a:160-70; 1988:72-100; 1990:21-55). Attitudes to the seven topics vary, depending on group’s status and social location in ancient society. While we focus on the interpretation of the cosmos by non-elites in Matthew’s world (the right column), the following chart allows us compare and contrast their world with that of Temple elites.

                  Aristocrats and Temple Elite

         Non-Elites: Peasants, Artisans, Untouchables

1. Purity: strong concern to classify all things in terms of clean/unclean; clear rites for purification; purity rules define and maintain social structures

1. Purity: strong concern for purity; but interior of social & physical body attacked; rites for purification prove ineffective.

2. Rites: fixed rites which express the internal classification system of the group; permanent sacred space.

2. Rites: fixed rites which focus on group boundaries; rites aim to expel deviants from group; fluid sacred space

3. Personal Identity: focus on internalizing clear social roles; individual subservient to but not in conflict with society; group-oriented personality

3. Personal Identity: focus on group membership, not in internalization of roles, which are confused; distinction between appearance and internal states; group-oriented personality

4. Body: tightly controlled, but a symbol of life

4. Body: controlled but under attack; invaders have penetrated bodily boundaries

5. Sin: breaking of formal rules; focus on behavior rather than internal states of being; individual responsible for sin or deviance

5. Sin: a matter of pollution; sin equals corruption or disease from the social system; internal states more important than external behavior

6. Cosmology: anthropomorphic, non-dualistic; universe is just and reasonable; personal causality

6. Cosmology: anthropomorphic and dualistic; war between forces of good and evil; universe is not just;

7. Suffering and Misfortune: the result of automatic punishment for violation of formal rules; part of a divine “economy”

7. Suffering and Misfortune: unjust; not automatic punishment; attributable to malevolent forces

4.1 Purity: Order, System, Classification.  Temple elites perceive the cosmos as a very orderly and exactly classified system (Neusner 1973; Newton 1985). According to the priestly version of creation in Genesis 1, God “separated” wet from dry, dark from light, earth from sky and water, so God established a system of classifications, not only of places and things, but also time and persons. This priestly vision was embodied in the Jerusalem Temple, where all persons, places, times and things were elaborately classified. Because judgments of holiness and evil in Matthew are based on this system, we do well to examine more closely the system represented by the Temple. It admits of very precise degrees both of holiness and uncleanness. Place: As regards holiness, we find, for example, in m. Kelim a classification of space which moves from the farthest borders of Israel (not holy), to its cities, to Jerusalem, the Temple mount, the temple and the Holy of Holies (1.6-9; see Neyrey1986b:94-95). Persons: Persons, too, can be classified; for example, we find in t. Megillah a list of those who may hear the scroll of Esther; beginning with Priests and Levites and concluding with bastards, eunuchs and those with damaged genitals (2.7). As Malina has shown, the list describes different degrees of holiness to persons which correlates with space or standing: the most holy, i.e., the Temple functionaries, stand closest, while those least holy or defective in some way stand furthest, i.e., those who are defective in lineage and/or generative powers (Malina: 2001:173-76). This system makes detailed decisions about skin disease (Lev 13-14)), bodily discharges (Lev 15); animals for sacrifice (Lev 16), marriage partners (Lev 18), the physical bodies of the priests (21:17-21). Even pollution can be classified, as we find in Danby’s excerpt from Eliyahu Rabbah concerning the “fathers of uncleanness” (Danby 1933:800-804). Thus, in the ideal orderly world, the rule makers in 2nd temple Israel could map persons, places, times and things, and thus bring systematic clarity and order to the world. On this basis they evaluated Jesus.

But from a non-elite perspective, the system is not at all clear and the classifications articulated in the Temple do not match the experience of the population called “the little tradition.” For example, far removed from the Temple, the prophet John preaches “repentance” (3:2); people confess their sins, are ritually washed and so achieve purification (3:6). But some claim that he is not a prophet, but has a demon (11:18; see 21:25-27). According to the Temple system, John is at least ambiguous if not deceptively evil. Matthew, moreover, presents numerous instances of concern for holiness and purity in the work of Jesus, which differ from the system represented by the Temple.  Jesus teaches a reformed Torah (5:21-46), with more concern for interior states than exterior performance; he commands people to  be “perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:46), but a “perfection” not based on the temple’s classification system and purity concerns. Pharisees, according to Matthew, frequently challenge him (9:11, 14; 12:2; 15:2),  making plain these different understandings of holiness. These controversies dramatize different and conflicting symbolic universes; both cannot be right and so are at odds with each other.

