Jesus’ ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31–46 is very well known and widely misinterpreted. It forms one part of the extended teaching about ‘the end’ distinctive to Matthew (compared with Mark and Luke). It is most commonly interpreted as an injunction to help the poor; most Christians (in the West at least) read this more or less as the sheep being Christians, the goats being non-Christians, and ‘the least of these my brothers [and sisters] being the poor in general.
I thought this too, until I had to read this in the context of the all-age part of our main service about 20 years ago. It is quite a long reading, so I was worried that the children and young people would get bored. But then it occurred to me: in the gospels, no-one ever tells Jesus that he is getting a bit boring. (What is it we do to Bible reading which makes it boring?!)
So I decided on Saturday night to learn it and recite it by heart. (I can still recite it word for word many years later.) The effect was electric, and particularly memorable for those sitting on my left…and it made me change my mind about the meaning of the parable, which is a good argument for learning Scripture.
- Firstly, as Dick France points out in his commentaries, Matthew never has Jesus refer to his ‘brothers’ or sisters as anyone other than those who do the will of God by becoming his followers. This is particularly clear in Matt 12.49, when Jesus is rather radically proposing that his new family are the disciples gathered around him (which of course includes women).
- Secondly, Jesus is clear that to follow him means to be homeless; in reply to a teacher of the law who would follow him, Jesus replies: ‘Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Matt 8.20 = Luke 9.58). In other words, if you follow Jesus you will be like him, and this is to be without home, a wandering stranger, reliant on the charity and provision of others.
- Thirdly, at the end of Jesus’ second block of teaching in Matthew (which Matthew attaches to the sending out of the 12 in chapter 10) we have a very similar idea—whoever receives the disciples in effect receives Jesus, and how they treat the disciples is in effect how they treat Jesus. (These verses, Matt 10.40-42, don’t have an exact parallel in the other gospels, though there is a similar saying in a different context in Mark 9.41).
France, in his comment on Matt 25, describes this as the closest Matthew gets to a Pauline notion of the believers as the body of Christ, and it it likely that Paul was shaped in this by the words he heard on the Damascus Road. Persecuting Jesus’ followers, he hears Jesus ask: ‘Why do you persecute me?’
Reading the passage in this way (which we must if we take its context in Matthew seriously) has huge implications.
- To follow Jesus means (to risk?) being hungry, thirsty, naked, as stranger, sick and in prison. This has not been hard to imagine for many Christians in many parts of the world in many times in history. In fact, it is perhaps only in a rich West that Christians could have misread this teaching, by naturally reading themselves in the role of the powerful helper rather than the powerless in need of help.
- It raises big questions about the status of those who don’t appear to have named Christ as Lord (Romans 10.9), but have responded to Christ in being the ‘sheep’ who have assisted his disciples because they are his disciples. This question was raised by someone listening to me teach on this recently, who works in inner cities primarily with Muslims. ‘If my Muslim friend helps me out are they counted as sheep?’ In a sense it asks the bigger question of whether it is possible to become a Muslim follower of Jesus rather than become a Christian.
- Finally, it suggests a rather different model for mission. We are not going as the strong with resources to help the weak, but we come as the weak ready to receive from those to whom we have been sent. And of course this is the idea behind the idea of finding the ‘person of peace’, taught by Mike Breen and others from the sending of the 12 and the 72 in Luke 9 and 10 and Matt 10. You can read about this in my co-authored Grove booklet How to be Fruitful.
As Rob Dalrymple highlights, it also has contemporary implications for how we think about the current situation in the (so-called) Middle East.
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27 thoughts on “Interpreting the sheep and the goats in Matt 25”
The idea of a sort of hospitality test in the context of judgment is reminiscent of the story of Genesis 18-19. The fact that Christ comes in the form of a needy stranger seems to be very significant, and may offer a way of overcoming something of the opposition between the two principal readings suggested for the passage.
