The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats; Judgement Day

  • Question from NM, United Kingdom

    In Matthew 25 verse 31-46, Jesus tell the ‘sheep’ that they are righteous because they have done acts of kindness for ‘my brethren’, but the goats are classed as unrighteous because that did nothing ‘for the least of these’. Who was Jesus referring to as his brethren?

    There is some debate over whether the story of the sheep and the goats should be regarded as a parable at all. In his classic The Parables of the Kingdom, C.H. Dodd compares it to judgement scenes in the apocryphal Book of Enoch (footnote, p 65). Dodd regards this story as apocalyptic with the only parabolic elements being the labels ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’.

    However, whether this is a parable or an apocalypse, the main hermeneutic principle remains the same. Finding the motive behind the passage and who it was aimed at will enable us to apply the message. This whole chapter consists of warnings to be watchful and mindful of the Lord’s return through the definite parables of the Ten Virgins (verses 1-13) and the Talents (verses 14-30). This follows on from Jesus’ comments in chapter 24 verse 36 that nobody knows the day and the hour of the Lord’s return.

    The Virgins are split into two groups – the ones who are not ready and the ones who are. The Servants are similarly split with the good servants using their talents to prosper their master, while the wicked one buries his talent in the ground. When we come to the sheep and the goats however, the split is slightly different. For one thing, the Virgins and the Servants know what is required of them and they either live up to expectations or they do not. The sheep, however, seem quite mystified as to why they are being accounted as righteous.

    Of course the main thrusts of the story are aimed at two groups of people – the disciples (and later the Christians reading the story) and the ruling religious elite. When the King accounts the acts of the righteous, he accounts acts of mercy carried out unwittingly, not rigid adherence to the Law. This echoes chapter 10 verses 40-42, where to receive the disciples or offer them water, is to receive Christ and be rewarded. While left unstated, the implication is that the goats expected to be accounted as righteous. They protest that they have never ignored the needs of the King they see before them and that is when the dreadful sting in the tale of this apocalyptic parable comes in.

    So, who were the brethren? Is Jesus saying that anyone who shows kindness to his followers will be accounted as righteous? On the one level, maybe he is (especially taking into account chapter 10 vv40-42), but given that this story will have been recounted within the Christian community it seems unlikely that the earliest Christians read it merely that way. It may have been an encouraging word to them when they faced persecution – the knowledge that those who misused them now would get an unpleasant surprise on Judgement Day. But equally it was a reminder, like many gospel stories that what you actually do in this life is more important than what you say or believe (cf Luke 7 vv 44-48, Matthew 21 vv28-32, 23 vv23-4).

    Bearing that in mind, asking ‘Who does he mean by ‘the brethren’?’ is reminiscent of the expert in the Law who asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ in Luke 10 v29. The Christians who recorded Jesus’ story would know that the response to that expert’s question was the Parable of the Good Samaritan and that therefore, for a Christian, everybody was a neighbour to be loved. The fact that, on Judgement Day, the things done for the insignificant (‘the least of these’) is counted as righteousness implies that everybody is significant and nobody’s needs should be overlooked.

    Drawing an arbitrary line because it seems that Jesus is only referring to believers as his brethren is a dangerous act. The point made to Jesus’ followers is that they should treat everybody as if they were meeting Christ’s own needs. By attending to the needs of anyone, even the least, you avoid the risk of ending up a goat.

    Thanks for your question, NM.

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