4.2 Continued Threats; Ineffective Rituals  Labeling should function to remove ambiguity from the world; for, as a ritual action, labeling attempts to purify the ambiguous cosmos by drawing clear boundaries and distinctions.  Alas, this labeling process does not always work. Pharisees, although they publicly profess total separation from evil and zeal for Torah, are judged by Jesus to be deceivers who hide their corruption from view. Thus he likens them to whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear clean but inwardly are filled with “all uncleanness” (23:27).  They teach Torah, but Jesus accuses them of insinuating a poisonous doctrine (“brood of vipers,” 12:34; 23:33) and a corrupting teaching (“leaven,” 16:6). Their evil is doubly compounded because it is masked as good. But Jesus says that while they honor God with their lips, their heart is far from God (15:8). Yet it is unclear how successful his “hypocrite” label was. Even among the disciples of Jesus (the few, the elect, and the chosen), we learn that some say “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of God (7:21-23).  Among them, moreover, are wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing (7:15).  False prophets and false Christs will come to lead even the elect astray (24:24).  The desired classification system remains perilously threatened from without and within. The community of Matthew frequently hears certain outsiders labeled as “hypocrites”(Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5).  The ritual act of labeling is intended to introduce clarity into an ambiguous and deceptive situation. Deceivers abound not only in the synagogue, but even in the circle of disciples.

4.3 Ethical Secrets: Heart, Motives, Desires Although Matthew and other NT writers describe a divine judgment based on one’s deeds (Matt 12:37; Rom 2:6-11), these same writings state that a person’s deeds may be deceitful attempts to mask an evil heart. Deeds, then, are ambiguous and may even by deceptive.  One cannot tell a book by its cover.  In this context, we find a corresponding emphasis on the “heart” as opposed to the hands and feet or on the motive for action as well as the act itself, or on the difference between external actions and internal states (Neyrey 1988:84-87).

In several of the “antitheses” in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reforms the Torah to include correct internal states as well externally correct behavior.  God proscribes not just avoidance of murder (exterior), but also of anger and hate (interior) (5:21-22); not just absence of adultery (exterior), but also lust in the heart (interior) (5:27-27).  Hence holiness consists in agreement between deeds and desires, which precludes hypocrisy and deception. Jesus knows when the lips say one thing, but the heart another (15:8), when people speak one thing, but do another (21:28-31).  But we are always suspicious of people for their heart,  motive, and desire may be veiled by deceiving actions and words.  Actions and words, then, are ambiguous or deceptive unreliable indices of holiness, for they may be practiced to deceive others.  For example, “good deeds” (such as the strict observance of Torah) cannot function as a reliable norm of judgment. Conversely, the non-observance of the Sabbath or the absence of washing rites do not automatically indicate a sinner.

4.4 A Cosmic War of Personified Figures.  The world of Matthew and his characters is peopled with personified cosmic figures.  On one side we locate God and the angelic messengers whom God sends to aid, inform, gather, and protect the elect (1:20; 2:13, 19).  They also serve as agents in God’s final judgment, separating the good from the wicked (13:41, 49; 16:27; 18:10; 24:31).  Yet Matthew tells of a world of devils and evil spirits, who wage war on God’s people, tempting them with evil disguised under the appearance of good (4:1-13), making them ill (4:24; 17:15), sowing evil in their midst (13:39), and enslaving them.  A quick list of these personified evil spirits would include:

Beelzebul:         10:25; 12:24,27

demons:            7:22; 8:16,28,33; 9:32-34; 10:8; 11:18; 12:22,24,27-28; etc.

the moon:         4:24; 17:15

unclean spirits   :10:1; 12:43,45

Satan:               4:10

sons of the evil one: 13:28, 38-39 (Malina and Neyrey 1988:3-5)

The world, then, is fully peopled with cosmic figures both good and evil,  who are at war.