Thanks, Alastair, that’s an interesting link. I guess the difference is that in Matt 25, it is not just any stranger but the stranger disciple of Jesus in whom Jesus himself is present.
Yes, although the unknown strangers in Genesis 18-19 are angels and a theophanic appearance. The thing that interests me about the connection is that Sodom is condemned for its more general sin of inhospitality, of which the treatment of the angels is just the highest instance (Ezekiel 16:49-50). Conversely, the Abrahamic example of hospitality to the three angelic visitors is exemplary of our duty to entertain strangers more generally in Hebrews 13:2—who knows, they might be angels!
There is a more general pattern in the gospel of escalating inhospitality, which leads to climactic judgment. The blood of the prophetic messengers is spilt and then the blood of the Son is spilt too. The fact that Christ comes as a stranger, and not even just as a stranger who is known as a minister of the gospel, puts the weight of the test upon our more general practice of hospitality. The stranger who brings the test is a brother of Jesus and occasions the judgment of those who fail, but to pass the test we must be engaged in a more general practice of hospitality. It is like the boss who goes undercover and tests his employees on how they treat customers.
Both those who pass and those who fail the test are unaware that the test occurred. Those who pass pass because of their more general posture of concern to those who are created in God’s image. It seems to me that this offers a way to retain the strengths of both readings.
If your ‘….but have responded to Christ in being the ‘sheep’ who have assisted his disciples because they are his disciples’ is right there has been some response to/recognition of Christ by the sheep. The signs of saving faith may often be weak, vague and faltering. ‘But many that are first shall be last; and the last first’.
Compare Mark 9:41, ‘ Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward’.
Thanks, Phil. Yes, I mention the ‘cup of cold water’ as point 3 above, and link the parallel to Mark.
I understand why you and other biblical scholars take this interpretation – the use of brothers does suggest it, and recalls other passages in Matthew as you point out, and I’m almost convinced. However, the reason why I still feel like the traditional/standard interpretation is correct – and I appreciate I’m not a biblical scholar, but if you’ll indulge me – is this: the teaching comes as the third of a triplet of judgement teachings in this section of Matthew, and appears as the climax of them, as they are the climax of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The first is the parable of the bridesmaids/virgins, the second the parable of the talents. Then, without a pause, comes the sheep and the goats, the judgement of the nations. On the face of it each seems to be elaborating on the same theme, setting out a different aspect of it. The first is about being ready and ‘staying awake’. The second elaborates what readiness looks like: being fruitful for the kingdom. The third, it therefore seems to me, is naturally understood as elaborating what fruitfulness looks like: hospitality, compassion, care for the poor and stranger – the fruit of good works. Each casts a little further light on how God will judge humankind, and hence also what it means to be a follower of Jesus: readiness (which requires faith), fruitfulness (the outworking of faith), compassion (love). Each therefore has a clear practical imperative for Jesus’ followers to take on, linked to judgement: be ready, be fruitful, be compassionate.
The problem with the reading you suggest, it seems to me, is that it would be an unanticipated change of focus, which it is not clear the hearers would have registered – certainly most readers through history have not registered it, hence the traditional reading. The first two teachings are clearly about the judgement of all people, which includes Jesus’ followers: he is exhorting his followers (who will be the only ones actually paying heed to his teaching of course) to be ready and to be fruitful. If the third teaching, on compassion, is not also about the judgement of all people, including Jesus’ followers, then given this context the change of focus really needed I think to be clearer, to avoid the widespread ‘misreading’ that it has encountered.
The traditional reading sees it to continue the theme of setting out practical imperatives which Jesus’ followers need to follow if they are to find themselves on the right side of judgement, fleshing out what it means to follow Jesus and have faith in him. The reading you suggest, in contrast, gives practical imperatives of compassion to everyone other than Jesus’ followers (though they won’t be paying heed to this teaching, of course, somewhat blunting the rhetorical power). Insofar as it gives practical imperatives to Jesus’ followers it is to expect to be dependent on the compassion of non-believers. While I see how you arrive at that idea, it does seem to me a strange teaching for such a climactic passage in this context; the traditional understanding, of Jesus concluding his teaching ministry by exhorting his followers to compassion themselves, seems much more natural, and in line with the theme of the section. It also makes sense of the rhetoric, which is I think clearly intended to induce those who are listening (i.e. Jesus’ followers) to take seriously their duties to the needy and misfortunate.
