The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
The parable of the sheep and the goats is the most scary of Jesus' parables. It is powerful, elemental, straightforwardly challenging and deeply disturbing. There is an obvious 'on the surface' interpretation and understanding but when we look at the text in detail we find some very different teaching.
This is a story about the final judgement with Jesus in glory sitting on his eternal throne. The image is in marked contrast to Jesus' circumstances and status when he told the parable and that must be one of the reasons why he spoke in this way. He was an outsider, without status or authority among his people, an itinerant rabbi with no fixed abode. Who and what he really was no-one recognised. In the parable the blessed – the saved – are those who unconsciously helped people in need without seeking or expecting any reward but out of common humanity. The cursed or damned unconsciously ignored the plight of the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned in the world because they thought only of themselves.
Why sheep and goats? What is the difference? Sheep are portrayed as docile, valuable, profitable, innocent and good. Goats and actually the word means kid goats – young goats - little goats – or less value; they are unruly and proud and less profitable. But we know that both goats and sheep were comparatively valuable to those who had them. The difference is not absolute. It is 60 – 40.
We take the parable today to mean in our global village with our world-wide communications and simple concern for people who have fallen on hard times and that would include many who have never even known any good times. You may remember the television news pictures of Princess Diana visiting AIDS victims in hospital. You will have seen pictures of Mother Teresa ministering to abandoned children on the streets of Calcutta. You will have seen pictures of various Popes visiting inmates in the prisons of Rome. Britain as a country has given over £1 billion to help Syrian refugees in camps across the border of that stricken country. That is money raised by taxes on people and businesses and enterprises. The relief agencies of the United Nations steps in when crises occur throughout the world such as typhoons and floods and earthquakes. The Red Cross, Christian Aid, CAFOD and Oxfam and many other humanitarian agencies take food and water to many in need and also educate people to help themselves in matters of health and hygiene, drilling for water and growing crops. You have heard about our Food Bank. There are many local charities throughout the world doing all sorts of remedial and caring work. Celebrity fund-raising is a recent phenomenon but it has focussed minds on the plight of the suffering and has been helpful. There are countless charitable appeals and many give to them. The totality of common good that is done is incalculable. In our developed democracies, there are government organised funds and institutions to care for the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned. This is all paid for by everyone who pays income tax. As individuals we are asked to catch those who have fallen through the safety net of our social security systems for whatever reasons.
But some people are not sympathetic and choose not to not share in this work and so harden their hearts against helping people in distress. Some grudge paying taxes to give to others. You still meet people who think that Africans are undeserving of any kind of help because they are inclined to have far too many children whom they cannot feed and educate. There are church goers who have no sympathy for people who get into trouble in one way or another. Some people would never buy a 'Big Issue' magazine or give to a beggar on our streets. You encounter 'hang them and flog them' mentalities in the popular press. Some argue that the present UK government is less than sympathetic to the plight of the poorest of our citizens. Others express concern and even anger that so many receive lifetime state benefits and never contribute anything to society in return. There is a huge difference between the rich north and west of the world and the poorer south and east. Some argue that the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger every year on a global scale and also in our own nation and society here in Britain. Others point out that enormously successful strides have been taken to lift so many in the world out of poverty. The Chinese themselves say that they have lifted 800,000 million of their own out of desperate poverty in the last 20 years. Not caring is not an option for a Christian, for a believer in and follower of Jesus. That is the meaning of the parable in a nutshell.
But let us go into the actual text in a little more detail. It is not what it seems only. The parable begins with the statement that Jesus will return to earth in glory to be seen and recognised as the Son of God. It can be said that this has never actually happened as far as documented world history is concerned. It can also be said that it has happened and is happening in large scale in the lives of the billions of humanity who honour and follow Jesus. It is 'heavenly glory' that is described, not earthly glory. We live our lives as Christians hidden from the world but not from God. Jesus is present with us and this is his second coming. This is a parable about judgement, discrimination and distinction. Only God has the right to exercise such final judgement and so Jesus is teaching that he is indeed the Son of God entitled to exercise such judgement and he is doing so perpetually and eternally.