One may ask if Matthew perceives any relationship between these cosmic evil figures and 1. the “hypocrites” or 2. the false prophets, false Christs described above?  Some people associate Jesus, John the Baptizer and even the disciples of Jesus with demons: 1. Jesus as Beelzebul’s agent (12:24), 2. John:  “He has a demon” (11:18), and 3. the disciples: “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (10:25).  Some people, then, who are “outsiders” to Jesus’ circle, link him and his disciples with agents of cosmic evil powers who war on God’s holy people (10:25).  On the other hand, Jesus is wont to label others as demon possessed (12:43-45; 23:15).  The cosmic war of evil spirits, therefore, is being waged on earth by their agents and proxies.  The frightening thing, however, is the difficulty of identifying the enemy.  Evil masquerades as good; appearances are fundamentally deceiving; hypocrisy abounds.

4.5 Unjust Suffering and Undeserved Success: Flaws in a Moral Universe.  Ancient Israel boasted to the Gentile world of the excellence of its laws (Josephus, Ag. Apion 2.146), especially it ideal notion of justice rendered according to a lex talionis.  As you sow, so shall you reap (Gal 6:7; see 2 Cor 9:6).  Ideally God rewarded the pious (Matt 6:4, 6, 18), a reward proportional to their deeds (Matt 16:27; see 12:36), and requited the wicked.

But Matthew and audience do not experience a world functioning justly:  the good do not prosper, and the wicked are not put to shame.  Jesus, faithful agent of God, meets rejection and death.  So did all the prophets (Matt 5:12; 23:29-27).  The disciples of Jesus can expect unjust suffering (Matt 5:3, 4, 6, 10; 10:16-23, 34-39).  In short, the universe appears fundamentally confused and unjust. The crisis is further compounded by the uncertainty which surrounds the norms for a just judgment.  As we noted above, people such as the Pharisees perform external actions which are “observant”; but these external actions are not reliable indicators of the heart, which may be filled with “all uncleanness . . . hypocrisy and iniquity” (23:28).  Thus, people may enjoy public honor because of their observance, an unjust judgment.  Correspondingly, in the eyes of others Jesus and his disciples do not keep Torah; no wonder that according to this norm they experience criticism, challenge, and cross.  Thus, if the norms for assessing holiness are themselves ambiguous, then the judgment based on these will be unjust.

What, then, does this model of the symbolic universe of Matthew contribute to our reading of deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity? Just this: Matthew’s world is painfully filled with these phenomena, and in a way which is much more terrifying and consequential than the sociology of secrecy described. 1. It is a world threatened with chaos because the dominant classification system is inadequate: nothing seems reliable or trustworthy. 2. Moreover, it is besieged by evil attackers who defy boundaries and aggressively seek to destroy what is within the group or individuals; purification ritual to identify and expel them fail. 3. Furthermore, evil masquerades as good; a person’s deeds no longer serve as a reliable index of his holiness. This disguise, which intentional, functions to make the attacker pass unnoticed. 4. Mirroring this earthly conflict is the cosmic perception that God is at war with Satan and his minions. This explains why evil attacks good on earth, for it is but the extension of the cosmic war. 6. As a result, suffering seems unjust; the wicked prosper and the righteous are not rewarded. Truly a scary cosmos, where deception and harm are universal; but worst of all is the sense of the collapse of a moral universe.

In light of Matthew’s symbolic universe, what strategies are necessary and desirable for dealing with an deceiving and ambiguous world?  Matthew envisions a theodicy, that is, a vision of God’s just judgment in which  God will definitively and surprisingly act vis-à-vis a deceitful, lying, secret, hypocritical and ambiguous cosmos.  This judgment scenario will contain these recurring elements: 1. a revelation which clarifies ambiguity, uncovers lies, exposes deception and manifests hidden secrets, 2. a surprise or shock, as the truth is finally known and recompense is rendered, 3. a just judgment which reverses fates and awards rewards or punishments on the basis of the truth, and 4. a person with both omniscience (to penetrate disguises and read hearts) and omnipotence (to administer true justice finally). What does this look like in the narrative?