That’s my take on it, anyway, and why I plan (at the moment at least) to stick with the traditional reading.
Will, a couple of things to note here.
First, what you offer is not in fact the ‘traditional’ reading: mine is. I have not done the research myself, but I am led to believe that you reading was almost unknown before around 1850.
(Actually, there is a detailed analysis here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2014/11/who-are-the-least-in-the-parable-of-the-sheep-and-the-goats.html )
Second, in the narrative there are actually three groups of people. The ‘least’ might be amongst the ‘goats’, but in the narrative they are distinct actants.
Third, I think your point about eschatological context actually supports my reading here. The idea we should care for the poor doesn’t have much of an eschatological dimension to it; it is a general ethical command, and we here it in numerous places in the gospel and epistles. The preceding parable, of the talents, is not about using our ‘gifts’ ‘fruitfully’; the treasure is the good news, not our paltry abilities. So it relates to the eschatological judgement following our participation in the spread of the kingdom.
Likewise, this parable is about the eschatological division that will become evidence based on the way that people have responded to us as we have gone about sharing good news and testimony of the kingdom, investing our treasure in the world about us.
Thanks Ian, that’s a really helpful reply.
As far as I can see, my interpretation is found in e.g. Matthew Henry (1706), John Gill (1748) and John Wesley.
‘Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it to me’ — What encouragement is here to assist the household of faith? But let us likewise remember to do good to all men.
‘Then shall the righteous answer’ — It cannot be, that either the righteous or the wicked should answer in these very words. What we learn herefrom is, that neither of them have the same estimation of their own works as the Judge hath.
Henry remarks similarly that: ‘The expressions are parabolical, designed to introduce and impress these great truths, that Christ has a mighty regard to works of charity, and is especially pleased with kindnesses done to his people for his sake.’
So Wesley (and Gill and Henry) see ‘brethren’ to refer primarily to Christians, with a secondary reference to all acts of charity, but the judgement is of all people (including Christians) and the sheep are believers. Hence Wesley says: ‘I was hungry, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink’ — All these works of outward mercy suppose faith and love, and must needs be accompanied with works of spiritual mercy.
Wesley, Gill and Henry also take my interpretation of the parable of the talents: see http://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=wes&b=40&c=25.
I’m sure we can both find papers to back up our position. Here’s one for mine:
It notes that parable ‘stock imagery’ includes ‘Sheep: God’s people (Matt 25:31–46)’. It adds:
‘Whether Jesus originally pronounced the four parables of Matt 24:45–25:46 (The Faithful and Unfaithful Slave, the Ten Bridesmaids, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats) together without intervening comment, we do not know. But, it is no mistake that we find them together and that they follow immediately on the heels of his eschatological discourse of Matt 24:1–44. The parables all call Jesus’ disciples to faithful obedience as they wait for his return.’
I grant that the use of brothers implies a primary reference to Christians – as per ‘love one another’. But I really don’t think that the sheep can be taken as any other than those of the Shepherd’s sheepfold, and the teaching, as per its context, as having any intention other than challenging its (believing) hearers to care for the (believing) poor.
Will, thanks for doing the homework! But your quotations support my view I think! Look at Wesley: ‘What encouragement is here to assist the household of faith?’ Care for the poor in general he adds from other sources, but not from here! Henry: ‘and is especially pleased with kindnesses done to his people for his sake.’ Note the ‘to his people’!
I have no doubt that Jesus wants us to care for the poor—but that is not what this passage is about!
