Original post at http://milewis.wordpress.com/2014/11/22/parable-sheep-and-goats/
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)
The Parable of the Judgment of the Nations
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
When Christians live vulnerable lives in order to fulfill the mission of Christ, God will hold the people of the world accountable for how they receive them.
Jesus’ teaching on the Son of Man’s coming judgment of the world in has had a tremendous impact on the church for thousands of years. For the most part, I think we’ve only understood a fragment of what Jesus intended to tell us in these verses.
The Future Judgment
Some interpreters have focused their attention on the first few verses.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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)
A day of final judgment is coming. Eternal life and death hang in the balance. As we read on, we discover that some will inherit the kingdom of peace and blessedness prepared for them from the creation of the world. Others will face annihilation – the eternal destruction from which there is no escape – the “fire” that will ultimately consume even the devil and his minions and rid God’s creation of every menace.
The medieval cathedrals of medieval Europe frequently portray this scene from Matthew 25 in carvings over the doors of the sanctuary. Jesus is seated on his throne. The people of the world are gathered before him. The saved are on his right; the damned are on his left.
Way back when I was in school, I remember teachers telling me that the medieval church wanted to frighten churchgoers into submission with the image. The carving reminded those entering the cathedral that someday they would have to stand before the Lord and account for their lives. In light of heaven and hell, they’d “better shape up” and do what the church told them to do.
I’ve taken a close look at the tympanum of Notre Dame in Paris, and I’m not sure that’s all that the artists wanted to say. There’s a lot more grace in those carvings than I think my professors saw.
The reality and finality of the last judgment, though, has certainly been a prominent feature of the church’s teaching over the centuries. There is a rather straight line from the New Testament to the cathedrals of Europe to the camp meetings of early America to the frequently heard question, “if you were to die tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?”
As much as I hate evangelistic strategies based on fear, the truth is, everyone will someday have to stand before God and give an accounting of their lives, with their eternal destinies hanging in the balance.
Everyone will acknowledge Jesus as Lord. To some, Jesus will say, “Come even closer to my side. Come inherit the kingdom.” To others, he will say “Depart from me forever.”
This is one aspect of Jesus’ instruction, but it is not the main point of the entire teaching as we find it recorded in Matthew.
Mercy and Compassion
Others have focused on mercy and compassion. They key in on verses 35-36:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)
Feeding the hungry. Tending to the sick. Clothing the poor. Visiting the prisoner. Welcoming the stranger. These are essential to true religion.
We chaplains are very familiar with the story of Saint Martin of Tours. Martin was a Roman soldier in the fourth century – the time when Christianity had just become legal in the Roman Empire. Martin himself was in the process of becoming a Christian when he saw a scantily-clad beggar near the gates of the city now known as Amiens in northern France. Taking pity on the man, Martin cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed he saw Jesus himself wearing the cloak he had given to the beggar. In his dream, he heard Jesus say to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not yet baptized; he has clothed me.” The vision confirmed Martin’s faith and he became a Christian and a leader in the church. The remaining fragment of his cape became a holy relic, and the clergy who cared for it became known as “chaplains.”
In the 1800s, there was a very lovely story written by Leo Tolstoy with a similar point. One night, Martin the shoemaker dreamed that Jesus would come visit him the next day, so he stood by his window and watched for the savior to come. He saw an old man had once served in the army shoveling snow just to earn a few dollars. He invited the old man to warm up. Martin served him cup after cup of tea, and as the two talked Martin told him stories about Jesus who cared for the poor. Later he saw a young women struggling with baby standing in the cold, and he invited them in to get warm. He gave the young woman – a soldier’s wife – some soup and he took care of the little one while the mother ate. Before she left, he gave her something warm to wear. Still later, he saw an old woman fighting with a young boy about an apple the boy had stolen, and the intervened in the struggle. He made the boy apologize and then he paid for the boy’s apple. He talked to the woman about Christ’s forgiveness and helped her move beyond her anger. But he never saw Jesus, and he was disappointed. That night, Jesus appeared to him in a dream again. Only this time, he also saw the people whom he had met during the day and he heard Jesus say these words:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
There is a rather direct line in the church’s teaching from the New Testament to Martin of Tours to Leo Tolstoy to the people today who call themselves “Red Letter Christians.”