5.0 The Parables of Judgment in Matthew 25.

Matthew gathered three parables and put them togther, locating them at the climactic end of Jesus’ last discourse. Clearly he intended them to be heard as a unit, sharing repetitive rhetorical structure and recurring motifs (Davies and Allison 1988:377, 394; Lambrecht 1972:309-42). All formally deal with issues of deception, lying, secrecy, hypocrisy and ambiguity. And so, to interpret them correctly, we bring to our reading what we know of the social and anthropological materials about secrecy and deception.

5.1 Matthew 25:1-13 The evangelist tells of ten maidservants in a nobleman’s house. By telling us that five are wise and five foolish, the author invests the story with a serious moral perspective.  Some maids will enter with the bridegroom and be rewarded in his household as loyal and true servants; but some will find the door shut and the bridegroom dismissive of them: “I do not know you” (25:12; see 7:21-23).The stakes, then, are very high.

The parable contains a strong element of ambiguity, secrecy, and deception.  Ambiguity: while all have lamps, five have oil, but five do not. Neither the maids among themselves nor the audience can distinguish at this point who is wise and who is foolish.  All appear the same, and we cannot penetrate appearances to know who has oil and who does not. Secrecy: the time of the bridegroom’s return is hidden from them (and us), a secret no one can know. Vital information is withheld from all. Yet all are expected to act as if they knew; reward and punishment following upon acting as if one knew this secret.  Deception: the foolish maids are actually practicing a deception. For so important an event as the master’s marriage, all maids must have oil in their lamps.  Some are indeed prepared, but others pretend readiness. If all goes well, that is, if the bridegroom comes quickly, the unpreparedness of the five foolish maids will escape detection.  They shall have successfully deceived the groom and entered his household under pretense. The wicked will fare the same as the good, the foolish the same as the wise. Thus they shall have successfully hidden their fault and been  fraudulently rewarded.  And up to a certain point, their ruse succeeds.

Because the bridegroom is delayed, the ten maids slumber and sleep.  Karl Donfried has argued that this “sleep” means death (1974:426); if so, then in life the deception by the foolish maids went undetected and unpunished . But all maids awaken at midnight from death to face a moment of reckoning. The time of deception is over and secrets will be revealed.

This parable does not describe the bridegroom personally unveiling secrets; after all, his narrative role is that of bridegroom, not judge. But his coming occasions revelations nonetheless.  The foolish maids are exposed for what they are: culpably unprepared (see 24:44, 48-51), while the wise are shown to be prudently prepared (24:45-47).  As the parable continues, a “judgment” takes place in the characteristic Matthean form of a separation.  The foolish, who leave the house in search of oil, return to find themselves locked outside. Their appeal to the bridegroom (“Lord, Lord”) mocks their earlier attempt to deceive this same lord.  In contrast, the wise, prepared maids have accompanied the groom into the house.  Thus in the end, deception and masquerade are unveiled. The fates of wise and foolish servants are not the same.  The good are finally separated from the wicked, as wheat from chaff.  Furthermore, just rewards and punishments are finally meted out.  This parable, then, illustrates the type of judgment scenario we have been describing, where (1) ambiguity and deceit are finally unveiled, (2) the just and the wicked are finally separated, and (3) each is accorded her proper recompense, and (4) the unveiling brings surprise and shock.

5.2   Matthew  25:14-30  The parable of the pounds begins with notice about an absentee landlord, a common feature of gospel parables (Matt 21:33-36; 24:45-47; Luke 16:1-8).  The landlord entrusts three servants with substantial but differing amounts of wealth, who then treat the landlord’s wealth differently. Two trade with it and double their initial investment, while the third buries it.  Since parables function in terms of binary opposites (Crossan 1979:17-35), both strategies for dealing with the master’s wealth cannot be correct.  One strategy will prove to be honorable and deserving of reward, and the other shameful and deserving of punishment. But which?  In these details, the parable resembles that of the wise/foolish maidservants in 25:1-13: (1) a master, either “delayed” or absent; (2) servants with duties, either “prepared” with oil or clever with the master’s wealth; (3) the return of the principal figure; (4) a judgment, which separates the good from the wicked; and (5) a strong element of ambiguity and shock Which strategy will work?

