The Sheep and the Goats

Matthew 25:31-46

 Jesus told a parable about sheep and goats. It’s one of those stories he told about the Second Coming and the Final Judgement. This parable has some similarities with the one he told about the Wheat and the Tares and the one about the Net full of good and bad fish. In each case there is a separation between good and bad.

A Day of Judgement

There is going to be a Day of Judgement, Jesus says. A day of sifting between wheat and chaff, between those who belong to God and those who have rejected him. God will punish the evildoers and reward those who do right.

Much as we shy away from the idea of judgement and Hell nowadays, we have to see that it is central to our faith. Imagine a world in which there was to be no final judgement. Evildoers would sin throughout their lives, doing whatever they wanted. They would oppress the poor, and persecute the godly. And, as so often happens, if they escaped punishment in this life they would have never been brought to account. They say “crime doesn’t pay” but, you know, often it does – that’s why people do it! And if the godly people had to suffer persecution and injustice in this life (as they often do) and there was no recompense for them in the life to come, how could we say God is just? This life is often so unfair.

Sometimes people say, “I won’t believe in a God who allows such evil things to be done.” They haven’t taken into account the fact that one day God will intervene and will put all things right. Yes, there will be a judgement and a separation between good and evil.

Sheep and Goats

In this parable the two types of people are described as being separated like sheep and goats. In those days shepherds often kept mixed flocks. When it came to shearing time they had to separate the sheep from the goats. It must have been a common sight to Jesus’ hearers – the shepherd separating his flock.

But what do they represent? Who are the sheep and who are the goats? Are you sheep or a goat? By implication, in this story, the sheep represent God’s people, the children of the kingdom, and the goats represent those who have rejected God.

I said the other week that its too simplistic to just divide the world into saints and sinners. We all start off as sinners and we can all become saints by the grace of God. In other words: a “goat” can be converted and become a “sheep”! This is the glory of the Gospel.

I still stand by what I said the other week, with regard to this life. But there will come a day when there will only be two kinds of people, the saved and the unsaved, the sheep and the goats. That day will be the Day of Judgment and Jesus will be the Judge.

The Basis for Judgement

Now, what is the basis for judgement?

  • Is it the number of times you go to church?
  • Is it now often you pray, or how long you pray for, every day?
  • Is it how well you know the Bible?
  • Is it how well behaved you are, how good your manners are, how respectable you are?

No, Jesus says, it’s not that. (That is the sort of religion the Pharisees adhered to.)

No, it’s all about love, Jesus says – practical love. This is the whole teaching of Jesus about how we should behave towards one another. And the apostles of Jesus said the same thing.

For example, John says:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.       (1 John 3:16-18)

And Paul writes to Timothy:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.      (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

Jesus, in this parable, talks about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the ragged, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. This is practical Christianity. This is the sort of thing Jesus did, and his followers should be doing the same kind of thing.

Of course, in our modern civilized world things are a lot more complicated than they were in the days of Jesus. There was no social security in those days. If you saw someone in need and you were able to help them you knew it was your responsibility to do so. Nowadays we are shielded from the needs of the poor by all kinds of social structures. It’s not quite so easy to just drop everything and go out and help the needy. But there are many ways we can be generous. If there are agencies set up to help needy people, either here or abroad, then we can support those agencies. We can be generous in giving our money.

(Next year in the Presbyterian Church of Wales we shall have our regular five-yearly Christian Aid appeal. This time it will be for the country of Guatemala. I hope we can rise to the challenge. They are hoping to raise £12 from each member of each church in the Denomination. It’s not a lot of money – one pound a month.)

We can also give of our time and energy to voluntary work.

And how about starting right at home. How do we behave towards our family, our neighbours and our acquaintances? Are we unselfish, considerate and caring in the way we deal with people? Or are we selfish? Are we “sheep” or are we “goats”? According to this parable we will be judged on the basis of the way we have treated others.

