A blast will be sounded...and all the dwellers of the earth will cross before You like the members of a flock. Like a shepherd shepherding his flock...thus You will pass and count and number and visit the souls of all flesh..."
There are several apocryphal and bogus gospels which purport to contain 'the lost teachings of Jesus.' The majority of those sources are hardly worthy of mention. But we may be in possession of two 'lost parables' of Yeshua right in the Gospel of Matthew. What’s more, they are parables thematically linked to the High Holidays.
In Jewish tradition, the High Holidays of the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah)1 and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are regarded as days of judgment. Rosh Hashanah, the civil New Year, is comparable to the end of the heavenly fiscal year, so the tradition arose that God reviews the books at the end of each year. According to the classical Jewish explanation, the heavenly Court is convened on Rosh Hashanah, and books of judgment are opened before the court. Everyone’s deeds are recorded therein to be scrutinized by the Judge. The names of the righteous are written in the Book of Life; the names of the wicked are written in the Book of Death. Ten days later, on Yom Kippur, God seals the verdict, and the books are closed. The decision is based largely upon the accumulation of one’s merits or sins over the previous year. A preponderance of merit results in one’s name being written in the Book of Life. Hence the traditional greeting in Jewish congregations on Rosh Hashanah is "May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet year."
Shepherd and Judge
This image of judgment is akin to the image of Matthew 25 wherein a shepherd is recorded as separating sheep and goats (sheep on the right, goats on the left) and a king is found separating righteous and wicked subjects (righteous on the right, wicked on the left).2 Similar to Matthew 25, the Mishnah expresses the same High Holiday judgment concept in terms of a flock passing before their shepherd. God is presented as a shepherd causing sheep to pass under his staff—counting, calculating, reckoning and separating them:
At Rosh Hashanah all flesh passes before Him like the members of a flock. (m.Rosh Hashanah 1:2, cf b.Rosh Hashanah 16a).
The Mishnah was recorded less than a century after the days of the Master. It is the written version of much older orally transmitted material. Based simply on this mishnaic image of God judging all mankind like a shepherd causing sheep to pass before him, the Medieval Rabbi Amnon of Mainz composed a prayer, which has become one of the central liturgies of the High Holiday synagogue service:
And with a great shofar, a blast will be sounded...and angels will hasten...and all the dwellers of the earth will cross before You like the members of a flock. Like a shepherd shepherding his flock, passing his sheep beneath his staff, thus You will pass and count and number and visit the souls of all flesh..." (Unesanaeh Tokef from the Rosh Hashanah liturgies)
The haunting imagery of God standing like a shepherd pasturing His flock, making sheep pass underneath His staff, sounds so similar to the scene described in Yeshua’s parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' that one would expect Rabbi Amnon was actually plagiarizing Yeshua. He wasn't. In reality, Rabbi Amnon had reason to be bitter with Christianity. The Church tried to force him to convert, and, as the story goes, when he refused, the inquisitors chopped both his feet and hands from his body, one joint at a time. He was then released to live his life as a cripple, after which he wrote the prayer. Rabbi Amnon wasn't borrowing imagery from the Gospels; he was borrowing it from the Mishnah. The obvious affinity with Yeshua’s parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' may imply that Yeshua was familiar with a similar pre-mishnaic tradition.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33)
Two Lost Parables
It is possible that there are two parables missing from the text of Matthew. This is not to suggest that the Gospel of Matthew is somehow deficient or that the lost parables were included in an earlier version of Matthew. Instead, we find some pieces of parables in Matthew 25, which seem to be excerpts from longer teachings. Two seeming 'parable-fragments' are fused together to form the famous parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' of Matthew 25:31-46. Admittedly, the material communicates strongly enough just as it is written in Matthew. No improvement is necessary. But one cannot help but wonder if there might have been a longer version behind these 'parable-fragments'.
In Matthew 25, the parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' is told in conjunction with an immediate explanation. The explanation, however, sounds suspiciously like a completely different parable. The dramatic shift from one metaphor set (shepherd, sheep and goats) to another metaphor set (king, kind citizens and unkind citizens) is disconcerting. It is also atypical of Yeshua’s storytelling style. Nevertheless, it is obviously the same subject matter. The imagery of shepherd, sheep and goats transfers smoothly into imagery of the king, the righteous and the wicked. The latter explains the former; but might these have been two separate parables originally?
