Familiarity with the “sheep and goat” scene in Mt 25:31-46 is common– understanding Matthew’s pastoral imagery is not.
Who are the sheep; who are the goats; and what’s the real point of the parable?
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 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. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life– Mt 25:31-46 (NIV)
A correct understanding revolves around the identity of “these little ones.” Commentators variously view Matthew’s “little ones” as
- the poor, the disadvantaged, and the mistreated wherever they may be found and whoever they may be,
- the besieged nation of Israel during the dark and yet-future “last days,” and
- the true disciples of Jesus whose poverty and powerlessness reflect the image of God’s Son and His absolute dependence upon the Father.
The first view comes in two flavors. On the one hand, ministry to society’s outcasts is elevated to the sole criterion for eternal life. Doctrine is unimportant– the idea is to be a better Christian, a better Hindu, or better Muslim by showing compassion for the weak, the helpless, and the powerless. The exact number of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. is hotly debated. Quite often, the degree of devotion to social causes is low, with gross immorality being excused by an occasional nod to the poor. Others recoil at this “veneration” of the poor. They see ministry to people on the margins of society as being thoroughly subordinated to an absolute requirement (albeit unstated by Matthew) that all such compassion follow a strict pattern. Gross indifference to human needs is frequently excused because particular methods of compassion don’t measure up to the perceived “pattern.”
The second view of “these little ones” comes from Dispensational theology. It is not far from the truth except for its thorough-going confusion of modern-day Israel with the church. To Dispensationalists, “these little ones” refers to the physical brothers of Jesus (modern Israel) who will suffer greatly at the hands of an evil, world dictator during the future Tribulation. Gentiles who render aid to Israel, and thereby put themselves at risk of the dictator’s wrath, will by their acts of faith attain for themselves a place among Matthew’s “sheep.”
The third (and I think correct) view of “these little ones” is rooted in the notion of the church as God’s people (not “Israel according to the flesh”). In Matthew, the church (the in-breaking of God’s future Kingdom) is a mixed bag of wheat and chaff, good fish and bad fish, sheep and goats. The righteous ones in the church are those who receive the good news of God’s Kingdom as a little child (Mt 18:1-6). Matthew sees the church being ultimately judged on this basis. The world, in turn, is judged on how it receives “these little ones”– “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, … he will certainly not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42). In His wisdom, God chose (and still chooses) the weakest among mankind to bear His message of reconciliation to the world. Their abuse does not go unnoticed– “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him … to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Mt 18:6). (Matthew’s use of children to describe Jesus’ true disciples must have had a powerful effect on his audience because the generation blessed by Jesus was the generation addressed by Matthew’s gospel.)
The poor, the powerless, and the disadvantaged (many of them children) have benefited immensely from Christian influence on culture throughout the ages– to the point of becoming sentimental objects exploitable for ulterior purposes. The disadvantaged take their value, however, not because powerlessness and poverty in themselves impart some kind of holiness. Their significance instead derives from the utter dependence of the poor and the helpless on someone outside themselves. In this respect, children and the poor offer compelling illustrations of the relationship between Jesus and the Father, and in turn, the relationship between Jesus’ disciples and Jesus.
The sobering and often overlooked point in Jesus’ parable of judgment in Mt 25:31-46 is that it is the world– not the church– who will be judged based on its care for the poor, sick, and hungry– not in general– but rather the poor, sick and hungry among the disciples of Jesus.