What did Jesus have against goats?

The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31–46 isn’t actually a parable (since there is no suggestion that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’), and isn’t really about sheep and goats (as we shall see). But it is very well known, and is most commonly interpreted as an encouragement for followers of Jesus to care for the poor.

In the narrative, there are three groups of people: the ‘sheep’ who are placed on the king (= Son of Man)’s right; the ‘goats’ who are placed on his left; and the ‘least of these my brethren’ who are the ones who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison. The story itself is very memorable; many years ago I learnt it by heart and performed it as the Bible reading in an all age service, and I noticed the four-fold structure of dialogue, and the six experiences of the ‘least’ which are grouped into three pairs (hungry/thirsty; stranger/naked; sick/in prison). In each of the four repetitions in the dialogue, this list of six things gets slightly compressed at the end. This kind of structuring to Jesus’ teaching is common, especially in Matthew’s gospel, and it makes it very memorable.

The most common interpretation of the narrative allocates the people groups in the following way. The ‘least of these’ are the poor in general; the sheep are those (probably followers of Jesus, obeying his teaching here) who care for the poor rather than just having a theoretical faith; and the goats are those who neglect Jesus’ teaching. Thus this becomes a general argument of the importance of caring for the poor.

But this interpretation has only been around since around 1850 (which raises issues about how we should response to ‘novel’ interpretations…) and in fact has some serious obstacles to it.

The first is the issue at the heart of the narrative itself. When the king invites those on his right to ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world…’, they respond with complete surprise, and the king has to explain that ‘Whenever you did this for the least…you did it for me’. Likewise, those on his left are also surprised to have encountered the king in his moment of need. If the narrative were about helping the poor, then those who helped the poor (having read this story!) would hardly be surprised to find that they had been doing as the king asked.

But there are wider problems with the interpretation, when it is read in the context of Matthew’s gospel as a whole. As Dick France points out in his commentaries (NIC and TNTC), Matthew never records Jesus referring 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). Moreover, 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 could involve being without home, a wandering stranger, reliant on the charity and provision of others.

Put together, these point to the ‘least of these’ not being the poor in general, but being Jesus’ own followers. Thus those on the king’s right are people who have welcomed his poor followers, and in doing so have welcomed Jesus. 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?’

So the division is not between those who care for the poor or don’t (and there is plenty of encouragement to do that elsewhere in the gospels), but those who care for the followers of Jesus or don’t—and in doing so reveal their attitude to the king himself.

But the question remains: what has Jesus got against goats? Why in the narrative does he appear to use goats as the metaphor for those who neglect the needs of his people?

At last week’s British New Testament Conference, Richard Goode, of Newman University in Birmingham, explored the question in one of the short paper sessions. It was a great presentation, a model of clarity and with lots of slides of goats—and who could resist a paper exploring Jesus’ ‘apparent antipathy towards goats’?

Richard began by noting the importance of mixed sheep/goat herds in the near east. This is reflected in some of the OT narratives (such as Gen 32.13–15) where herds are a sign of wealth and power. In richer pasture further west in the Mediterranean, the land is good enough to support single-species herds. But further east, where the grazing land is scrubbier, then mixed herds are essential, since the goats can graze the harder ground.

Herding mixed-flocks in resource-poor areas is advantageous. The goat’s non-selective diet and ability to independently forage harsher, scrubbier locations complements the sheep’s requirement to graze more grass-rich habitats, thereby efficiently exploiting different portions of the same pasture. More importantly, mixed-herding not only ensures optimal pasture use, but also preserves precious ecological resources. Too many of either species in a flock (sheep or goat) could mean the depletion and possible destruction of pasturage (which would normally be shared with other herders) or an inability to access adequate resources for flock survival. A careless shepherd was not only putting their own livelihood at risk but the livelihoods of neighbouring herders too. Consequently maintaining the right balance between goats and sheep was essential for the preservation of pasturage and the flock. Sasson observes that mixed-herding also has an economic rationale: A herd of around 2:3 goats and sheep ensured satisfactory wool production while maintaining herd security. Zooarchaeological data suggests that the goat-sheep ratio within ancient Israel could be as high as 8:2, although more typically it would be between 1:1 or 1:3.

