Who are the sheep and the goats in Matt 25?

Jesus’ ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31–46 is very well known and widely misinterpreted. (It is not actually a parable, since it is not introduced with the typical ‘The kingdom is like…’ and it is not making use of a story from another context, such as farming and economics, to draw out a principle.) 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.

  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.

As Rob Dalrymple highlights, it also has contemporary implications for how we think about the current situation in the (so-called) Middle East.

(First published in 2011, and again in 2016. These things are worth repeating unless erroneous readings depart.)

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15 thoughts on “Who are the sheep and the goats in Matt 25?”

  1. ‘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.’

    As far as we can tell, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the main protagonist would have believed in one God, as revealed through the Torah, and would have considered Mount Gerazim, rather than Jerusalem, to be His Holy Place on earth. He would have revered the Torah above any oral tradition or later writings of the Jewish prophets.

    He would also have believed in the resurrection, in God’s promise of an apocalyptic ‘day of vengeance’ and that, in the last days, God would raise up an equivalent to the Jewish Messiah (the Taheb) who would be like Moses (John 4:42)

    Jesus’ parable contrasted the compassionate open-hearted generosity of the Jewish hate-figure with their overwrought focus on OT lineage (the Levite) and observances (the priest).

    Surely, a Muslim is ‘not far from the kingdom of God’ (Mark 12:34), if he or she is able, by emulating the Good Samaritan’s generosity, to renounce the dictates of prescribed rituals and sectarian divisions (including Shia/Sunni) and to agree with Christ that: “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s possible to remain a Muslim and continue to follow Jesus. No man can serve two masters.

    • As a footnote, the Old Testament has good examples of those who, without overtly joining Israel, received the same reward as God’s prophets for showing kindness to them.

      The spies sent to Jericho were on a mission to subjugate Jericho to the kingdom of God. Rahab believed the reports about the power of God’s advancing kingdom and, in hiding the two spies, was rewarded for her kindness towards God’s soldiers. (Joshua 2:10 – 14)

      In the midst of Israel’s defection from God, the widow of Zarephath extended kindness to Elijah, on his mission against the national defection to idolatry, and was rewarded with perpetual replenishment. (1 Kings 17:10-24)

      Elisha left home and family to travel as Elijah’s assistant throughout Israel and to eventually succeed him. In the midst of following his prophetic mission to call Israel back to God, the Shunnamite woman’s kindness in providing food and lodging for Elisha was rewarded with a son, who was later raised from death back to life. (2 Kings 4:8-37)

      As examples of those extending kindness towards those whose mission is to advance the kingdom of God against worldliness and idolatry, these passages give a better perspective of what Christ meant when He declared: ‘Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.’ (Matt. 10:41)

      Despite this promise, It’s far easier to side with the immoral majority against God’s prophets than to extend support and kindness to those whose God-given mission is to challenge society with His truth.

  2. Hope you don’t mind if I repeat here my comments from last year (can’t believe that was a full year ago):

    I can see why you and other biblical scholars take this interpretation. 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 is therefore 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. (We might also add Matthew 24:45-51, with the lesson, be faithful and wise.)

    The problem with the reading you suggest 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’ 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 its impact). Insofar as it does give 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 (particularly fellow Christians).

    This interpretation is found in e.g. Matthew Henry (1706), John Gill (1748) and John Wesley.

    Wesley remarks:

    “‘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.”

    Here’s a paper on this: http://www.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2009/10/sbjt_v13_n3_plummer.pdf

    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’ (and Gal 6:10). But I really don’t think 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.

  3. I recall your saying this before, and the argument seems sound to me, had never previously occurred to me.

    An important passage therefore for discerning the Matthean community a la David Sim et al. or at least the author’s milieu. The focus is on the disciples and reactions to them.

    The traditional reading is central to Greenbelt Christianity, Sydney Carter etc.. I always liked it, but now doubt whether it is accurate.

    As to how eschatological the focus is, both in context and in content it is very eschatological.

    • Hi Christopher

      If the sheep and goats is about how non-believers can be saved through kindness to believers then it implies:
      1) Jesus is teaching that non-believers can be saved without repenting and confessing Christ
      2) The church doesn’t need to preach the gospel to save the nations as it can save them simply by encouraging them to be kind to them.

      Neither point is sound. So we must conclude that the sheep are the elect ie believers. And indeed that is strongly implied by v 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'”

      I agree that the brothers are (fellow) believers. But since the teaching is primarily designed to teach the importance of charity, and other passages show that Christian charity is not limited to fellow believers, we shouldn’t place too much on this aspect, which I think is primarily for rhetorical effect to Jesus’ followers. There is a first duty to aid fellow believers of course.