Along with the preceding (25:1-3) and subsequent (25:31-46) parables, this too is about judgment, rewards and punishments. Upon the landlord’s mysterious  return, he demands an audit or accounting; moreover, in the New Testament, the end-time judgment is often cast in terms of “rendering an account” for one’s behavior:

1. συvαραι λoγov: Matt 18:23-24; 25:19

2.  _πoδωσoυσιv  λoγov: Matt 12:36; 16:27; 18:25; 20:8

3. δωσει  λoγov: Rom 14:12

4. _πoδωσει  κατα τα  _ργα: Rom 2:6

    [see also 2 Cor 5:10; 11:15; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5]

Hence, Matthew narrates a ritual event when accounts are audited, which serves as a metaphor for divine judgment and just recompense is rendered. Audits occasionally expose fraud and deceit (Luke 16:1-2); but when the accounts are balanced, justice prevails.

Rohrbaugh’s study of this parable contributes much fresh critical information for its interpretation, for which reason we summarize his evidence and argument (1990:32-39). First, he presents the appropriate economic background for peasant life, in particular the perception of “limited good” whereby all goods in the cosmos are fixed in size and volume. For someone to become richer, others must lose. Those becoming richer, then, would be thought of by peasants as thieves (“Every rich person is either a thief or the heir of a thief,” Jerome, In Hieremiam, II,V,2; CCL LXXIV 61). Second, he cites M. I. Finley’s remark that the legal interest rate in the Greco-Roman world was 12% (1973:54). Third, using Plutarch’s treatise On the Love of Wealth, he describes ancient attitudes about the wealthy who are generally portrayed as greedy: “I go on amassing and pursuing new wealth, wrangling with my servants, my farmers, my debtors” (Love of Wealth 525). Finally, the wealthy are notorious for “interrogation of servants, inspection of ledgers, the casting up of accounts with stewards and debtors” (Love of Wealth 526). Rohrbaugh draws the cultural conclusion that the master of our parable is himself very wealthy and the first two servants are rapidly becoming wealthy. The only way for this is happen in a limited good world is for others to lose the wealth these persons gain. In peasants’ eyes, then, the master and his servants cannot be upright and honorable persons, on the contrary. Second, since the wealth gained by the two servants vastly out measures what legal rates of interest would provide; one suspects, then, that it is ill-gotten gain. Third, if the behavior of the master and his two servants reflects the actions of the greedy rich, in contrast,  the third servant obeyed the law and did the honorable thing (Josephus, Ant. 4.285-87; StrB. 1.970). Traditional norms demand that we condemn the master and the first two servants, but praise the third one. Yet, just the opposite happens. The universe is thrown into chaos by the reward of the wicked and the punishment of the good. Is secrecy an issue? Ambiguity? Deceit?

As regards secrecy in the story, on the one hand, one major secret is kept from all three servants, namely, the time of the master’s return. As with the ten maids, all should act as though they knew this secret. And in fact all three servants did something in anticipation of the audit. This secret of the master’s return, then, plays no role in the story. Far from being misled by this secret, all of the servants can be said to “watch,” as good servants do.  Moreover, all three servants know very  important information, namely, the character of the master. Even the third servant confesses that he knew the measure of his master, “a hard man.” The master, then, accuses him of failing to act on this knowledge: “You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed” (v. 26). Since no secret is withheld from the servants, secrecy plays no part here; alternately, all know the vital knowledge for playing the game.

But the story is filled with ambiguity, which Rohrbaugh cleverly points out. In the peasant world of Jesus, the action of the third servant who hid the master’s wealth appears to be the right thing to do (1990:37-38).  Conservative peasant hearers would approve the traditional response of this man who continued to do what had always been done. On the other hand, the servants who traded wildly with the master’s wealth appear to have been risking his wealth, and thus putting it and the master’s honor in jeopardy. Moreover, their  actions appear to be evil, for doubling investments such as these servants did would mean theft or fraudulent dealings in peasant eyes, Israelite usury law forbade lending money at levels that could earn interest of 500% and 200%. Thus, at first glance, the two servants appear to be reckless thieves, while the third appears to have acted correctly according to peasant norms. But, as is typically the case, appearances are deceiving: things are seldom what they seem.