Why then does Jesus appear to have a negative view of the goats in Matt 25? This passage has almost universally been read in the light of the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matt 13:24-30, so that the emphasis of the contrast is between the good ones and the bad ones. But in Rabbinic literature, goats are seen as of equal value with sheep, and in some cases more valuable. Goats have a higher milk yield than sheep, and so the idea of the promised land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’ is actually most likely a reference to the benefits of a land where goats graze. Interestingly, many commentators think that Jesus’ teaching in Matt 25 has been influenced by Ezekiel 34:17-22, a passage which mentions the action of separation as judgement, and includes a reference to both sheep and goats:

As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet? 

Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says to them: See, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 

The key thing to note here is that judgement is not on the basis of type of livestock, but on the behaviour of each. Matt 25 appears to be making the same kind of distinction.

So what is going on? Goats reproduce faster than sheep, and if a herdsman is going to keep his flock properly balanced, then as a matter of course he will need to cull the male kids (baby goats), since otherwise they will outnumber the sheep, and with too many males he will not have a supply of milk (a small herd would typically only need a couple of males). When we look at Matt 25, we see that the word translated ‘goat’ is actually the word eriphos, the male term for a baby goat—also used ironically by the elder brother in Luke 15.29. So Jesus’ reference to the separation appears to be drawing on a well-known and regular occurrence in herding—the separation out and culling of the young male goats the herdsmen would do as a natural part of their work.

In other words, the focus is not on the different types of animals, but on the process of separation. This is supported when we read on in the parable; beyond Matt 25.32–33, the two groups are not again referred to as ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’, but as those on the king’s right and on his left. Reading the text carefully in its cultural context actually drives us back to read the text itself more carefully. Someone suggested to me in conversation a modern equivalent which could have been used a few years ago: ‘The king will separate the nations as easily as a housewife separates apples from pears’. This no longer applies, since all sorts of people do shopping, and fruit now comes in separate bags—but it illustrates the point.

I previously noted some challenging lessons from this better reading of the narrative:

  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.

Thanks to Richard Goode’s fascinating paper, we need to add another: Jesus will separate those who have responded to him, in whatever way they were able, from those who have rejected him. We might not be able to tell the difference now (since we do not know the secrets of people’s hearts), but he will be able to do so just as easily as a herdsman separates his flock for culling. He is a competent and a just judge, and we can trust him to do his job.

(Many thanks to Richard for sharing his paper and PowerPoint with me.)

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27 thoughts on “What did Jesus have against goats?”

  1. To add an African context here: my father went to northern Nigeria (around Sokoto) in the 1970s and observed mixed grazing of sheep and goats, as in Palestine. Because of the leanness of the sheep (no Romney Marsh around Sokoto!) and the dusty nature of the soil, it was impossible to distinguish between the sheep and the goats, save for one important feature: goats’ tails stand up, sheep’s tails hang down. One might usefully consider what are the distinguishing features which Christians will take with them to the Final Judgement?!

  2. Interesting to learn about the goats!

    I really think (and I know I write this each time you post on this) that this teaching needs to be located in its context in Matthew 24 -25 as the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on the final judgement. After the mini-apocalypse in chapter 24:1-44 Jesus gives four teachings which set out the criteria for judgement: the two slaves (be faithful), the ten bridesmaids (be awake), the talents (be fruitful) and the sheep and goats (be compassionate). The root saying is in 24:44: ‘be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.

    I agree that the ‘least of these brothers of mine’ refers to Christians, but to needy Christians (the least), and this teaching, like all the teaching in this section, is directed to followers of Jesus about how they respond to the word and how they will be judged. In this case about how they treat their poorer fellow believers. This is in line with the teaching in John (love one another) and James 2 (‘If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food… faith without works is dead.’). We see in the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave the importance of how the slaves treat one another.