Faith and Works

Now we have to sound a note of caution here. If you were to take this parable alone as the basis for your Christianity you would get the idea that our salvation is the result of our good works – that we earn it by caring for the poor and needy. We might even think that it doesn’t matter what we believe. In this parable the righteous people didn’t even realize they were doing it for the King.

Does this mean that God is not interested in what people believe? Does this parable teach that it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in Jesus? Does it mean you can be a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Mormon, or even an Atheist, and you will be saved as long as you care for the needy?

Well, obviously not, because there are whole sections of the Bible which deal with the need for faith. Jesus himself said, “Repent and believe the Good News!” when he started his public ministry.

And what about the Thief on the Cross next to Jesus – the one who repented. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” he said. And that man entered into Paradise not on the basis of any good deeds he had done, but simply because of his trust in Jesus. After all, what good deeds could he perform while he was nailed to that cross?

If we study the Bible as a whole – rather than just selected passages – we come to the conclusion that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, and by faith alone. That faith is the result of the grace of God.

But we also conclude that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) because if it is a real faith then it will inevitably result in good deeds, given the opportunity. You are not saved by your good deeds, but if you are saved you will produce the Fruit of the Spirit. The life of Jesus will be working in you and you will show his love and goodness by your actions.

Unselfconscious Christianity

The way I see it is like this: if a person really follows Jesus, if they have really allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives, then they will produce fruits of righteousness. They will do deeds of kindness and love, almost without being aware of them. They won’t be always thinking, “How can I do some good deed here so I can show I am a Christian”. No, it will happen spontaneously and unselfconsciously.

And so this is why the “sheep” in the parable were surprised when the King said they had ministered to him. As far as they were concerned, they had just been living as God’s people and showing love to those around them. They hadn’t thought of it as serving the King. But that’s what it was.

And so with the “goats”. Some of them might have been very religious people (just like the Pharisees) but they didn’t love people. And if you don’t love people then you don’t love God, according to the Apostle John.

If anyone says, I love God, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.     (1 John 4:20)

These people were counted with the “goats” because they had never been converted. They had never opened themselves up to God. They didn’t love God and they didn’t love others.

Meeting with Christ

Now there are two ways of interpreting this parable. One is the way I have just outlined – Christ comes to us in the poor and needy, and in serving them we serve him.

According to the other interpretation Jesus is talking about people who come to us in his name – Christians who share the Gospel, missionaries , evangelists, etc. Jesus says, “If you receive them and welcome them then then you welcome me.” Thus you show yourselves to be part of his flock. But if you reject these messengers of the Gospel, then you are rejecting Jesus and you show yourselves to be “goats”.

I think it is possible to reconcile the two interpretations. You could see the wider one as generally true – we should love all people and serve them. Christ comes to us in all people because all are made in the image of God, and he died for all of them.

But the more specific interpretation is also true in that we especially meet Christ in his people, and supremely when those people bring the Good News to us.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a lovely short story entitled “The Cobbler and his Guest” in which he expressed the truth that Jesus comes to us in the needs of others. I haven’t got time to tell that story today. Perhaps you might like to read it yourselves. You can get it for free online.

Let me tell you another story instead. This is a true story.

A Christian lady living in Oklahoma was in her car with her two-year old son when they saw “Raggedy Ann”. She was an elderly vagrant African-American woman who roamed around the town, picking through the garbage. She wore layers of ragged clothing and carried a rough stick in her hand. Her face was shrouded in a cloth to hide her face because she suffered from some kind of skin cancer. With her ragged robes and head dress she looked like some kind of Biblical figure. The schoolchildren were afraid of her. They said she was a leper or a witch.

When the little boy saw her he said to his Mom, “There’s Jesus.” 

Mom though how “cute” it was that her little boy should mistake the robed figure for Jesus.

“No, Honey, that’s Raggedy Ann,” she said.

But the boy insisted: “No Mommy, that’s Jesus!”

The mother writes: “And suddenly I realized that the child knew a truth I could not grasp. And I wept”,

(story adapted from ).


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