Does anyone today think that they will be judged by God? The Gospel actually clearly states that if we accept Jesus Christ we will not be subjected to this kind of judgement. Paul says in Romans 8 : 1 - 2 'Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death'. Jesus speaks of the nations being judged and we take that to mean all of humanity. This must be an ongoing thing; It is happening every day. Nations are judged. Empires rise and fall. Human conduct is also judged every day. Some people are making money from human trafficking. Some are making money from futuristic stock market trading. Gambling is growing exponentially in our country from bingo to lottery, horses and football to nearly anything that has a future unknown outcome. It is now a pandemic in our country – we are a nation of gamblers and our own hall is full every Monday evening with those who are recovering from gambling addiction.
Does this parable suggest that the basis of the final judgement is good works - charitable giving and behaviour - rather than the unmerited grace of Christ? Was Paul wrong? Was Luther wrong? To answer these questions, Matthew writes in verse 34 'Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world'. This, some commentators take to mean that the good works, the humanity, the charitable expressions to the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned are not the causes of salvation but the effects of salvation. They result from Christ living in people individually and collectively. Paul writes in Galatians 5:22 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control'. Becoming a Christian opens our hearts and minds and eyes to the needs of others and inspires us to take their interests into account as we live out our lives. People we live beside and encounter day by day do not necessarily share such Christianity within. They do not care whom they tramp on to get what they want. On any visit to anything you will hear much foul language and verbal abuse. Yet the pages of the West Lothian Courier are filled with stories about charity runs and fund-raising escapades for some good cause or other. Lots of clothes have been given spontaneously for refugees. The Disasters Emergency Fund receives millions of pounds for particularly severe world occurrences. You could argue that this is the kind of humanity that Jesus was talking about. Calculated measured Christian charity might sometimes seem grudging and self-interested in comparison.
The heart and kernel of the parable is verse 40... 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me'. Some commentators limit the scope of Jesus' teaching about the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned to those within Christianity and especially to the first and early Christians who suffered a lot for witnessing for Jesus. This interpretation takes the brothers to be the first Christian apostles and evangelists who did indeed suffer hardship. Saul imprisoned Christians before his conversion, for example. Hebrews 11 lists a historical record of the persecution of true followers of God in both Old and New Testament times. Peter and John were imprisoned. Paul says he went hungry and naked at times, hounded out of towns and cities for preaching the Gospel. The criterion of the final judgement here is response to the Gospel and treatment of Christ's own followers and ambassadors and servants. Where does ISIS stand here then with its beheadings and crucifixions? What about the unequal treatment of Christians in Islamic countries? And sadly, we must also ask, what about Christians in this country of ours now where we are marginalised and disregarded? The goats are those who have not embraced the Gospel and its messengers and have no idea that they have offended God and rejected Christ.
Perhaps you would agree that Jesus' application was wider and that he meant not just Christians under the New Covenant who were hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned – but – any one of God's children anywhere at any time. And so the parable is a stark and even a severe warning that if we claim to be Christians at all, we cannot ignore the needs of those less fortunate than ourselves. We cannot pass by on the other side, we must not despise those who are in poor circumstances, and we must do something to help wherever and whenever we can. Over the years people have come to the manse for money and food or some other need. On the first occasion I have always tried to give something because I have said to myself 'This may be the Lord in disguise – and – even if not – it is one of the least of his brothers or sisters'. If the same person comes back again, I look into the case more critically and try to find out of the £15 for the electricity meter is actually for a drug fix.
The parable of the sheep and goats is one of the greatest inspirations to humanity that have ever been given. It is our Jesus who told the parable. We should not ignore Him in the overall living out of our Christian life and living. We are his agents and witnesses and messengers and it is actions as well as words which count in his sight.