In peasants’ eyes, ambiguity clouds all of the story’s persons and their actions. Where a master thief rewarding his thieving servants, there would be no ambiguity. But when the third servant is despoiled and dismissed, then ambiguity descends like a fog. And if this parable is supposed to comment on the final judgment, then the moral universe of peasant hearers is turned upside down. A confused and frightening world it is when the landlord praises the apparently wicked actions of the first two servants: “Well done, good and faithful servant(s); you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (25:21,23; recall how an absentee landlord in Luke 16:8 praises his wicked servant for his cleverness in preparing for the audit of the master’s affairs). The master shocks us again by shaming the servant who did the apparently correct action: “You wicked and slothful servant . . . take the talent from him . . . cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness” (25:26, 28, 30). The landlord reveals nothing so much as a universe utterly ambiguous and unjust. Wicked servants are richly rewarded, whereas the conservative, correct servant is dispossessed and “cast out.” This is not right! Or is it? The ambiguity is painful and expensive.

What can Matthew be doing by presenting a parable of ambiguous and unjust judgment in the middle of two other parables of just judgment? It hopes to place this story alongside other parables of Jesus which also contain an ambiguous, even deceptive element. Often the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” contain an element that at first glance contradicts what we know of heaven’s God. For example, the kingdom of God is like leaven, which in Israelite and Greco-Roman cultures means “corruption” of some sort (13:33; see 1 Cor 5:6-8; Gal 5:9); yes, the kingdom of the holy God is like uncleanness. This kingdom is like a man who found a treasure, hid it and bought the field (13:44), which in Judean law was wrong (Crossan 1976 and 1979). So doing evil pays!  The same kingdom is like a merchant in search of fine pearls (13:45-46), which we just learned characterizes such a person as one of the “greedy rich.” The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed which a man sowed in his field (13:31-32); but fields must be sown with only one kind of seed (Deut 22:9). Uncleanness results with seeds and stuff and animals are mixed. In parables, then, God and God’s kingdom are regularly presented as shockingly opposite the customs and purity arrangements of Israel (Crossan 1973a:26-36). It would seem, then, that ambiguity is a regular element of Matthew’s parables. But by placing the parable of the pounds between that of the ten maids and the sheep and the goats, Matthew would presumably be suggesting an unambiguous message.

What, then, might be the exhortation contained in the parable of the pounds? 1. The “hard” measure of the master suggests that God , God’s agent, and the gospel are all turning our world upside down. They are not withholding any secrets from anyone, but demanding very hard choices. 2. The crisis of the audit lies in the ambiguity of what is the right response to this knowledge. Ordinarily, custom and Scripture would dictate what is right behavior, thus removing ambiguity and protecting peasant lives from chaos. The cosmos would then be just, because God’ will is clear and God is just in his recompense. But now God’s ways require action which in the eyes of others appears wrong, sinful, and shameful (i.e., discipleship). 3. But a final element needs to be considered: one’s actions must match one’s thoughts. It is not just those who say “Lord, Lord,” who are Jesus’ disciples, but those who do the will of his father (7:21-23). The third servant knew the vital information about his master, but his actions did not reflect it; he knew the master was a “hard man,” but did not act to please him (Mason 1990:380-81). 4. Finally, like many other sayings in Matthew, the parable of the pounds reflects a reversal of popular expectations, as the following list indicate:

1.  last is first/first is last (Matt 19:30; 20:16; Mark 9:35; 10:31; Luke 13:30)

2. smallest is greatest/greatest is smallest (Matt 13:32; Mark 4:32; see Luke 7:28)

3. dishonored is honored/honored is shamed (Matt 5:3-15; Luke 6:20-26)

4. humbled is exalted/exalted is humbled (Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14)

5. losing is saving/saving is losing (Matt 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33)

6. children are knowledgeable/wise do not know (Matt 11:25)

7. low is high/high is low (Luke 14:9, 10)

To this we add what we learned about parables above: wicked is good (i.e., hidden treasure, pearl) and uncleanness is heavenly (i.e., leaven). All of these call for hearers to act bizarrely and contrary to local expectations in the hearing of the gospel. It may be in the eyes of some that this “gospel” is indeed unclean like leaven or like two kinds of seeds in a field. And the response will be choosing death, dishonor, losing all; in the eyes of many this response will seem like unfaithfulness and wickedness. Action is called for in the parable, but not the conservative good behavior peasant neighbors would expect.