Sacrificial kindness to the poor, the weak and the vulnerable is a virtue that Jesus raised to a new level in everything he said and did. Christians are to be generous to those in need. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors, as do the law and prophets of Israel.
This is also one aspect of Jesus’ instruction, perhaps closer to Jesus’ intent, but neither is it main point of the entire teaching as we find it recorded in Matthew.
Jesus’ Jewish Message
We often call this a parable, but it’s more like an ordinary figure of speech drawn from Jewish apocalyptic and Old Testament imagery.
A day of judgment is coming. God wants his people to be merciful and compassionate. For the people who heard Jesus speak, this was not new information. Many first century Judeans already believed in a coming day of judgment. All first century Judeans should have also known that they needed to be kind to one another. Jesus didn’t have to tell them these things. He may have needed to remind them; we all need reminding from time to time, but neither of these things was at the heart of Jesus’ unique message.
So what did Jesus and Matthew intend for us to hear? Why did Jesus give us this teaching, and why did Matthew include it in his gospel?
Vulnerable Witness for the Kingdom
Here’s the purpose of Jesus’ message in Matthew 25:31-46 as I see it:
As Jesus approached the time of his crucifixion, he took this opportunity to encourage his disciples to continue their mission in Christ-like vulnerability. As they traveled from town to town proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick and casting out demons, Jesus and the disciples were extremely vulnerable. They literally depended on the kindness of strangers for their food, shelter and clothing. Jesus wants the disciples to know that the crucifixion doesn’t invalidate the approach Jesus and his disciples have taken during their mission. The resurrection will vindicate Jesus and Jesus’ parousia will vindicate his disciples.
When Christians live vulnerable lives in order to fulfill the mission of Christ, God will hold the people of the world accountable for how they receive them.
It’s all about the Kingdom
Following Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the first thing that Matthew tells us about Jesus is this.
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Jesus began to preach the coming of the kingdom. The coming of the kingdom was the regular focus of his words and actions. The proclamation of the kingdom was an ongoing activity. One could look at everything Jesus did and said in Matthew’s gospel as the out-working of this one verse.
The restorative power of the coming kingdom was present in the ministry of Jesus. When he healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons, these were not simply acts of compassion; they were foretastes of the power that would transform creation when the kingdom fully arrives. The kingdom power in Jesus, however, was not brute force. Jesus’ humility and vulnerability were also key components of the kingdom’s reconciling power. Together, the cross and empty tomb embody the reconciling and restorative power of the kingdom.
Jesus’ teaching and preaching were also focused on the kingdom. It is possible to interpret some of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom in a sense that emphasizes God’s presence in the individual believer or the community of faith here and now. Luke records that Jesus said, “The kingdom of God in your midst.” (Luke 17:21).
Much of Jesus’ teaching, however, points to a reality that modern people have a hard time accepting: God’s kingdom will come in history at some point in the future and transform all of creation.
The material in Matthew 24-25 concerns the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but looks beyond that historical event to the future coming of the Son of Man in power and glory. The parable of the sheep and the goats is set in the in that context and concerns the judgment of the nations.
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
The eschatological framework is more than a literary device for Matthew. A day of final judgment is coming. Eternal destinies are at stake. One of two fates await those who stand before the throne of glory: salvation or destruction – the kingdom of the blessed or the eternal fire.
What is the basis of Son of Man’s future judgment? On what basis will he divide the sheep from the goats? The blessed are those who welcome, feed, clothe and visit the Son of Man. Ah, but the blessed do not remember doing so. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
The key exegetical question, then, is “Who are these brothers of Jesus whom the people of the nations feed, clothe and visit in this parable?” In the context of Matthew’s gospel, the “least of these my brothers” are Christian disciples.