I think we’re talking a little at cross purposes. The main point I’m disputing is that the sheep aren’t believers, and that the teaching isn’t aimed at encouraging Jesus’ followers to acts of charity. I was, I appreciate, also arguing the brothers are the poor in general, but accept that that is a secondary meaning (though most commentators do seem to have recognised this secondary implication, as with Henry starting with the general point, or take the opportunity to make it).
But that’s largely by the by. The main point I’m disputing is that the sheep aren’t Christians, and the teaching isn’t aimed at encouraging Christian charity. That’s also what I think those quotes show was not the standard historical interpretation.
Hi Ian, sorry I am a little bit late to the discussion, by a few years!
I was just reading this passage and I came to the conclusion this passage about sheep and goats was not referring to followers of Jesus, but to the people still on earth at Jesus Second Coming and how they treated his brethren (both Jew and gentile). It makes perfect sense! We are his brethren and according to Paul and John we would have already been transformed and in our new glorified bodies, hallelujah!! Makes absolutely no sense we would be standing before Jesus in this way to be judged after his return! (obviously their will be the judgment seat of Christ) a judgment of rewards for faithful service, and we will already be in our immortal bodies!
All that said, it certainly does raise a serious question I hardly dare ask for fear of being labelled a heretic, is there hope for those who are not born again who show acts of kindness to God’s children? I have to say in light of some other Scriptures possibly, ‘the cup of water’ for one, and what did Paul mean when writing to Timothy he said, ‘Jesus is the saviour of all men, especially those who believe’? I am no universalist by the way! Possibly those who show kindness to his family are allowed to enter the millennium kingdom, just a thought! I know not all believe in a literal reign of Christ on this earth, but I am absolutely certain of it!
After reading this passage today, I asked the Lord is there any one else that sees it this way, and I was led to your site!
Dear William, thanks so much for your comment. Yes, that is the challenge in this reading—but as you point out, it is a problem raised by texts across the New Testament.
But I think, to start engaging with this, we need to separate out two issues:
a. Is the grace of God in Jesus, received by faith, the sole means of our salvation? I cannot think of any reason not to say an emphatic ‘Amen’ to that.
b. Is such grace received by faith *only* effective in those who visibly become part of the ekklesia of his disciples? I think I would want to offer a more qualified answer to that—not least because it is God who sees the hearts of humans, and it is not my position to render judgements on this.
As I see it, the problem with the traditional interpretation is that it struggles to fit with the fact that there are three groups in the parable: sheep, goats and ‘my brothers’. And it further implies that ‘my brothers’ are the whole of mankind. To me those objections outweigh your objections to Ian’s take on the passage. And I suggest that we should not rule out the possibility that ‘nations’ are, as elsewhere in Matthew, gentiles.
I don’t think it’s right to say there are three groups, or at least not three distinct groups. There is no reason why the ‘brothers’ cannot be among the sheep and the goats. The sheep and the goats are mankind understood as moral agents, being judged for their actions and attitudes. The brothers are mankind understood as people with needs, and especially the most desperate and needy. So mankind as moral agents (sheep and goats) are being judged according to their response to mankind as people with needs. But of course, there is only one mankind, and these are the same group of people. (If the nations are the gentiles then of course that includes most Christians, and as per the Great Commission we know Jesus fully expected to have followers in every nation, so there is no reason to regard the nations as being distinct from Jesus’ followers.)
Why then does Jesus refer to the needy here as his brothers? I suspect one reason is the one that Ian is rightly stressing: that often it is Christians (especially those who have heeded his radical call to leave everything and follow him) who will be among the needy. And these will be the needy who his followers are most likely to come across, as members of their own churches. He wants his followers (who are the only people who are going to be listening to this teaching and following it) to see that when they aid their fellow believers, including the poorest and most needy, it is Jesus himself they are serving.