    It is true that since the rise of the social gospel in the 19th century the ‘least of these’ has been applied to the poor more broadly, which historically was regarded as at best a secondary meaning of the teaching. But the interpretation you favour, in which the ‘least’ are (all) Christians and the sheep and goats are non-Christians being judged on how they treat Christians, is also relatively recent interpretation. It has a number of problems, such as:
    1) It doesn’t fit with the context of the preceding section which is all about how believers are to respond to Jesus’ teaching and will be judged;
    2) It suggests this climactic teaching of the Gospel, unlike those immediately preceding it, is directed not at followers of Jesus, who will be inclined to follow it, but at those who don’t follow Jesus, who have no reason to hear it or obey it. This makes little sense of its imperative tone;
    3) It implies (as you note) that there is another way of gaining eternal life, not by becoming a follower of Jesus, a brother of the king, but by being kind to them. This suggests that many (most?) people will be saved not by becoming Christians but by being kind to Christians. This further suggests that our mission strategy should focus not on trying to bring people into the church but on convincing them to be kind to us, which is surely much easier for them and us. But the NT gives us no reason to think there is this route B for salvation and mission.

    So I still think that the traditional interpretation – that the sheep and goats is a powerful reminder of the importance of caring for poorer fellow believers – is the most convincing.

  3. Didn’t NT Wright change his mind on this, from brothers (Christians) to include non believers? Or have I got that wrong? I always understood it to refer to believers, followers of Jesus, and was surprised, but not really persuaded, to hear of the change from Wright (I think it was listening to him at a conference – approx 2000 – rather than from any of his books but it might be in Matthew for Everyone). I don’t know if Wright has set this in the same context or with the same points of emphasis as set out by IP and WJ or links it to salvation.
    And isn’t the scriptural, Good News, order that imperatives follow on from indicatives.

    Ian wrote this:”1 To follow Jesus means (to risk?) being hungry, thirsty, naked, as stranger, sick and in prison. ”
    Yes, indeed. Last weekend, Saturday, I attended a 70th year anniversary of a local FIEC affiliated Church. Jonathan Lamb was the preacher. 2 Corinthians 4 was his text. He started with this being part of our calling in following Christ.

    In addition, I’d suggest that to become and be, live as a Christian, follower of Jesus is to recognise that we ARE : hungry, thirsty, naked, as stranger, sick and in prison. That only he satisfies, clothes, homes, heals and releases.

    However, I don’t think any of this negates Christian Prison Fellowship, prison visiting, under the “neighbour principle). In the West, today . so far, there are unlikely to be many imprisoned, solely for their belief in Christ

    Don’t let anybody get (on) your goat- isn’t evidence of fruit of the Spirit?

  4. Thanks for this piece, Ian.

    Although three groups are mentioned, as you describe, it isn’t obvious that the the third group (“the least of these my brethren”), is a group separate from those on the left or the right. It’s surely explicit that everyone, all people, is in the first two groups, on the left or the right.

    And why shouldn’t the narrative have both groups as surprised. It isn’t really addressed to the characters in the story, but to those who are listening to Jesus tell the story. It is they, hearing the story for the first time, hearing the teaching for the first time, who understand for the first time what God wants is for his people to care for each other. And equally surprised are those who understand for the first time that what he doesn’t want is sacrifices and rituals. The story pushes the point home by making its characters surprised.

    • Good point about the surprise being a narrative device reflecting the (anticipated) surprise of the hearers.

      I agree about there not being a distinct third group in the narrative. It’s also important that the terms used in connection with those on the king’s right – the blessed, the righteous, those for whom a kingdom inheritance has been prepared since the creation of the world – are standard NT terms for Christians.

  5. We know that Christ is in Christians: why would we be surprised to hear that in serving one another, we are serving Him?
    There are enough people (especially online) using your proposed interpretation as an excuse to harden their hearts, without us all reverting to the idea that outsiders and foreigners are not entitled to our care – “throwing the children’s bread to the dogs?”
    The idea that *every* human in need is our Master in disguise is no novelty: saints of the Middle Ages referred to “my masters the poor” and even the Patriarchs “entertained angels unawares”. The only difference between us and the Victorians is that they could take for granted (though often mistakenly in an age where organised and well-taught faith scarcely reached the slums) that *everyone* was “Christian” – so the opportunity for denying help to others at home on that basis was not there (their more effective tool was moral judgement) while abroad, help was a natural part of mission, to the point where it sometimes tipped over into sheer purchased baptisms.
    It may be a variety of Pascal’s wager, but I’d rather face our Lord having helped more people than fewer – and hope for mercy where I’ve failed. May He guide all our hands.

