The Sheep and the Goats

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Jesus separating people at the Last Judgement, by Fra Angelico, 1432-1435.

The Sheep and the Goats or "the Judgment of the Nations" is a pronouncement of Jesus recorded in chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel in the New Testament. It is sometimes characterised as a parable, although unlike most parables it does not purport to relate a story of events happening to other characters. According to Anglican theologian Charles Ellicott, "we commonly speak of the concluding portion of this chapter as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but it is obvious from its very beginning that it passes beyond the region of parable into that of divine realities, and that the sheep and goats form only a subordinate and parenthetic illustration".[1] This portion concludes the section of Matthew's Gospel known as the Olivet Discourse and immediately precedes Matthew's account of Jesus' passion and resurrection.[2]

This story and the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents in the same chapter "have a common aim, as impressing on the disciples the necessity at once of watchfulness and of activity in good, but each has ... a very distinct scope of its own".[3]

Text of the passage[edit]

The text of the passage appears in Matthew's Gospel and is the final portion of a section containing a series of parables. From Matthew 25:31–46:

"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’

“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Interpretation[edit]

The common futurist explanation of the discourse is that it tells of the Last Judgment, and the division of all the world's people into the blessed, on the right hand of God, who are welcomed by the Father to inherit the Kingdom and eternal life, and the cursed, who are cast into the eternal fire along with the devil and his angels. The division seems to be based on the acts of kindness and mercy done by people to their disadvantaged fellow people; Jesus identifies such kindness with kindness towards himself.

This passage directly addresses, in Jesus's own words, one of the most vexed questions in Christian theology – who goes to Heaven, and why (a question on which enormous quantities of both ink and blood have been expended.) A related question is whether only orthodox Christians may be saved, or whether 'virtuous pagans' also may. The three main theological positions in this regard are:

  • Justification by Works (Pelagianism): The doctrine that one can be saved simply by doing good works.
  • Justification by Faith: The doctrine that one is saved by, and only by, faith. This doctrine is primarily associated with Martin Luther and his successors.
  • Predestination: The doctrine that God has pre-decided (or, decided out of the flow of time as we know it) who will be saved and who will be damned, using criteria in principle unknowable to human beings. This doctrine is associated with Calvinism, Jansenism, and arguably St. Augustine.

This parable seems on a natural reading to support the first view, justification by works. The 'sheep' are saved because of the good deeds they have done, independent of any framework of knowledge or belief, or hope of future benefit. Some Calvinist theologians in particular have therefore attempted to get out from under the passage either by restricting the range of the phrase 'the least of these my brethren', or denying that the passage has any literal application to the after-life. The first option seems to be unnatural and to go against the spirit of the parable of the Good Samaritan. As associate professor of Biblical Languages at Union Presbyterian Seminary, E. Carson Brisson, says, "Let it be noted that this list of afflicted and needy individuals is, at first glance, a list of the very ones who appear to be bereft of God's favor. These are ‘the least.’ These are truly ‘other.’"[4] The first option also does not support predestination, but at most might indicate, say, that unbelievers are to judged by how well they treat believers.

Believers in justification by faith may still accept that good works may function as a test or measure of belief. See James 2:14-17, which appears to indirectly reference this parable:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

C.S. Lewis has this to say on the subject:

I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any part of scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle's teaching to contradict our Lord's. Whatever St Paul may have meant, we must not reject the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. There, you see there is nothing about Predestination or even about Faith – all depends on works. But how this is to be reconciled with St Paul's teaching, or with other sayings of Our Lord, I frankly confess I don't know... the real relation between God's omnipotence and man's freedom is something we can't find out.

— Letters of C.S. Lewis, p.432, to Mrs. Emily McLay

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ellicott's Commentary for Modern Readers on Matthew 25, accessed 22 February 2017]
  2. ^ Jerusalem Bible sub-title for chapters 26-28
  3. ^ Ellicott's Commentary for Modern Readers on Matthew 25, accessed 22 February 2017]
  4. ^ Brisson, E Carson. "Matthew 25:14-30." Interpretation 56.3 (2002): 307-310. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 5 Sept. 2013.