But I do also think that Jesus is here identifying with the poor and needy in general, just as God does in the OT when he describes himself as their defender. I think the imagery is intended primarily for rhetorical power rather than technical interpretation: the needy are Jesus’ brothers, that’s why you can understand serving them as serving him. Likewise with the surprise of the ‘sheep’: it’s a rhetorical device reflecting the surprise of the listener rather than necessarily reflecting an actual surprise among the blessed. A similar use of rhetorical device can be found in the teaching (on a similar theme) of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke: the imagery is for rhetorical effect and is not intended to imply, for example, that heaven is Abraham’s bosom, that those in torment can see those in heaven, or that the reason those in heaven cannot soothe those in torment is because of a deep chasm.
I do think the rhetorical point is among the most important: the whole way the teaching is expressed it feels like it is exhorting the hearer to acts of compassion and hospitality – be a sheep and not a goat, don’t fail to recognise Jesus in the needy. Just as the first parable said: be a ready bridesmaid; and the second: be a fruitful servant. Yet on the alternative interpretation it is doing no such thing: the believer who is listening to it is simply being told that those who help him or don’t help him will be judged accordingly. I’m not saying that’s not a valid message – it is in line with the cup of water for prophets stuff earlier on. But it just isn’t what it feels like the rhetoric of the teaching is trying to do. Like the first two parables, it is surely exhorting the listener to be on the right side of the judgement presented.
Anyway, that was another long comment, well done if you made it this far!
If Ian is right to this we might want to add Jesus coming to the woman at the well in Samaria John 4:4-30. I may well be off base here, however we read that whilst the disciples go to purchase food, Jesus gets thirsty. The Samaritan lady arrives and Jesus chooses to communicate His need to her – seemingly for her to help meet that need. Jesus makes the well in effect seem like her front room, and He the guest.
As the scene plays out, Jesus starts from the place of needing something, she alone (at that point) appears to be able to satisfy, and by the end she realises its Jesus all along who has something she needs to really satisfy her deeper thirst. A thirst hitherto she had been failed to fulfil through a string of (presumably failed) marriages. And all this through Jesus seemingly starting from a position of being in need.
I would simply like to “like” your comment. It seems like there are other theologians and thinkers who have espoused taking to the “lower rungs” of the ladder, and I am thinking of Jean Vanier’s From Brokenness to Community and Arthur McGill’s Death and Life. Thanks, Ian, for such a refreshing post!
A very interesting post, Ian!
I have wondered if some of the people we think may be regarded as ‘sheep’ at ‘the end’ may actually be regarded as ‘goats’ – I am thinking of Matthew 7:21-23.
I have also wondered if some of the people we think may be regarded as ‘goats’ at ‘the end’may actually be regarded as ‘sheep’. I am thinking here of John 10:16 – ‘And other sheep I have which are not of this fold.’ I don’t know who these ‘other sheep’ are, though I have heard and read various explanations of it, but I wonder if included as ‘sheep’ at ‘the end’ might be some Muslims, as suggested by Ian in point 2 above, and the Samaritan woman at the well, as suggested by Dave Eadie in his delightful comment on this page.
I think it is fairer to suggest this is a passage whose meaning is contested. As the culmination of Jesus teaching in Matthew’s gospel it is of real significance, so it is right we wrestle with its meaning.
It does come as the third of the three “parables”, and it does seem to hint that the use of our “talents” might be to give to the needy.
It is one stream to see the use of “brothers” as consistent, which would support Ian’s approach, but if the talents are being understood as giving rather than hoarding, then maybe here at the end of the teaching we find the “brothers” now including all humanity not just Jews. That is also a “logic”.
The opening teaching of Jesus in Matthew is “Blessed are the poor in heart ..” The closing teaching is about those who feed the hungry etc. The phrase “poor in heart” is also one which does not give up its meaning too easily, not least because it may be that the later returning exiles claimed a status of spiritual poverty, in a way which took away the more fundamental meaning from earlier times.