    • Hi Karen

      The point isn’t that we shouldn’t help non-Christians (Ian is clear that scripture elsewhere teaches we should) but that this particular teaching is not about that, because of the reference to ‘brothers’ and Jesus’ close identification with them. It was largely a 19th century innovation to interpret this particular passage as teaching that Jesus identifies with the poor in general as his brothers.

  6. A clear pattern is that Matthew introduces *lots* of animal pairs *none* of whihc was there before in Mark. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (1974) and ‘Is Q a Juggernaut’ (JBL 1996) lists 10, not all of the same type in my view.
    Contrasting are: sheep-wolves x2, fish-snake, foxes-birds, serpents-doves, gnat-camel.
    Non-contrasting are dogs-pigs, snakes-vipers, hen-chicks.

    Most of these follow the Aesop pattern (cf. Wojciechowski on Aesop and the gospel-writers) of contrasting pairs. Aesop is one of the sources Matt goes to to bolster the body of Jesus’s teaching material – which he needs to do if he is to present Jesus as the new Moses with 5 books of teaching.

    Another of his sources for this purpose is the Catholic Epistles, which may account for dog/pig Mt 7.6 being non-contrasting, but being snapped up by Matt qua lover of animal pairs. 2 Ptr 2.22 is a midterm between Proverbs and Matt in its content; the reshaping of the Catholic Epistles material here is comparable to Matt’s normal Sermon on the Mount practice. Further support for the idea that Matt has been looking at this 2 Peter context (and a Testament of Peter would most naturally be written shortly after Peter’s death) is Mt 12.43 which is a new teaching added to Mark and closely parallels 2 Peter 2.20-1. The fact that it is the kernel that is paralleled and not the Matthean expansion on the kernel is in line with the other kernels at 20.16, 22.14, 25.13, 25.29, derived 3x from Mark and 1x from Rev..

    Sheep would normally contrast with wolves. But to separate (a day to day occurrence) is itself to contrast. Matt does not imply a contrast whenever he has an animal pair, but his more conscious and clear pairings do include a contrast where there is no overriding source-critical reason for the pairing.

    Also – sheep is the obvious animal to represent followers, and if a pair would normally be required, goats was perhaps the one that came most naturally to mind.

    The sheep and goats image seems to be confined to the separation at the start, rather than being present in the whole teaching. Sometimes the mistake is made of seeing the sheep and goats as metaphors that are ever-present in this teaching. It is just a simile not a metaphor, and the simile involves not sheep and goats but merely the separation thereof. Matt takes the opportunity as he so often does to include an animal pair whenever one springs to mind. Because animals are the most colourful feature they dominate our assessment of the picture. Matt by contrast may have practically forgotten them by the time he launches on this actual teaching.

  7. The currently popular interpretation is not, in fact, the “traditional” interpretation. Nearly everyone for the first 1,800 years of the church’s existence understood the “least” as a reference to Christians.
    A couple of points : 1. Jesus doesn’t say “the least of” anything, neither in verse 45 nor in verse 40. He says “the least ones” (or even better, “the little ones”), a clear reference to his disciples, i.e., Christians. 2. That it is “the nations” who are being judged means that this is not, in fact, a judgment of Christians at all. Nations means pagans, and doesn’t mean anyone else.

    • I agree that ‘the least of these brothers of mine’ refers to Christians, and that this was the traditional understanding. However, it wasn’t understood as referring to all Christians, but to those in need, hence ‘the least of’. I’m not sure why you dispute this construction; it’s present in all major translations.

      ‘Everyone for the first 1800 years of the church’s existence’ also understood that this was a teaching about how Christians should treat the poor among them (cf. James 2:14-17), not about how pagans should treat Christians and how pagans would be judged.

      Nations doesn’t necessarily mean pagans here rather than ‘everyone’. The fact that the ‘sheep’ (those on the right) are described as ‘the righteous’ and ‘you that are blessed by my Father’ who are to ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ is strongly indicative that these are the elect, the redeemed i.e. Christians. The NT does not use this kind of language about pagans.

