THE SHEEP AND THE GOATS
Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31 – 46) has long served to terrify Christians into ever more measures to bring relief to the needy and to the economically and socially desperate, writes Rev Sydney Maitland. In this sense the parable fits well into a certain political and cultural narrative and suggests that unless immediate and extensive measures are rapidly brought into effect then the individual’s own eternal salvation is at risk.
And Jesus’ discourse at this point certainly does nothing to discourage bringing relief to the poverty-stricken. Indeed, the responses of the goats to the words of condemnation do not question the rightness of the criteria under which they are judged. There is no question that they thought the obligation to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked or to visit the sick or imprisoned to be excessive or over-zealous.
Their problem was different: ‘When, Lord, did we fail to recognise YOU?’
In the modern setting our western societies can point to the scale of the welfare state, the health service, the education service, and the number and variety of charities all devoted to the relief of poverty, in all its manifestations.
Looking at the Government’s income and expenditure figures, (taken from a daily newspaper) the budgets of the redistributive ministries can be seen as including the Department of Health (£155bn), the Department of Education (£102bn), Social protection activities consume £252bn, and personal social services consume £32bn. This adds up to £541bn, out of a budget of £808bn, or 69%. Defence consumes £49bn: less than 1/10 of that social budget, or 6%. Income tax contributes £185bn, Corporation tax £55bn, business rates £30bn: a total of £270bn.
So a politically or culturally-led interpretation does not really do justice to this parable and something else must be involved.
And here it is worth looking at the place of the parable in Matthew’s gospel. It is part of a series of Parables of the Kingdom, beginning at chapter 25:1 with the 10 virgins, then at v 14 there is the Parable of the Talents. The Parable of the sheep and the goats follows this parable and is followed by the Passion narrative, beginning with the plot against Jesus and the anointing of His feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee. So the parable of the sheep and the goats is the last of Matthew’s Parables of the Kingdom – indeed it is the last of all His parables in Matthew’s gospel.
But the Parables of the Kingdom are preceded by Jesus’ teaching in chapter 24 on the Last Things, which is a long discourse on coming persecutions, natural disasters and a solemn warning about the coming ‘Rapture’ of the church in which it will be withdrawn from the earth to join Him in the heavens. This chapter is long, complex, partly-symbolic and quite frightening.
Then come the parables of the Kingdom of which this parable of the sheep and the goats is part. And the sheep and the goats have their own structure and style, and are set out like a drama with dialogue between the Son of Man (v31) or the king (vv. 34 and 40) and the sheep and the goats, who are specifically taken as constituting the nations of the earth summoned before the Lord for judgment. It does not therefore refer to personal salvation – rather it is about the responses of the nations to those in whom Jesus has personally identified Himself. In this sense it is worth reading the parable as if it were a drama and looking at the astonishment of the sheep at being praised and the horror of the goats at being judged. And as I said earlier the crux of the parable is not so much whether either the sheep or the goats heeded the circumstances of the needy, but whether as they did so they recognised who among these were Jesus’ own brethren – indeed whether they were ministering to Jesus Himself or had felt free to ignore Him altogether.
In Matthew 12: 46-47 Jesus is told of His mother and brothers wanting to see Him, and says it is those who hear the word of God and do it who are His brethren. His brethren are identified specifically with those who relate to Him and who follow His teaching. This teaching of just who are the brethren of Jesus is clear and emphatic.
The same theme is there in John’s gospel, where in chapter 17 He prays for His disciples but not for the world. (v9). These are ‘Those you have given Me for they are Yours … and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world’ In v 14 He prays: ‘I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.’
This gives us a lens to help us see into who and what the sheep were caring for and who the goats were ignoring. These are those who in times of persecution were being reduced in their circumstances, sometimes to the place of homelessness and starvation, even of imprisonment. They are not the well-connected or the well-provisioned who could make provision for themselves but those whose provisions were now exhausted as they depended on the kindness of strangers. A good example from history is how the Nazis stripped the Jews of all they possessed, including homes and funds, when they were allowed to migrate, and before initiating their ‘final solution.’
This parable is a solemn warning of judgment of those who could have given succour to the brethren and disciples of Jesus but refused or neglected to do so. It applies to the people and their nations as a whole – their cultures, attitudes, media, social organisations and governments. It is not however an excuse for ignoring the gospel message of salvation as the gift of God received by personal faith and practised in the details of daily life. And it can never therefore be an exercise in salvation through works, apart from and ignoring the same gospel message of salvation in Jesus Christ. That is not how these things work.
But it is yet another passionate and emphatic study in how Jesus is personally committed to those who receive Him in their hearts and who follow Him in their lives. And it applies especially to those facing persecution or extermination in their own lands.
- How have you understood this parable in the past?
- How do you see it now?
- What emotions does it leave you with? Fear? Encouragement? Hope?
- If we exclude this parable from Jesus’ teaching as pointing to His concern for the poor and the desperate, what other parables would we point to for this purpose?