5.3  Matthew  25:31-46 The third parable describes another judgment scene. The Son of Man comes in his glory and sits on his  throne (25:31).  Before him are not maidservants or estate stewards but “all the nations” who are judged according to a surprising judgment by which the blessed are separated from the wicked. Thus, the scene unfolds as a forensic process: a judge, a norm of judgment, trial, rewards and punishments (Davies and Allison 1997:419).  Yet for all of its clarity, the parable presumes a world of disguise, secrecy,  surprise/shock, and finally revelation, items generally overlooked by scholars.

Appropriately, the Judge first addresses those at his “right hand” (Court and judges them favorably: “Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom.”  Then he reveals to them his norm of judgment: “For, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.”  (vv. 35-36).  They are surprised at the judge’s remarks, because they confess to not recognizing him when they acted: “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?” (vv. 37-39).  Then the Judge reveals the secret of secrets to them, namely, his disguised presence in their midst: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (25:40). Thus in a world where they could not discern the Judge’s disguise, they nevertheless are revealed to have acted correctly. Their surprise rests in the delight of finding an unexpected treasure and an unanticipated reward. Despite the disguise of the Judge, they did the right thing by their neighbors, although by peasant standards such liberal generosity might be thought foolishness. Judgment here is a revelation which pulls back the veil over the disguise of Jesus and the apparent foolishness of feeding and clothing non-kin; it issues in a surprising reward for those who acted “foolishly.”

When the Judge addresses the goats, he condemns them: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  His judgment rests on the same norm whereby he rewarded the sheep on his right: “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, etc.” (vv. 42-43).  Like the first group, they are shocked at this judgment, and beg for clarification: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison and did not minister to you?” (v. 44).  The Judge reveals the same secret of his disguise to them: “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (v. 45).  Like the blessed in vv. 34-40, they too lived in an ambiguous world; they too confess to not seeing him and not recognizing the disguised Lord.  They too did not penetrate the secrecy around them. One might even argue that by peasant standards they acted “wisely” by not squandering the family’s meager resources on non-family members.  Yet the Judge reveals that this calculation was wrong and culpable.

Ambiguity clouds the norm of judgment here, just as it did in the preceding parable of the pounds. How can anyone refuse basic charity to someone in need?  But in a world of limited good, where one’s honorable obligation lies in a type of generalized reciprocity to one’s family (after all, “charity begins at home”), the generous behavior of a “good Samaritan” may not appear honorable at all (Oakman 1992:117-124)  One should not take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs (15:26).  And if one does not recognize in a needy beggar a kinship bond, is the reservation of whatever food and clothing were available for one’s recognized kin so fundamentally evil? In peasant eyes, no. Correspondingly, those who act liberally with the meager resources of their kinship group to benefit outsiders would not by any means be judged wise or prudent. Thus ambiguity confronts all the narrative characters. Is “wise” really “foolish”? And “foolish” “wise”?     Pivotal to the judgment here and in the preceding parable is a revelation of secrets, the unmasking of disguise, and the clarification of ambiguity.  Things were not what they seemed, but only the Lord who reads hearts can remove all the veils and make known what was hidden.  Both good and bad are surprised, for neither knew the secret of secrets in their world: a disguised Lord. Yet according to the Gospel’s narrative logic, these participants have been warned that they live in a world of unknowable secrets.  Of the greatest secret, the day of the Son of Man, “no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, (nor the Son), but the Father only” (24:36; see Mark 13:33, 35).  Hence, they are all commanded to “watch”: “Watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).  It is only those who are “ready” who will enter (25:10) or survive a revealing judgment (24:44).  The Lord makes no apology for secrets, disguise and ambiguity; the world remains frightfully insecure and unpredictable, as he said.  And readiness and watching constitute the appropriate strategy.