  8. Reply to Will James :
    “The least of” is present in all of the current translations, correct. The problem is that it is not present in the Greek; nor is it present in the very first translations from the Greek (the two Syriac versions). I conclude, therefore, that the major current translations are simply wrong, and are merely following convention.
    Also correct is your point that the traditional understanding had it that this passage was about the duties of Christians towards poorer Christians. My only point was that it was *not* understood to be about the duties of Christians towards the poor generally as a class of people
    (which is how most people misunderstand it today). I would also add —full disclosure– that I believe the traditional “fraternal charity” interpretation to be incorrect, in spite of its large pedigree. This passage is a “vindication of Christians” passage, similar to the passage in Matthew 10 where those who have treated Christians well will be rewarded. The sheep are not “righteous Christians”; they are “righteous Gentiles” who are rewarded for their good treatment of God’s people. This is a very old and common idea that we find in both the Old Testament and in extra-Biblical Jewish literature that first-century Christians would have been familiar with. The sheep are “good Samaritans”, so to speak.
    Finally, “nations” always means “pagans” in the Bible. Theological considerations, which have no place in exegesis, do not change that fact.

    • Thanks for the reply.

      That idea may have been common in the OT and elsewhere but it is not recorded as a Christian interpretation until relatively recently.

      The problems with it include:

      1) It doesn’t fit with the context of the preceding section which is all about how believers are to respond to Jesus’ teaching and will be judged;
      2) It suggests this climactic teaching of the Gospel, unlike those immediately preceding it, is directed not at followers of Jesus, who will be inclined to follow it, but at those who don’t follow Jesus, who have no reason to hear it or obey it. This makes little sense of its imperative tone;
      3) It implies (as Ian notes) that there is another way of gaining eternal life, not by becoming a follower of Jesus, a brother of the king, but by being kind to them. This suggests that many (most?) people will be saved not by becoming Christians but by being kind to Christians. This further suggests that our mission strategy should focus not on trying to bring people into the church but on convincing them to be kind to us, which is surely much easier for them and us. But the NT gives us no reason to think there is this route B for salvation and mission.

  9. I think there is a sure logic that the brothers refers to Christians, brothers of the King, in line with the verses quoted from Matt 12 and possibly the little ones who receive water in Matt 10:42.
    However as the culmination of all the teaching in the gospel, the view that this refers to how others may have treated poor Christians seems rather anticlimactic. This is not hugely important for the first readers of the gospel – but it is in line with a different strand of teaching running through Matthew, namely the need to do right not just talk it, which we find in the sermon on the mount (7:21-23), and its climax (7:24-27). Then in Matt 25 it is the bridesmaids who have oil ready who are welcomed, and those who had to run off and get more who are in trouble, and however we interpret the next parable it is the ones who have acted who are praised and made welcome; The final section (not a parable) then highlights what sorts of actions lead to being made welcome and the absence of which lead to being excluded.
    This then is a common theme in the gospel, not unlike an emphasis in James.
    And structurally also there is an inclusio, as the first teaching is about the poor and the landless and the people who hunger and are thirsty because of injustice (overlapping categories with those found in Matt 25), who are blessed, and by the end of the gospel we find also those who have met the needs of those poor people are also blessed, in that they too are welcomed by the King.
    Sherman Gray’s magnum opus on the history of interpretation of this passage also points out that the interpretation, restricted or more universal, has changed over the years, but is also broadly dependent to quite some extent on the social status of the interpreters, with those who have a more secure life opting for a reading which is less challenging to them and more affirming, and those whose social status is less certain reading a more universal interpretation but also one which challenges those who have faith but do not have concern for the poor, for they, though much surprised, may find themselves excluded – “Lord when .. ?”

    It might then be our preferred reading to see this text as referring to others, as it removes the challenge to us; we can endorse this reading – “well we would wouldn’t we”, to misquote an interpreter from the 1960s. It is a much more uncomfortable conclusion to the teaching of Jesus, in our world of growing inequality, to hear that our Lord expects us to give food, water, clothes, time to the poor and most needy. And I think there is good support for such an argument.
    One last thing – it is possibly foolish to challenge RT France, but what if the gospel leads us to realise that the narrower understanding of “brother” in the earlier chapters has to be expanded, not least as we are commissioned to make disciples (who will be / are our and His brothers and sisters) of all nations. Just as the encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matt 15 challenges the idea of who is “in” and who not, so we now must understand “brothers” in a much fuller sense.