If the poor in heart are those who are really poor – parallel to Luke’s version – and reading the Beatitudes with a more material viewpoint, then the logic of teaching in Matthew is strong. Blessed are the poor, in God’s eyes, who are already in the Kingdom, and blessed too, with the Kingdom, are those who seek to meet the needs of the poor. Is such a theology agin the grain of Jesus’ teaching. Although it is in different terms, it catches the direction of Isaiah 61 / Luke 4, and the upside-down Magnificat.
Matthew’s gospel which calls for faith also reminds us that it is by the fruit that we shall know them, that it is the doers of the word not the hearers only, etc etc. It is a gospel in which the empty-actioned “pharisees” are particularly accused.
As a believer who reads the gospel I am challenged in the final chapter to be ready, to have shown I have used what I was given, and to have responded to need and the needy. If I have not done that I think I count as those at the end of the sermon on the mount, false prophet, those who say Lord, Lord, but do not do the will of the Father, the fool who hears but does not act and builds on sand in the water-course.
I know others find a different logic in Matthew, but for me the challenge which was laid down in the sermon on the mount is repeated at the end of the gospel. Matthew knew how to teach and set out Jesus’ teaching. And the expansion of the “brothers” is what we might expect, for the good news is for all, ..
I wonder if we are wary of reading this in this way – and for centuries this passage was interpreted as not being about Christians or being about only having concern for Christians – wary because it calls us to have to “do” in a world where need is getting greater and closer. I would disagree with Ian therefore on the history of reading this passage, and feel it is the material challenge of this passage which is the greater challenge for those of us who have more than we need.
Thanks Peter…but I guess I would like to challenge you to locate your reading canonically within the context of Matthew’s own use of terms, which to me looks pretty decisive.
In amongst this post http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2014/11/who-are-the-least-in-the-parable-of-the-sheep-and-the-goats.html is some history of interpretation, and it points out that your reading is a pretty recent one, and most of the fathers and doctors of the church have followed the reading I suggest here.
I might also add that the Church in Britain today finds it much easier to care for the poor, and rather harder either to articulate the gospel or be ready to suffer for the sake of following Jesus…
Sherman Gray wrote a fairly exhaustive summary of interpretations of this passage – The Least of My Brothers – which was published in 1989. I think there is a subsequent doctoral thesis by Gaylen Leverett – Looking for the Least – 2007. The history of the interpretation of this passage is very much that the least refers to the poor Christians, but Gray makes the point that it may be illuminating to note the position of the writers. To what extent are we ideologically subject, leading to a particular way of reading, and this is a question which affects all positions. As the centuries have passed so the church has recognised various captivities or positions and has changed its line, most obviously on slavery, where amelioration gave way to abolition. Slightly simplistically, Liberation Theologies highlighted the poor, not as those to whom charity might be given, but as those who suffer injustice. Cue major debates on justice and how justice, righteousness and salvation are all understood. It is not just about caring for the poor, but working for justice such that widespread poverty is no longer.
I think there is a good argument for a consistent reading of Matthew which highlights the doing of the word not the hearing only, known by the fruit which is certainly in part our concern for justice, justice to be done, and priority consideration for the victims of injustice. It is the clear structure of the Sermon on the Mount, and it becomes the culmination of the teaching in the gospel.
I do not see why Matthew would give so much time, and repeat for emphasis, (in a gospel which is primarily for believers), a passage which is about those who might give food and help to poor believers. The traditional reading might iron out a concern that Matt 25 is promoting salvation by works, but that then indicates a theological / ideological lens on the text.