In summary, judgment in Matthew’s world has to do with an _πoκαλψις, the unveiling of things hidden.  Despite what Jesus says, it is no easy matter to read either the signs of the weather or the signs of the time (16:1-3).  There are major secrets in the lives of the people of the narrative and the parables; some things cannot be known.  In a world is filled with ambiguity,  who is wise and who is foolish?  who is kin and who is not? what is right and what is wrong?  People are disguised and go unrecognized, even by the most astute.  Others practice deception, appearing dutiful while unprepared, hoping to escape detection and shame.  Hence people experience surprise and shock: surprise that they acted correctly or shock to learn that traditional wisdom no longer applies.  But all need to be told by another whether they were acting correctly; another reveals to them secrets hidden from them or by them.  The essential act of judgment becomes revelation.

6.0 Summary, Conclusions and Further Questions.

1.  Indeed,  Matthew’s world is filled with deceit, secrecy, lying, hypocrisy, and ambiguity. These phenomena span the narrative from womb to tomb. Moreover, they are not isolated phenomena, but belong to a recognizable cultural pattern of information management common in the ancient world.

2. As regards the social-science model of secrecy, this study serves to confirm its utility both in surfacing discrete data and in integrating them into a common social strategy.

3. This model has proved successful in reading John (Neyrey 1988) and Revelation (Pilch 1992a), and should prove worthwhile in other documents, such as the Pauline letters.

4. As chart one shows, the parables from 24:45-25:46 enjoy not only unity of literary motifs and common patterns, but also of secrecy and revelation. In fact, the shock and surprise which typify gospel parables is precisely the unveiling of secrets and the clarifying of ambiguities. All the personae in the parables practice some form of deception, secrecy or ambiguity.

5. . The cultural model of ancient cosmologies provides us with a larger framework in which to assess ambiguity, deception, secrecy and revelation. It helps us to uncover the judgment scenes in Matthew’s parables where revelation by bridegroom, landlord or king pulls back the veil on disguise, deception, secrecy and ambiguity. Now God can render a just judgment, for the mysteries are dispelled and true purity and holiness can be distinguished that their counterfeit.

6. Although we did not pursue one idea from the sociology of secrecy, it would seem that Brandt’s remark about who knows what and its relationship to social hierarchy is well worth pursuing With this set of lenses, one might consider again what 4 Ezra says about the esoteric character of various biblical books: “Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people” (14:45-46).


         Matt 24:45-51

          Matt 25:1-13

         Matt 25:14-30

         Matt 25:31-46

1. Delayed or Absentee Master

“master, when he comes” (24:46). . .”my master is delayed” (24:48, 50)

“the groom was delayed” (25:6)

“a man went on a journey and entrusted to servants his property” (25:14)


2. Midnight or Unknown Future Time

“on a day he does not expect, and an hour he does not know” (24:50)

“at midnight” (25:7)

“after a long time. . .” (25:19)

“when the Son of Man comes in his glory [unknown]” (25:31)

3. Separation of Characters

“faithful and wise” vs “wicked” servant (24:45, 47)

“prudent” vs “foolish maidservants

“risky investors” vs “conservative non-investor”

sheep vs goats;

foolish vs wise;

generous vs stingy

4. Revelation True Criteria of Judgment

watching and doing (24:46)

having oil in one’s lamp

risky investment = right thing to do (25:24-27) but conservative actions = wrong thing (25:26-30)

revelation of the “right” and “wrong” behavior (25:34-40 & 41-45)

5. Clarification of Ambiguity or Deception


those with oil enter, but the foolish are exposed as deceiving servants

ouch: the “wrong thing was the “right” thing; but the “right” thing was the “wrong” thing

1. Jesus in disguise: “When did we see you?”

2. the “wrong” thing was the “right” thing; and the “right” thing was the “wrong thing”

6. Shock &/or Surprise

not to faithful servant,

but to wicked one

not to the faithful ones,

but to the wicked ones

not for the investors,

but for the conservative one (25:24-26)

disbelief and shock for both parties  (25:37-39, 44)

7. Rendering True Judgment: Right Rewards and Punishments

reward for good deeds: “set over all his possessions” (24:47); punishment: “punish him” (24:51)

reward: entering

punishment: exclusion

“settle accounts” (25:19)

reward: excessive bonus

punishment: total


reward: “inherit the kingdom” (25:34);

punishment: “depart from me into the eternal fire” (25:41, 46)

8. Post-Mortem Retribution

“Master delayed” = argument for no post-mortem judgment

“all slumbered and slept

. . .they rose” (25:5-6)


return of absentee master


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