  10. Thank you, G.Poulin (sorry for the formality), for your interesting reference to the original Greek in respect of v40. Interestingly, the ASV has “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me. ”

    There is another translation point, evident even to someone like myself with limited Greek. In v32 the modern translations (NIV, ESV, NRSV) have some variation on “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another.” However, the KJV, RSV and ASV only have a pronoun, e.g. “before him shall be gathered all the nations: and he shall separate them one from another”. I can tell that the Greek has just the pronoun. The obvious antecedent for the pronoun is ‘nations’ rather than ‘the individuals within the nations’.

    This then takes one to Joel 3, where there is the prophecy that YHWH will “gather all the nations [‘panta ta ethne’ in LXX]…and will enter into judgement with them there” about how they have behaved towards His people. We are familiar in the OT with judgement on nations; the beginning of Amos is a paradigm.

    Then, a comparison between the nature of the judgement in Joel and the judgement in Matthew 25 is remarkable. Whereas the former is entirely negative, Jesus gives the prospect that some of the nations are blessed by the Father, and inherit the kingdom.

    I wonder how the Jewish hearers of this reacted to the news that Gentiles would inherit the kingdom.

  11. Interesting discussion here, and I’m glad to learn a little about some of the wider discussion and history of discussion. It does seem to me that those who have the most problem with this passage are those who are the most adamant about the idea of “justification by faith alone”. If it weren’t for that phrase, it seems to me that there might not be quite the argument about this passage, nor as many people looking for escape routes or suggesting it’s a difficult passage. But obviously it is challenging if you take that position.

    But this passage is hardly alone in the gospels in challenging that dogma. As another example we might consider the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16.19-end http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=404194999). Am I reading too much into that parable in thinking that had the rich man done something to alleviate the suffering and poverty of Lazarus then there might have been an alternative ending?

    • Hello Simon Simon,
      Not sure how you’ve arrived at this supposition: “It does seem to me that those who have the most problem with this passage are those who are the most adamant about the idea of “justification by faith alone”.
      You will be aware that justification by faith alone was never alone in the Reformation:
      Scripture alone (sola Scriptura)
      Christ alone (solus Christus)
      Grace alone (sola gratia)
      Faith alone (sola fide)
      God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria)
      Like 5 digits of a hand they are not on their own.
      You will of course be aware of 39 Articles of Faith:
      “XI. Of the Justification of Man
      We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.”
      Never mind, I don’t think that point of this or their dogma or your dogma is particularly relevant to the passage, but rather tangential – another topic entirely, upon which much time and energy has been expended down the centuries, as you will know. But I’m willing to be persuaded. And isn’t “dogma” used as a term of disparagement
      You seem to be aware of the danger of eisegesis, speculation reading into. We have what we have. Sola Scripture, but not nuda Scriptura. The book of Revelation, as it reveals and interweaves the rest of scripture gives us all the ending we need, does it not? Ian Paul, might be along with the alteratives.

  12. Excellent piece. Thank you. So insightful on goats and on the poor. Fascinating. The main place I would quibble is the 3rd takeaway:

    “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.”

    I’m not sure I would draw that much from this text and certainly not when the passage is read in its broader canonical context. For example, Paul’s in mission to the Gentiles, Cephas encouraged him to “remember the poor” (and Bruce Longenecker has demonstrated this was not the Jerusalem poor). And, there are texts like Lk. 19:1-10. I don’t think one can make that narrow of an application to mission – since that’s not really the point of Mt. 25 (I can’t see how in this illustration Jesus is trying to say to his disciples, “You guys who are my brothers, who are the weak here, need to focus your mission on being ‘ready to receive from those to whom you have been sent’). Indeed, in the broadest sense, Jesus disciples are to be “weak” – yet, in some instances, disciples are going to be ‘strong’ (whether it be in conscience or knowledge or wealth – Rom. 14; 1Cor. 8-10; 1Tim. 6; etc.). This is not just conflating contexts, but if we are going to make some statement about mission from Jesus’ disciples in a text that is not really centering on the mission of the disciples, we have to incorporate other texts that do speak about mission.

