The Sheep and the Goats – Greg Albrecht
In studying The Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46, when I read about the judgment on the goats in Matthew 25:41-46, aside from their extremely cruel fate (I guess the fact that it’s a parable may explain that), I don’t see the connection between:
1. their described lack of helping others (the thing directly described and it seems they were being judged for) and
2. them thinking they had achieved their dues, done all the right things, worked hard to please God, etc.
I don’t see where that second part is implied.
I can see where the goats did not have Jesus as the center of their lives because God’s grace was not empowering them to love at all.
But nothing, it seems to me, is directly described about why, or that they were instead trying to earn God’s favor.
Any thoughts about the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25?
Some thoughts – some may be obvious to you, but while they may be, I do not wish to assume and leave any important aspect unsaid:
- This third section (fancy theological word is pericope – a passage longer than a single verse extracted from a longer work, one which makes a distinct point or teaches a distinct lesson) is strictly speaking not a parable, like the first two in Matthew 25. It has many parabolic elements, as does a similar teaching in John 10:1-18, which at first glance may seem like a parable but is more parabolic in style than a parable per se. These parabolic elements are keys to understanding this passage in Matthew 25.
- All genres of the Bible bring unique elements to its message, clothed in literary styles. It is important that we endeavor, in reading any passage, to understand it exegetically – that is, to read the meaning that springs out of the text into our lives – rather than the methodology of eisegesis – which is the all too frequent method of reading one’s own biases, presuppositions and doctrinal agendas and dogmas into a text and thus shoehorn one’s own reality into the text. We all have done such a thing, but as students of the Bible we are well served if we avoid searching the Bible for proof texts that align with our thinking, speaking our reality into the text rather than letting the Scripture speak to us.
- The genres of poetry, parables and then apocalyptic (part of Daniel and all of Revelation) bring special concerns into focus, if we are to listen and learn from a Christ-centered perspective.
- Parables, or sayings/teachings that contain parabolic elements (I will not here list all the distinctives which must be present within a parable) bring symbols of rather commonly understood contemporary life, as lived by the original readers and listeners, and use them to convey a spiritual reality far beyond any physical definition of the symbol. One of the huge issues involved in understanding a parabolic teaching is, as I see it, the willingness to set aside a laundry list of literal expectations of “meaning” in favor of standing at a distance taking in the overarching teaching. Parables do not intend to literalize all elements used in setting the stage – so you note about what is implied, which is I believe a question a parable intends to address rather than elements that are, to use your phrase, “directly described.” Perhaps parables can be better appreciated when one stands at a distance, like in a museum of fine art, rather than getting a few inches from the art and looking at brush strokes. Parables are concerned with one or perhaps two major themes – an impact if you will – the impact, the major teaching point is front and center on the stage – not the significance of the stage setting and which flowers or trees are in the background, or clouds or rain, etc. All of that just sets the tone and is not worthy of taking away our attention from the central focus.
- That said, to the passage in question in Matthew 25. Some key elements: A) the Son of Man comes in this glory – so this teaching is about judgment. As soon as we mention the word “judgment” we must understand it is religiously freighted with overtones of horrific punishment – in fact, in this passage, to which you have alluded, we find “eternal punishment” mentioned in the concluding verse 48. Is this to be understood as eternal conscious torment roasting on a spit in an ever-burning hellfire, as many assume (I believe such a view is eisegesis – reading prior acceptance of eternal conscious torment into the text) or it is an age-lasting consequence of the choice the goats have made (I lean in this direction) ? I see “eternal punishment” as having to do with separation from God, with attempts to literally define such separation being obscure at best, as opposed to an eternity in his presence, and again, we see through a glass darkly when we attempt to understand all aspects of eternity in God’s kingdom. Again, not in view in your question, but one of the objects in focus in this passage. B) sheep and goats – who are they? Central issue. C) who are the “least brothers of mine” – to whom the sheep respond, apparently without much thought. Another key ingredient in this teaching.
- Of all possible interpretations the majority view of – “least brothers of mine” — to whom the sheep minister and care for, are all humanity, Jews and gentiles (fitting within the larger kingdom proclamation of course).
- Perhaps one of the most debated topics among scholars is whether or not the sheep are judged because of their response to human need (I see this view as absolutely flawed on the basis of the Kingdom of God as taught throughout the New Testament) or whether the sheep have trusted, believed and followed the shepherd in such a way, knowing his voice if you will, that they are spiritually transformed, imbued with Christ-like characteristics of care and compassion, and that their works are not because of them but because of the Good Shepherd (my view).
- Another element is the intriguing twist Jesus puts on the difference between sheep and goats. When Jesus introduced the spiritual virtue of caring for “the least of these – my brothers” to the sheep they cannot remember isolated instances and examples because care and compassion was their way of life. They lived and breathed Jesus – so attempting to remember specific examples of how they helped others in his name would be, for them, like trying to remember a particular breath of air they inhaled yesterday or last month. Taking care of the least of these was fundamental to their identity in Christ. Their lives were fueled by God’s grace, which blows like the wind, rather than the law which stipulates exactly how and when and who. When the goats responded to Jesus noting the righteous virtue of caring for “the least of these – my brothers” they responded that they were always involved in such activities, they were always following the law, therefore they felt justified and had had specific moments in time they were prepared to discuss because those moments were enshrined in their spiritual trophy cases and photo albums and religious certificates of commendation hanging on their wall.
- Thus it seems the fundamental difference between sheep and goats in this parabolic judgment teaching is that sheep are consumed by a way of life that leaves them little time or opportunity to record their good deeds in a spiritual diary of sorts, whereas the goats seemed assured of all their good deeds because they had a record – specific memories they felt justified their assertion to righteousness.
- I would conclude that this is the point that Paul makes in Romans 3:21-22: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…”
- Judgment, the stage setting for this passage in Matthew, is about guilt or innocence – righteousness or sin – law breaking and penalties to be paid or forgiveness — something earned and deserved or something unearned, undeserved and given. The sheep accept the righteousness of Jesus given to them without any merit on their part. It seems the goats do not.