Yeshua commonly employed series-parables (a string of two or three parables told back-to-back) to drive home a single point. For an example of a series of three thematically linked parables told back-to-back, see the parable of the 'Lost Sheep', the parable of the 'Lost Coin' and the parable of the 'Lost Son' in Luke 15.3 Each of these three parables is linked by a common story, theme and meaning. Matthew 25:31-46 may have been taught originally by Yeshua as two separate parables: the parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' and the parable of the 'King in Disguise'.
The Sheep and the Goats
After all, there is not really a parable of the ’sheep and the Goats' in Matthew; there is only some metaphoric language employing those symbols. The text lacks several important conventions of the parable form. For example, rather than beginning with the stock parable introduction ("To what can it be compared?"), the passage begins with the words, "When the Son of Man comes." We find ourselves in the explanation of the parable before we hear the parable.
To better understand the problem, we need only compare it to the full-length text of the parable of the 'Wheat and the Tares' in Matthew 13:24-30. Like many rabbinic parables, the passage begins with a stock introduction, "The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to..." It is that statement of simile, even when it is implied rather than stated, that makes a story into a parable. The comparative language is completely absent from the parable of the ’sheep and the Goats.' Instead, it literally reads as the Son of Man coming in glory and actually sorting real sheep from goats. Not a very likely scenario.
In contrast, the parable of the 'Wheat and the Tares' is presented without breaking the allegory to explain the symbolism. An explanation of the parable is offered later in the passage (13:37-43). In the explanation, Yeshua speaks of the coming of the Son of Man and explains the meaning of the various components of the parable. The explanation, however, is a completely separate literary unit from the parable itself.
The ’sheep and Goat' piece, on the other hand, begins like the explanation of a parable we have not yet heard. Like the explanation of the 'Wheat and the Tares', it starts off explaining things in terms of the coming of the Son of Man: "When the Son of Man comes in His glory..." Aside from this explanation piece, an actual parable of ’sheep and Goats' is absent from the text.
The confusion might arise from Matthew’s typically abbreviated style. Matthew is notorious for condensing his material. It is possible that Matthew has so truncated the original teaching that he omitted the ’sheep and Goats' parable (if one ever existed) and left us only with the Master’s explanation of it. If there ever were an original parable of the ’sheep and the Goats', it might have sounded something like this:
To what can the Kingdom of Heaven be compared? The Kingdom of Heaven will be like a shepherd who kept both sheep and goats. While he pastured them in the day, the sheep and the goats mingled with one another. When he returned to lead them home he wanted to separate the two flocks one from another. What did he do? First he gathered them all before him and then he separated them one from another, putting the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
In light of Matthew’s probable 'lost parable,' we can parse the imagery of the symbolism out as follows.
- The shepherd: Yeshua
- The mixed flock: all nations
- The sheep: the righteous
- The goats: the wicked
- Singular Point: Not everyone who appears to be in the Kingdom is a genuine citizen of the Kingdom; when Yeshua returns He will sort one from another.
The King in Disguise
Just as we have surmised that there may originally have been a parable of the ’sheep and the Goats', so too, there may have been a parable of the 'King in Disguise.' Yeshua describes a king who separates the subjects of his kingdom on the basis of whether or not they fed him, clothed him and cared for him while he was disguised in their midst (Matthew 25:34-46). When the king separates the citizens, he does so by placing the righteous on his right and the wicked on his left, just as the shepherd placed the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. But here again, we are missing the original story. When did the citizens have the opportunity to care for the king? Why didn't they recognize him?
We are provided with Yeshua’s explanation of the symbolism ("Whatever you did for the least of these My brothers, you did also for Me"), but we are not given the original story. The separating of sheep and goats has nothing to do with the circumstances implied by the king’s answer. Neither sheep nor goats can be held responsible for feeding and clothing the needy.