Canonically I think a reading which challenges us to see Jesus in the poor, and calls on us to act / work for justice as people of faith, is to affirm the life and teaching of Jesus _Luke 4 for instance. It is not a “social gospel” but part of the gospel call. The BCP chose a key verse at the time of the offering – “That they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
I think this is a different view from yours, and from Will Jones. Hopefully we gain from continued conversations
Ian, I’ve finally got round to reading this and realize that in my response to your comments on my post, I have misunderstood your position. I think I understand it better now, although I still don’t entirely agree with it. Personally I have never understood the ‘sheep’ to be Christians and the ‘goats’ to be non-Christians – bearing in mind that Jesus also talks elsewhere about those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ but are not in fact his disciples. I have generally understood it to be about how Jesus calls all people to behave, and to reinforce the point that disciples are known by their fruits, not by their words. Strangely it was not till I had been a Christian around 45 years that I noticed the passage talks, not about gathering the believers to judge them on their works, but about gathering ‘the nations’. So the dividing line in judgement is not between those who profess belief in Jesus, and those who don’t, but between those who do the works of Jesus and those who don’t. With a little imagination we can also take the reference to ‘the nations’ to apply to how nations treat the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst – which certainly currently places our own nation among the goats. I do think your interpretation has some intellectual logic, but as a mere lay person who however has written Bible notes for over 30 years, my gut tells me I want this to be about care for anyone in need, not just believers. However your point that believers should expect to be homeless, hungry, sick or in prison is a very apposite one, which my Mennonite tradition has always held to. Which hedge are you currently sleeping under? 😉 I know I’m not experiencing these privations, and I doubt if many of your readers are.
Thanks for taking the time and trouble to engage with this Veronica—much appreciated.
‘Personally I have never understood the ‘sheep’ to be Christians and the ‘goats’ to be non-Christians’. No, and I do not believe that either. In terms of Matthew’s vocabulary, ‘the least of these my brethren’ are those who follow Jesus. ‘Sheep’ and ‘goats’ are not those who have either decided to follow Jesus or not, but those who respond differently to God’s people who are the presence of Jesus in the world. This is a very difficult idea for anyone who believes that you need explicit confession of Christ to be saved (as in Romans 10.9–13).
‘my gut tells me I want this to be about care for anyone in need, not just believers’ and we often want passages to mean things which reinforce our convictions. But good exegesis allows the text to challenge, not just confirm, our intentions, even if those intentions are well founded.
‘What hedge are you sleeping under?’ Well, it is quite a nice hedge, but it is not the place I would have been living if I had continued working in business (in the same place as Justin King https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justin_King_(businessman) Richard Baker (who ended up heading up Boots) and Allan Leighton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allan_Leighton ) nor even where I would have been if I had remained in stipendiary ministry.
Really appreciate the insights and civil discussion here- something we struggle with on our side of the pond. My modest reflections on this passage resulted in a Christianity Today article, “What You Probably Don’t Know about ‘The Least of These.’”
You are mistaken on the commentary.
Jesus and the disciples carried money with them and even had a treasurer. They had means to buy food. The parable of the sheep and the goats is how believers in general treat the poor.
Thanks for commenting…but I am not sure what the disciples carrying money (for which, by the way, they depended on the generosity of others, as Luke 8.1 makes clear) has to do with this.
You haven’t actually engaged with the key points made here—the problem of surprise, the use of ‘these brothers’ elsewhere in Matthew, the correlation with the ‘cup of cold water’, and so on.
Pslams 79 13 and 100 3 make it clear that Gods people are called sheep. No way is he going to change that meaning later. The Goats are the Devil and the fallen angels as well as those who follow him. That makes the scripture in mat 25 easily understood. Its judgement time and easily understood unless you complicate it with twisting and making new meanings for words. I have never believed that just because it was good enough for grandma it is good enough for me. I want the truth and have found that when i pray and read God’s word and allow the Holy Spirit to be my teacher, and not a man, i seem to come away with a different perspective than most articles i read. I think the old kiss rule applies here. Keep it simple stupid. Thats my take, but i enjoyed all the different explanations. We just need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
Thanks. That would be great…except that the ‘sheep’ here do not realise that they have encountered Jesus, which contradicts the idea that Jesus’ sheep ‘know his voice’ (John 10).
So the sheep cannot be the people of God in the way that you suggest.