The meaning of the sheep and the goats

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 15 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 15 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, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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19 thoughts on “The meaning of the sheep and the goats”

  1. As well as this passage, there are other occasions when Jesus refers to “the least of these” or “these little ones” (most notably perhaps in Matthew 19, his apparent teaching on children)in which it is fairly clear that he is using the phrase to refer to his disciples. Thus with this passage, as Ian says, it is all about how people treat disciples, not how people treat the poor, outcast, sick or imprisoned generally. A social gospel message cannot be implied from this passage in itself.

    However, just because this passage is NOT about helping the poor, outcast, sick or imprisoned, it is not to say that such things are not good in themselves, or that the bible doesn’t encourage us to do these: merely that this passage is not the manifesto for that work. We do not need to throw the Church’s social mission out of the window just yet. There is still much beneficial work to do in applying the message of Amos, for example, and standing up for the poor, and although it is not necessarily aimed at disciples, God (through scripture) does seem to approve of altruism.

    It is clear on the basis of the Matt 25 passage that simply being a “good person” and helping the poor does not (in and of itself) make someone a Christian or entitle one to a heavenly reward. But I do like the implication that good people (be they Muslims, Buddhists or atheist/humanists) do indeed gain God’s favour when they materially help Christ’s followers. There is much to ponder in that in our dealings with those of other faiths and none. Perhaps we can look at our social mission partners with fresh eyes.

  2. Thanks for this Chris. I entirely agree with you–there is much else in Scripture saying that we should show concern and be engaged. But I have found it fascinating over the years how often people use *this* passage as the mandate, partly i suspect because it is such a rhetorically powerful piece of prose. You are right to highlight the importance of OT prophets in this regard.

    I agree with you too that it raises some difficult questions about ‘who is saved’ though perhaps part of our difficulty is that we ask of this passage questions it is not trying to answer, so we need to look eslewhere (hence my mention of Romans 10).

  3. Thanks Ian – and I too have long been persuaded of this reading of the passage. In addition to your points, I am also struck by the ‘unselfconsciousness’ of the sheep and the goats (a repeated feature of the narrative); when it comes to judgment, both are surprised that they have served (or not served) Christ by serving (or not) Christ’s little ones. The sheep haven’t done these things in order to earn a reward; they have done them as an outflow of who they are. That too fits with passages on hypocrisy in Matthew’s gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

  4. Thanks for this – I found it helpful. I’d spotted the brothers and sisters point, but not made the connection with the fact that we were meant to be the vulnerable ones.

    It of course fits within Matthew’s big picture of the redefinition of the people of Israel in terms of people’s response to Jesus and then to his apostles as well. It also puts it nicely in context within the coming persecutions of Matt 24:9 and so on. So thanks!

  5. Thanks Anthony. Also, as I have said to others in discussion, this is not the only or necessarily the key passage in engaging with questions about post-mortem destiny.

    Btw, I recently heard it said that Jesus’ use of the term ‘hypocrite’ proves that he must, at least for some of the time, taught in Greek, since Hebrew/Aramaic don’t have an equivalent word. Do you know about this?

  6. John, yes, where it might in the past have been about responding to Torah, it is now about responding to Jesus. Looking at this again, I have been amazed to see how this passage fits very closely with other passages in Matt, especially Matt 10.40f. It also chimes with Matthew’s focus on ‘righteousness’ (a word he uses seven times! and also in addition when compared with the parallels in Mark and Luke) by which he means ‘right action in response to God.’

  7. No Ian, I’d not come across that view (which, however, means very little). Interesting… Intrigued, I’ve dug a little bit and it looks like hupocrites in the LXX translates chaneph, which has a broader sense of ‘godlessness’ or ‘profaneness’ – which I’m sure you’ll know. I suppose, personally speaking, I’d be wary of hinging too much on the use of one word without some corroborating suggestions elsewhere. I wonder if context is key here. There might not be an equivalent Hebrew/Aramaic word for ‘hypocrisy’, but the prophets (and Jesus) can communicate the concept clearly enough. So, Matthew 15:7 uses the word hupocrites alongside a clarifying citation from Isaiah 29:13 – ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules”.’ Thanks.

  8. Picking up on the missiological aspect, it is extremely challenging to learn of the wonderful work as ‘missionaries’ being done by ordinary Christians working as ex pats (e.g. nurses, houseservants etc) in countries not open to the gospel, certainly not from missionaries. Also the most effective missionaroes in Cambodia are said to be the Filipinos rather than the much richer missionaries from the US or Korea.
    It seems that ‘mission from below’ is the effective form for today.

    • Timothy, I would guess that it has ALWAYS been the effective form, even though we in the west, even at the height of the foreign missions movement during the colonial period, did not recognize it …

  9. A minor detail, but as one recently returned from a week working in India in which I was surrounded by a large flock of sheep/goats, East of Istanbul the sheep are not fluffy merinos, and it takes real skill to tell sheep from goats — tails up / tails down?

    • Thanks for that observation, Alan. I guess this is part of the cultural issue in reading the parable. But I am not sure how much difference it makes to our interpretation. I have a feeling that I have heard someone comment that it is only the king who can tell the difference, which is not otherwise obvious.

      Perhaps in a small way this also supports the above reading against the popular one…?

  10. No one tells Jesus he is a bit boring, but I suspect that is the joke Luke is making about Paul’s preaching in Acts 20 when he goes to the effort to say that, despite the room being full of lamps, Euthychus fell asleep.

  11. ‘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.’ I think this is a fascinating question. It not only brings into focus those who are not Christian but act like one, but those who say they are Christian but in their lives are most un-Christlike! I often ponder this at funerals I take!

    Maybe the best any of us can do is to be a follower of Jesus as best we can, even if we do not know him ‘personally’. The Lord will judge in the end in any case.

    • Yes–we need to recognise that being Muslim is a cultural phenomenon and not just a religious one. I feel there is some connection with the fact that the first Christians were often not recognised as being ‘religious’ at all, in the traditional sense of that word.

  12. Ian, to what extent then, is this parable not about the route to salvation for a person, ie faith or works? If it possibly extends to hospitable Muslims, is there a way we can avoid the impact of that on Romans 10?

    I am very moved and I think it’s highly reasonable to make the deduction you do that we could just as easily place ourselves in the role of the ‘least of these’ as much as the sheep or the goats, and what this says about our Western idea of discipleship is challenging indeed.

    I’m going through the comments on the three different versions of this on your blog, fascinating stuff. I’m preparing for an All Age Worship service on this passage, haven’t managed to memorise it yet but it’s not a bad idea! 🙂


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