      • Will, I agree that neither of these points is sound.

        However, I think where Ian’s point leads us is back to the commissioning of the 72 in Luke 10:1-12. Here the disciples were told to take nothing with them and where they are received with hospitality then the household will be blessed and where they are not received then the they will be cursed.

        I note that the ‘son of Man’ is addressing ‘the nations’ gathered before him. He is not addressing the believers as such. Is not ‘the nations’ usually a reference to the gentiles?

        Is Matt 25 really giving this same message as Luke 10 – that those who reject the gospel by rejecting Jesus’ followers who bring the message are cursed and those who receive them and the message are blessed?

        This also chimes with David Shepherd’s reference to Matt 10:41 on receiving prophets.

        Read this way it also seems to fit with the two parables that go before it in the triplet.

        • Hi Nick

          There is a similarity to the teaching in Matthew 10 in that in both the teaching is based on Jesus identifying with his followers. However this idea is applied differently in each: in ch 10 Jesus identifies with the Twelve and promises blessing to the homes which extend them hospitality. In ch 25 Jesus identifies with the ‘least’ of his followers and promises blessing to those who show them mercy.

          Despite the similar idea then there is no reason to think this is the same teaching, as the context of ch 25 suggests that this is moral teaching for Jesus’ followers (which is the standard interpretation of this section).

          And of course if it did mean what you’re saying it means then it would still entail the two errors noted above.

          • “And of course if it did mean what you’re saying it means then it would still entail the two errors noted above.”

            In that case I have not explained what I meant well enough

          • Oh I see – you say they accept the message with the messenger.

            I can’t see that idea in Mt 25 – they say they don’t recognise the king. Besides then they are themselves brothers too so the sheep are still the brothers, as in the traditional interpretation.

            The whole force of the rhetoric is to encourage acts of charity. And that means in followers of Jesus, not non-followers who aren’t reading Matthew and resolving to follow it.

  4. ‘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?!)’ Indeed – I would like a whole post on this pls Ian. Picking up on another post this week, I am struck by how much scripture is in the Daily Prayer/office/services and how little in most charismatic services.

    Re, sheep & Goats – I have so often heard this passage misused IMHO to exhort compassionate acts to prisoners ‘per se’ and the needy ‘per se’ because, it is claimed, Jesus is to be seen in the face of the poor or the imprisoned, and our acts for them he takes personally. I dont think so. I think the phrase ‘the least of these my brethren” is the all important interpretive key. Those who are sheep are evidenced as such by meeting the needs of the needy brethren, the poor sheep, the imprisoned sheep etc Jesus identifies with the suffering sheep who are to benefit from the charity of other sheep.

    In a recent study on ‘giving’ in the NT church I was struck by the church generosity towards the needs of the Christian community 2Cor9v12 “supplying the needs of the Saints”: feeding Greek widows, selling homes to meet needs in the church, Paul’s Jerusalem collection for those suffering in famine. I was also struck by the lack of clear exhortation & instruction on acts of compassion/giving to those outside the church. Charity doesn’t end there, but Charity must begin at home etc

    That is not to say that Jesus’ disciple isn’t to show acts of mercy to those not included in the brethren (the church has and must always be a community of compassion for all) but how can someone claim to be a follower of Jesus and be indifferent to the needs of their own family and community.

  5. ps: I have often observed how the Church can be enthused to give to the need and stranger outside, to projects thousands of miles away yet walk past the needy in their own church community. Is this a case of Mk7v11?

  6. Particularly in the past many would have regarded all people in this country as Christian for the simple reason that they assumed we were a Christian country. Of course this was never true, and especially so in this post-christendom era.

    However, I wonder if this is what lead to the traditional understanding that “my brethren” meant all people.

  7. Thank you for this! After reading, I am left with a methodological reservation, namely the determination that the use of similar words and themes across different passages indicates a unified meaning in each passage, from which each passage may not deviate–as if Jesus always means “Christians” when he says “brothers” because–in one scene!–Jesus defines his family not as biological kin but as ideological followers, or–similarly–that following Jesus means always facing homelessness and (by extension) hostility and persecution, because once he told someone he didn’t have a fixed address where they could always expect to find him.

    The underlying implication (that other posters brought out with glee in the Comments section!) seems to be that Jesus doesn’t really care about non-Christians and how you treat them, and that you will only be judged according to how you treated people of the correct religious identity. This does not seem like a good reading of the passage in question, which focuses on places and positions of powerlessness and the importance of serving those conditions in a tangible way, not in the modes of ideological or cultural conversion, but in the modes of human contact and empathy.


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