For that reason and those cited earlier, we may surmise that there might have been an original parable of the 'King in Disguise'. If there were, it is also absent from Matthew’s text. Instead, Matthew preserves Yeshua’s explanation of the parable along with the 'moral of the story' but we are left to imagine what the original parable might have been.
A strong traditional source for such a parable is the legend of King Solomon’s exile. The legend is alluded to often and shows up in a variety of sources, so it must have been well known.4 In fact, it was probably such a popular story, that Yeshua didn't even need to retell it. He simply drew imagery from it in Matthew 25 and everyone recognized the characters.
In that story, wise King Solomon foolishly opts to dabble in the occult. He is punished for his hubris by a nasty encounter with a demonic spirit.5 The demon flings him far from Jerusalem, and then takes on his shape and assumes the throne. The real King Solomon is reduced to begging from house to house. He wanders from city to city, begging for food. Though he protests that he is actually the true king and that the man on the throne is an imposter, his claims are disregarded as lunacy. No one believes him. Some have pity on him and feed him as a beggar; others drive him away. The King of Ammon at first allows him to serve as kitchen help but later exiles him into the wilderness to starve.
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin becomes suspicious about the apparent king’s recent, strange behavior. They investigate the matter. Realizing what has happened, they seek out the real Solomon and restore him to his throne. The evil imposter is banished. Once restored to his throne, Solomon was in a position to reward those who had shown him kindness and to punish those who had mistreated him while he was among them as a beggar.
Yeshua’s parable of the 'King in Disguise' follows very similar lines. When the King is returned to His throne, his subjects are dismayed. "Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison?" The original parable Yeshua told (if there was an original parable at all) may have begun something like this:
To what can the Kingdom of Heaven be compared? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a King that was banished from His throne and wandered through His kingdom begging from place to place and from door to door. Though He cried out earnestly, none recognized Him. Some showed the man mercy, but others sent Him away. When at last He was restored to His throne, He sent His servants to summon all His subjects before Him. To those who had treated Him kindly while He was in exile He said, "Come and take your reward, for I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat..."
Acts of Loving-Kindness
At any rate, though we no longer possess the parable itself, we still possess the meaning of the parable. The criteria by which we will be judged are based upon how we treat the downtrodden among us. Feeding the hungry, sating the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the imprisoned are examples of what the Talmud calls ohsxj ,ukhnd (gemilut chasidim), that is "acts of loving-kindness."6 Such acts are regarded as higher than all sacrifices and as more meritorious than all the commandments.7 Along these lines, we can parse the imagery of the parable as follows:
- The King : Yeshua
- Those on His right : those who bestowed acts of loving-kindness upon others in need
- Those on His left : those who did not bestow acts of loving-kindness upon others in need
- The least of His brothers : the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick the imprisoned
- The reward : the Messianic Kingdom and eternal life
- The punishment : Gehennah
A midrash on Psalm 118:19 sounds surprisingly similar to the parable of the 'King in Disguise.' Psalm 118:19 reads: "Open for me the gates of righteousness..." Why does it say "gates of righteousness"? Is there more than one gate of righteousness? Midrash Shocher Tov explains the significance of the plural usage "the gates of righteousness."
In the future, they [i.e. the angels] will ask a man, "On which mitzvah did you concentrate?" If he answers, "I fed the hungry," they will tell him, "This is the gate for those who fed the hungry; you may enter!" If a man answers, "I gave drink to the thirsty," they tell him, "This is the gate of those who gave drink to the thirsty; you may enter!" The same will happen to those who clothed the naked, provided homes for orphans, practiced loving-kindness or concentrated on any of the [commandments]." (Midrash Schocher Tov on Psalm 118:20)
The Least of His Brothers
Like the sheep and goat imagery, the 'King in Disguise' parable naturally lends itself to the themes of the High Holy Days. The coming of the Son of Man and the final judgment of all nations are related to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Every Rosh Hashanah, we gather to hear the shofar blown in anticipation of the coming of the King and His coronation. And, in so doing, we should remember the lesson of Yeshua: The King wears many disguises. As we look forward to Messiah’s advent, we should remember the old Yiddish proverb, "The Messiah you're expecting will never come; the Messiah that’s coming, you never expected."