The Pre-Resurrection Mission of the Twelve
The key to proper understanding of this parable is found Matthew 10. Here, Jesus sends out his disciples in mission to the lost sheep of Israel. Like Jesus, they are to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God and demonstrate its nearness in acts of power. They are to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8).
The sending of Jesus’ disciples was part-and-parcel of the “Jesus act” that defeated sin and death. He sent the disciples to live the same reconciling life and to perform the same restorative acts of power that he himself performed.
Jesus sent his disciples without “gold, silver, or copper for your money-belts. Don’t take a traveling bag for the road, or an extra shirt, sandals, or a walking stick, for the worker is worthy of his food. When you enter any town or village, find out who is worthy, and stay there until you leave.” (Matthew 10:9-11)
The disciples’ humility and vulnerability were part of the mission; they demonstrated the depths of God’s love and compassion in Jesus. Without resources of their own, the disciples were literally dependent on the kindness of strangers for food, drink, lodging and clothing.
In Matthew 10, it is those on the receiving end of the disciples’ ministry who were expected to feed the hungry, shelter the sojourner and clothe the naked – that is, the disciples who took no money, no clothes and who depended on the hospitality of strangers during their mission.
If the people who heard the message and experienced the works of power offered hospitality to Jesus’ disciples, it was a sign that they had accepted the disciple’s message. If they withheld hospitality, it was a sign that they had rejected it. The eternal destinies of those who heard the disciples’ proclamation depended on whether they welcomed or rejected the message and the messengers.
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15)
In fact, “the one who welcomes you welcomes me, and the one who welcomes me welcomes Him who sent me,” Jesus says. The evangelist concludes Matthew 10 like this:
Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
We might imagine that there would be many who would have treated the early Christians decently without necessarily buying into the whole Jesus story they were offering. “Here’s a cup of water and a tuna sandwich, but I’m not really interested in your dying and rising savior.” That’s a modern perspective that doesn’t fit the ancient world. It’s easy for us to miss just how polarizing a figure Jesus was and how powerful an act hospitality was considered to be. Even the offering of food and water could be a risky commitment. The parable is built on the premise that there was a close relationship between welcoming Jesus’ messengers and welcoming Jesus’ message.
The little ones, then, who need drink – and food and shelter and clothing – are Jesus’ disciples.
In Matthew 12:49, Jesus explicitly identifies his disciples as adelphoi mou – my brethren. In Matthew 28:10, Jesus also uses adelphoi mou in a way that most logically applies to his disciples. In fact, I cannot find one instance in which Matthew uses adelphoi in the broader sense of “people in general, just because God loves them.”
The parable of the judgment of the nations builds on the context of Matthew 10. We find much of the same language in Matthew 25:31-46 that we find in Matthew 10: the use of the diminutive (“little ones,” “least of these”) to refer to Jesus’ disciples – the need for the disciples to receive food, drink and shelter from those to whom they are sent – God’s verdict on the day of judgment riding on how the disciples are received – and the hidden truth that how one treats Jesus’ disciples is how one treats Jesus himself.
The Post-Resurrection Mission of the Church
After he rose from the dead, Jesus modified the disciples’ mission.
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Now the message of the kingdom was not confined to the lost sheep of Israel. It should be shared with everyone. The missionary activity consisted of baptism and teaching, not healing the sick or casting out demons. In this new situation, Jesus did not repeat his instructions about carrying no bag or performing acts of power. The intended effect of these actions had already been accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The parable of the sheep and goats uses language drawn from the “lost sheep of Israel” mission of Matthew 10 and applies it to the church’s post-resurrection mission. Even though the mission has changed substantially, the terms of Matthew 10 still apply. God will hold the people of the nations accountable for how they receive Jesus and his message. The disciples continue to represent Jesus himself. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Despite the fact that disciples are no longer required to live a mendicant life, they still remain extremely vulnerable. Food, water, shelter, clothing and care represent Matthew-style hospitality. In addition to their other hardships, the disciples will now face persecution and rejection as well:
Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. (Matthew 24:9)
Hence the need for prison visits as well as food, drink, shelter and clothing. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, these simple gifts represents a positive response to the message of Jesus. Those who welcome and care for Jesus’ brothers and sisters are actually responding positively to Jesus himself and are thus numbered among the righteous.
