Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 54. Sheep and Goats
Mt 25:32,33 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.
Whereas I have always had the Parable of the Talents as my favourite parable, I have always felt most uncomfortable with this analogy. It comes in three parts. Part 1 is the return of Jesus and the separating out (v.31-33) that will come at the final accounting (judgment). Part 2 is his blessing of believers (v.34-40) and Part 3 is his judgment on unbelievers (v.41-46). Within Parts 2 & 3 there is a commendation/judgment by Jesus, a questioning by the people and then an explanation by Jesus. As an analogy of the End Time, it is in the general flow of all Jesus’ teaching in that last week before his death, about his eventual return and as such brings condemnation of the guilty, hope for the faithful and a warning for all.
Part 1: The Separating Out: “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.” (v.31-33) Now this conforms to the picture of that judgment given in Rev 20:11-15 and as we go on we need to note, “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev 20:12) and “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Rev 21:8)
Now what is intriguing about those verses and the ones that now come before us, is that judgment and condemnation is NOT about belief, but about behaviour, and the natural conclusion, which is so important in this parable, is that behaviour confirms belief. It is not what we say we believe or say who we are, (“I am a Christian”) it is the proof of that revealed by the sort of lives we lived. That is what makes these uncomfortable verses because it makes us look at what we actually DO rather than what we say.
Part 2: The Faithful: in what follows we find, “Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (v.34) The most fascinating part of that verses is the reference to this being God’s plan that originated right back at (before) the Creation. It was no last-minute strategy. He then gives the reason why they are in this group – they fed Jesus, that quenched his thirst, then gave him hospitality, they clothed him, they looked after him and visited him in prison. (v.35,36) That leaves the righteous showing surprise, asking when had they done that (v.37-39) and Jesus will reply, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (v.40) Now some suggest that this is all about how we respond to the Jews (“brothers of mine”) but I suggest that it could equally suggest how we respond to all other Christians. It is not, according to his words, how we responded to the rest of the world, but specifically how we respond to his family. That’s a challenge when we go into church next!
Part 3: The Unbelievers: This is the opposite. This is condemnation (v.41) because they failed to do all those things for Jesus (v.42,43). They too will act surprised and ask when didn’t they do that (v.44) and he replies, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (v.45). He concludes, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v.46) The ‘least of these’ is most likely to apply to his followers there with him, in the light of those identified in Part 2 above.
There are several additional points to be made. First, we need to be wise in understanding when we look at such a parable. A parable usually only makes one main point. Jesus’ main point here is an ongoing condemnation of the religious aspects of being a Jew, the failure of the Chief Priests, all the temple officials and religious groups like the Pharisees, to care for the ordinary people. Religious ritual is not what gets a person into heaven, it is becoming an expression of the Son of God by surrendering to him in repentance and receiving his salvation and his power and going on to reflect him throughout the rest of your life in a growing measure (see 2 Cor 3:18). But obviously it doesn’t merely apply to those at that time; it applies throughout history.
Second, I would suggest that, to keep the parable simple, Jesus only uses ‘sins of omission’, things people fail to do, because those were the areas where, say, the Pharisees failed the most. No, to quote part of the Revelation verse we saw earlier, they were not, “vile, murderers, sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, idolaters and liars.” The apostle Paul, in his former life as the Pharisee, Saul, could have easily declared that none of those things applied to him, but the way he treated ‘Jesus brothers’ clearly put him in a bad place before God, even though he did not realise it in his former blindness.
Third, we should also note that this parable does not negate the rest of the New Testament teaching that salvation starts with belief, but it does confirm the other New Testament teaching, that faith is expressed through works, is what is important (see Rom 4:6 – salvation is righteousness credited not by works, but also Jas 2:14,17 bringing the balance that it is faith seen in works).
Fourth, perhaps we might summarise this as a call to the church to look to how it cares for all areas of the church – those believers around the world (or in our own neighbourhood) who are poor and don’t know how they are going to get through the next month, or those who are sick to whom we fail to bring Jesus’ healing, or those around the world who are persecuted or imprisoned for their faith. How easy it is to forget these, but the call comes, don’t! It is a serious call from the head of the body as he reigns at his Father’s right hand. Let’s listen to him.