Commentary on Matthew 25:31-46
The parable of the sheep and the goats may present one of the most outworn passages in the Bible.
The last of four consecutive judgment parables, if one counts Jesus’ saying concerning faithful and unfaithful slaves (24:45-51), the parable wraps up Jesus’ extended eschatological discourse that runs through Matthew 24-25.
Some commentators do not regard Matthew 25:31-46 as a parable, but such decisions require a narrow definition of Jesus’ parables. All of these parables bear a certain allegorical quality, as each element in the parable apparently corresponds to an eschatological reality. This one divides goats from sheep for all eternity: goats to eternal punishment and sheep to eternal life (25:46).
Especially popular among socially activist Christians, the parable divides sheep from goats according to whether they have fed the hungry, provided drink for the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended to the sick, and visited the prisoner.
In my experience preachers routinely underplay two significant dimensions of this parable.
First, the parable sets the scene with “all the nations” gathered before the Son of Man (25:32 NRSV). Many hearers will take “all the nations” (Greek: panta ta ethne) in a universalistic sense, as if it means “all peoples.” I endorse this view, but it is controversial. When Matthew’s meaning is most clear, the Greek ethne specifically connotes Gentiles (4:15; 6:32; 10:5; 20:19, 25; 24:14; 28:19). Matthew’s meaning is not always clear, but in every occurrence it is possible to translate ethne as Gentiles. The NRSV and other translations render ethne as “Gentiles” in some contexts but “nations” in others.
According to Klyne R. Snodgrass this universal understanding of the ethne first appeared in church tradition in the eighteenth century. For most of Christian history, the parable has been applied to the judgment specifically of Christians. Modern readers may struggle to imagine ethne as connoting only the church, but the parable’s characterization of “the least of these my brothers” (20:40, literal translation) does lend itself to identifying the victims as believers from within the church (Stories with Intent, 551).
Some interpreters may favor translating ethne to mean Gentiles outside the church for theological rather than literary or linguistic reasons. They perceive a potential contradiction between the parable and the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and not by works. The parable clearly sets forth judgment according to works of compassion. If believers are justified by faith and not by works, the logic goes, then believers are not subject to these criteria. The parable must apply to outsiders.
However, Matthew knows nothing of the grace versus works dichotomy. Matthew’s Jesus insists upon righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17-20), then goes on to explain just what such righteousness looks like. He rejects acclamation as “Lord” from those who fail to do what he says (7:21-29). He relates the parable of the two sons, one of whom promises to do as he is commanded but does not follow through while the other refuses but then goes and works (21:28-32). The risen Jesus commissions his disciples to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20, NRSV). Matthew is all about doing what Jesus says, and this parable fits that pattern.
Matthew’s insistence upon doing what Jesus says does not exclude grace. Indeed, Matthew’s Jesus reminds would-be disciples that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (11:30). Matthew surely relishes judgment, but judgment in Matthew typically involves an element of surprise. Those who fail to observe Jesus’ teaching are surprised, even though they prophesy, cast out demons, and perform wondrous works in his name (7:21-22).
The poor man who fails to wear proper wedding attire receives a nasty surprise — even though he has had no opportunity to change his clothes (22:11-14). We encounter similar patterns in chapter 25. The difference between wise and foolish virgins apparently lies with the wise virgins being prepared while the foolish are surprised (25:1-13). Meanwhile, what distinguishes the two successful slaves from the one who is cast into the outer darkness seems to involve knowledge: two know they should return a profit, while the other seeks not to lose his one talent (25:14-30).
Moralizing interpretations of the sheep and the goats overlook the element of surprise. Of course the goats express surprise: “Lord, when,” they ask, did we see you and fail to care for you? But the sheep are no less surprised: “Lord, when” did we see you and perform these services? Goats do not see themselves as goats — but neither do sheep recognize themselves as sheep.
New Testament scholar Judy Stack-Nelson has pointed out for me a deeper logic that accounts for this element of surprise. For Matthew, ethical behavior indeed responds to Jesus’ commands. But it does not result from effort, from trying hard. Instead, Matthew points out — repeatedly — that good fruit comes from good trees. John the Baptist warns of trees that fail to bear good fruit (3:10). Good trees, Jesus explains, cannot bear bad fruit, nor can bad trees bear good fruit (7:17-18). John and Jesus alike warn that the bad trees will be cast into the fire. Trees are known by their fruit (12:33). Likewise, good soil produces good fruit (13:23).
Matthew’s emphasis on obedience can be forbidding. I must confess that I sometimes allow that dimension of the Gospel to occlude my awareness of grace. But Matthew’s Jesus does not instruct disciples that they should become the salt of the earth or the light of the world; he tells them they are such. Likewise, Jesus does not command his followers to hunger and thirst for justice, pursue peace, and so forth; he blesses those who do (5:1-16). Judgment simply brings out a reality that has been present all along.