Vulnerable Disciples in a Changing Culture
Where does the church resemble the vulnerability of the disciples? In North Korea, Iraq or Syria, where one is a Christian only at great risk to one’s own life? Certainly.
In Africa or South America, where the Christian faith is growing by leaps and bounds among some of the poorest people in the world? Certainly, as well.
But what about us? The church in the United States and Europe doesn’t have as much power or influence as it used to have. People who oppose are getting bolder. You can’t take Christian ideals for granted anymore. Based on this passage, it might be possible for us to tell our fellow citizens, “You had better treat us right, or God is going to get you.”
But that’s not the purpose of this passage. Triumphalism is a misuse of Jesus’ words. It’s not about our privilege or power in this life; it’s about Christ and his kingdom. And to be honest, most of us don’t come anywhere the first disciples when it comes to laying our lives on the line for Christ and his kingdom. In my little world, anyway, the issue of whether my neighbors will offer Christian missionaries a meal and a place to sleep seldom comes up. Most of the Christians who live around me are neither starving nor naked.
Where Christians have gone from a being a poor and powerless minority to a powerful presence in the community, we need to guard against using this parable in a way Jesus did not intend. It’s not about threatening the people of the nations with hell if they don’t give us the respect we think we deserve. Christians who use their economic and political freedom simply to enrich or empower themselves need to learn more about the savior that Matthew reveals to us.
Christians today might ask themselves if they could ever be mistaken for “the least of these my brethren.” Is there in fact any recognizable continuity between the band of disciples in Galilee and Christian churches of, for example, America and Europe? There are places in the world where being a Christian can still get you bombed, beheaded or run out of town, places where the name of Christ remains a barrier to prosperity and power. Many Christians still suffer persecution and oppression. I am grateful that this is not the case where I live, but I still need to think about how Christians can live their lives – and carry out Christ’s mission in the world – in a way that reflects what we see in the story of Jesus. Do we exhibit the gentleness and grace and vulnerability that we find in the church of the New Testament?
For those of us who live in this changing culture, Jesus’ message calls us back to a vision of Christian mission shaped by the life of Jesus and his disciples and the early church, a vision ultimately shaped by the cross of the one who humbled himself and became a servant for our sake.
If there is risk involved – if that kind of life makes us vulnerable to those who reject Christ and his loving reign – remember that God is our vindicator. As soldiers, we defend the innocent, but all the armies and laws and governments of the world put together cannot give us the kingdom of God.
Finally, if God will hold the nations accountable for how they treat his people, perhaps we should also treat each other well. Christians, too, are among “the people of every nation.” Commenting on Matthew 25:40, John Wesley said:
What encouragement is here to assist the household of faith? But let us likewise remember to do good to all men.
Matthew 25:31-46 envisions a time in which the disciples’ mission to the lost sheep of Israel has been extended to all the nations of the world. The people of the world will be responsible for their response to the church and its message. Those who welcome the church and its message have actually welcomed Jesus himself. Those who reject the church and its message have rejected Jesus, and with him, the grace of God that brings salvation.
Jesus, then, is not saying, “People of the world, your religion doesn’t matter. What matters is how you treat the needy.” Neither is he saying to the church, “Your primary job is to be kind to those in need.” Rather, Matthew intends this parable to be an encouragement to a grace-filled and vulnerable church that humbly carries Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a sometimes hostile world. God will hold the world accountable for how it receives those whom Jesus sends in his name.
God’s salvation – his kingdom – awaits those who gladly receive his reconciling and restoring grace in Jesus. His judgment awaits those who reject it. The church continues to proclaim the message of the kingdom and invite people to accept that grace in baptism and obedience. How the people of the world receive the message (and its messengers) is a decision that carries eternal consequences. How the church proclaims the message is a measure of its own faithfulness to the one who gave himself for us.
[Originally published November 14, 2011. Revised and expanded November 22, 2014.]