In the narratives of the book of Genesis, there is a motif of concealed identity, which culminates in the story of Joseph. Unlike the story of Solomon, where the beggar is actually King Solomon, Joseph’s story is that the King is actually your brother Joseph.
Finally, near the end of the story, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers with the words "I am Joseph." Prior to that moment they never suspected that this Gentile prince was their own brother. It was the great reversal of the book of Genesis.
At the end of the age, Yeshua tells us, there will be another great reversal. This time, however, it will be all nations that are gathered before the King. This time, the surprise will fall upon the nations, who in utter dismay will protest to the King and say,
Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?
Notice that in Matthew 25:32 the subject of the coming judgment is "all nations," a term that usually implies the Gentile nations, as contrasted with Israel. It is the nations that stand in judgment before the King. In a startlingly ironic twist on the Joseph story, He will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me." The brothers of Yeshua are the Jewish people. He is the King of the Jews. How eye-opening, that the Jewish people have been the subject of systematic persecutions in every nation where they have sojourned. How frightening that Christians (like Paul prior to his encounter with Yeshua) have been the chief among their persecutors. Is it possible that the King has been among us all these years in the guise of his brothers—the Jewish people?
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3)
The apocryphal book of Enoch brings a parallel passage which may have inspired or been inspired by the lost parables of Matthew 25. From Enoch (62:5-11) we read of the final judgment when all nations are gathered before the Throne of Glory on which is seated the Son of Man. They hope for mercy at His hands but are dismayed to find they will be punished for how they oppressed God’s Children and His Chosen.
When they see that Son of Man sitting on the Throne of His Glory, and the kings and the mighty and all who possess the earth...and all the elect shall stand before Him on that day. And all the kings and the mighty and the exalted and those who rule the earth shall fall down before Him on their faces, and worship and set their hope upon that Son of Man, and petition Him and supplicate for mercy at His hands. Nevertheless that Lord of Spirits will so press them that they shall hastily go forth from His presence, and their faces shall be filled with shame and the darkness grow deeper on their faces. And He will deliver them to the angels for punishment, to execute vengeance on them because they have oppressed His children and His elect. (Enoch 62:5-11)
Behind the Disguise
The King is among us today. We need to learn to see through His disguises. He is among us in the shape of the infirm, the elderly, the sick and the poor. He is in the guise of the famine-faced children placed before us by charitable organizations. He is among us in the faces of our brothers and sisters persecuted by hateful men and satanic regimes around the world like Sudan, North Korea and China. He is among us in the guise of His beloved Jewish people. The Master is among us now. The King is in disguise, and one day, it will be the big Rosh Hashanah—the day of reckoning—and the disguise will come off. He will recognize us; will we recognize Him?
The Master teaches us that our faith must be primarily a faith of doing good deeds. Ours must be a faith of giving. It must be an open-handed faith that results in kindness towards human beings. God is not overly impressed with us for keeping the Sabbath. He is not 'indebted' to us for keeping the festivals. The Master is not handing out pats on the back for blowing shofars, but He is touched when we meet the needs of the needy. Whatever we do for the least of His brothers, we do for Him.
This year, as we prepare to face the King, let’s set our hearts and our hands to the tasks that have been laid before us so that when we stand before Him we will not be ashamed.
Let’s place the things of the Kingdom before our own needs and desires. Seek first His Kingdom, His righteousness.
- The Feast of Trumpets is known in Scripture as Yom Teruah, or the "Day of Blowing". It is also commonly called Rosh Hashanah which literally means "head of the year," and represents the traditional Jewish New Year.
- See Matthew 25:31-46 for reading of the complete parable.
- See the article "Black Sheep in the Flock," Bikurei Tziyon Issue 78, pp. 16-21. See also comments on Luke 15 in Torah Club Volume Four.
- See m.Sanhedrin 2:6, b.Gittin 68b, Ruth Rabbah 5:6.
- In some sources "an angel".
- Eg. b.Sukkah 49b
- 7 b.Shabbat 127a