The Sheep and the Goats
“When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was
sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will then answer him, “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels! I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink; I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes, naked but you would not clothe me; I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me.’ Then they will answer him, ‘When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not help you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.’ These, then, will be sent off to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go to eternal life.”
Reverend Erik L. Larson
Knowing us well, and all the ways we’ll try to claim his name while still keeping our distance, Jesus surprises us by siding with the least. Like many surprises, Jesus’ surprise here upsets us more than cheers us. But this teaching isn’t intended to sit well. The stakes are too high.
If anyone thought that loving Jesus could leave out the least, they were wrong. If any thought that serving the least might keep them from having to love and honor Jesus, they were wrong. Jesus sides with the least so that any who love Jesus would learn to love the least. Only three days from his crucifixion, Jesus raises the intensity of his instruction. Here, he sides with the least so that his followers would love them in Jesus’ name. It’s what we call “justice.” Justice is close to Jesus’ heart.
The teaching on the “sheep and the goats” features a heavenly king passing just sentence on all people, sending sheep (righteous or just) to his right, goats (unrighteous or unjust) to his left. The parable language ends there, so some scholars don’t read this as a parable at all, but a word picture, a vision of the future.
The decisive king gives reasons for his division, the sheep-people and goat-people respond with surprise and the king gets the last word: “whatever you did/did not do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did/did not do for me.” Jesus closes the scene announcing inheritances— eternal punishment for goats and eternal life for sheep. Sadly, this ending doesn’t sit well with us. In the 1973 movie version of Godspell, the actor playing Jesus (Victor Garber) seems to invite the goats into eternal life—as if the goats’ injustice toward the least doesn’t really matter. But if we let Jesus speak and act for himself out of Matthew and don’t give too much credence to a movie’s creative decisions, there’s no last-second reprieve for the goats.
We squirm when hearing Jesus’ “eternal fire” (v. 41) and “punishment” (v. 46). Then again, this is how the Old Testament writers describe God’s justice against his enemies. Even if “eternal fire” isn’t literal, the phrase can’t mean that punishment from this king is good. Plus, justice must be done to the unjust devil and his servants.
Jesus sides with the least—in his own words, “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” That intentionally vague phrase could mean a call to care for the disciples of Jesus, with whom Jesus does identify himself. Yet we can be confident that “the least of these” are those neighbors of the sheep in need of compassion, be they followers of Jesus or not.
The decisive feature has to do with Jesus’ use of “brothers and sisters.” The word is used several times in the book of Matthew, most often literally. In three occurrences, context indicates the meaning “disciples of Jesus” (12:46–50, 23:8, and 28:10). But in eight other places “brother” means “neighbor.” Neighbor is the better meaning here.
Nor would we want to determine the word’s meaning out of an anxiety about teaching a salvation by works. Jesus can’t be charged with teaching that he saves people who merely do good works. Good works can never cause Jesus to save a person. Good works are the result—and the evidence—of being saved by faith in Jesus and following him. No one can claim to follow Jesus and ignore the obvious, physical needs of their neighbors. No one can substitute loving others for loving Jesus. That’s the dual focus of this parable.
Jesus is the king here, an unusual king for sure. He’s identifying with the poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned—not a typical king’s court. The crucified King who knows and bears sorrow and oppression is angry at the lack of care shown such people by the goats.
Where does that leave us? For one, since Jesus sides with the least, he commands us to serve them. Though love for the least can become paternalistic, it’s still commanded. There’s no reason to avoid it out of fear of hypocrisy or doing it badly. Jesus brings here not a new ethic but a new motivation— and his Spirit brings a new power.
Two, we who follow Jesus have fresh warrant for relating to our households and neighbors with justice. Jesus knows that it’s easy to care about many things and minister in many ways while neglecting our first neighbors and next-door neighbors. This won’t fly.
Three, we know Jesus requires his people to actively care for those in need, including those beyond the household or neighborhood. Jesus offers six different categories of care. We know where to start.