    I think it might be better to say that one angle of mission is the weak going to the strong and helping them repent (as Jesus does with Zaccheus); but clearly, even in Matthew, Jesus is often going to the weak and bringing healing to them – he is the ‘strong’ one in that sense. In fact, every proclamation of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew follows on the heals of healing ministry. Thanks & blessings!

    • So you are not aware of the reliable external evidence for Jesus’ life? And you have an alternative explanation of the extraordinary and sudden change in the history of the world that happened from the first century?

  13. In terms of number two above asking is it possible to be a Muslim follower of Christ rather than a Christian? This example shows someone searching, rather than a believer. Surely the answer is no – since we must be born again. Jesus is the Way (there is no other way) to the Father, as well as the Truth and the Life. This would mean changing from a Muslim to a Christian. Showing love or good deeds in itself is possible whether a Christian or not, but we cannot earn salvation – it is by God’s grace, through faith.

  14. Thank you for your post. I am going to suggest the possibility of a very different tact and very different interpretation from most based on a word no one has discussed that I have seen at least. That is the word “nations.” Based on the greatest prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus has his followers praying for the Kingdom of God to COME ON EARTH as it is in heaven, (69 references to the kingdom of God in the NT) I am going to assume that it is on earth. In another place Jesus refers to cities, ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ Jesus’ reference to the nations in the sheep and goats parable a reference to real nations? Could this possibly be literal? Is he also talking about sheep nations and goat nations? Here are some thoughts: A study of the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel reveals that after many years in exile the Jews/Judah/Southern Kingdom began their literal return to the promised land in 1948. They set to work laying the infrastructure for the rest of the nation, the other 10 tribes. Now, after 2700 years in exile the Northern Kingdom of Israel is returning. I conclude this to be so based on my own observations and largely the works of Yair Davidiy. After being deported by Assyria in 722 BCE, the Northern Kingdom of Israel, migrated NW to, and founded, the Western Bible nations. (See Davidiy’s works and two extensive websites) Hosea 1:10 refers to the lost northern Israel “as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered.”
    In the end, perhaps the sheep nations will be those nations. Those with democracies that have exemplified biblical compassion toward their own people and the people of the world. The goat nations could be those with leaders who thirst for power and control over their people and over the world and do not exercise compassion.

    Even if this is not the interpretation of the nations, the sheep, and the goats, at any rate, an Old Testament study of the divided kingdom reveals a huge future for the lost Northern Kingdom under Joseph (Ephraim and Manasseh) from whose bounty, provided for the world during famine. See Genesis 49 and Deut. 33. I would be interested in thoughts on this.

      • It is necessary to apply Jesus’ preoccupation with the coming Kingdom of God to events happening now on a national and global scale. If we don’t widen our view to the big picture of history and future prophetic unfolding, we will miss the fun. The actual, literal kingdom of God is dawning before our eyes. God is currently shaking the earth in many ways, exposing the evil and the good. Nations will fall on one side or the other – those who treat Christians and Jews right and those who persecute “the least of these” his brethren.

  15. There are some interesting thots in your presentation, as well as in the comments.
    This is my take on this passage.
    The context is everything, and this fits with the belief in an antichrist, the return of the king and a millennial kingdom.

    Jesus is wrapping up the answers to the 3 questions – when will it happen, signs of your coming and signs of the end of the age.
    this illustration deals with the aftermath of the great tribulation. The king has come, he has dealt with the abusive servant, the virgins without their own oil, those who used their gifts for the kingdom (in contrast to the one who disdained the king) and now the remnant.
    there are 2 groups of people in this story – persecuted Christ followers (most of whom were martyred) and those who observed the persecution at the hands of the antichrist.
    the sheep and goats are the ones who made it thru the tribulation, but were not believers.
    Some of them had mercy towards the believers – they are worthy of entering into the glorious millennial kingdom – the sheep.
    the goats tracked with the anti-christ, or just didn’t care about Jesus’ brothers, therefore they would have no place in this millennial kingdom. They went the way of the dead to await their final judgement.
    hopefully this makes sense
    Wayne 4:12 Fellowship SBC


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