The sheep and the goats
The gospel according to Jesus is a little different to the gospel according to me. The gospel according to me tells of a God who is, generally, far off, but when he does involve Himself it mainly concerns me, my loved ones and the success of Australian sports teams. Therefore, when Christ announces His news for the world, I am constantly taken off guard.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. It speaks of the end of history as we know it. Here is a truly earth-shattering event “when the Son of man shall come in his glory and all the holy angels with him.” On that day the world will be split in two.
On His right there are the sheep (v33), who are blessed by His Father (v34) and called righteous (v37).
On His left there are the goats (v33), who are cursed and will share in the devil’s fate (v41).
The sheep will inherit eternal life, the goats will go to eternal punishment (v46).
And there is no third category. This is not a menagerie – sheep, goats, cows, chickens. There is one Judge at the end – Jesus. And there are only two kinds of person. All humanity will find itself either as a sheep or a goat. The fates of these two groups are eternal and, on that day, irrevocable.
This is the news Jesus announces and it wakes us up to eternal realities. We spend our time ruminating over other divisions – right-wing or left-wing politics, public or private education, Blackberry or iPhone. But this is the division of eternal significance – sheep or goat. Which are we?
Well let’s first notice the asymmetry between the two.
The sheep come. The goats depart.
The sheep are blessed by the Father. The goats are simply cursed.
The sheep inherit the kingdom. The goats just ‘go away.’
The kingdom is prepared for the sheep. Eternal punishment is prepared for the devil and his angels.
From this passage it is clear that heaven is for people, hell is for devils. The only reason people end up in hell is that, insanely, they follow the devil to his fate. Hell is not for people. It is the greatest tragedy in the world that people end up there. But they do end up there. And so Christ warns us.
It is important to notice this asymmetrical nature to the blessing and cursing. The Father personally blesses the sheep. The goats simply are cursed. And standing in between them is Jesus. He defines the future. Eternity pivots on Christ – it is ‘coming to’ or ‘departing from’ Him that carries eternal significance.
Before we examine the characteristics of the sheep and goats, let’s note one more fact about them. They are sheep and goats before Jesus describes any of their actions. They are on the right and left before He points to any of their deeds. Their actions merely demonstrate their nature. There is nothing that the sheep or goats did in order to become sheep or goats. Indeed both the sheep and the goats were entirely unaware of what they were doing or failing to do. Neither grouping acted to become sheep or goats. They simply couldn’t help acting as sheep and goats.
So what are these groups like? Jesus says to the sheep:
“I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
They are such Christ-like acts. Feeding, sheltering, healing, comforting. These sheep are very like their Shepherd. Yet Jesus does not say they did it “like me” or “for the sake of me.” He says they did it “to me.” How is that possible? That’s the question the sheep ask:
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
Christ is hidden in the least of His brethren. Acts of Christ-like mercy directed to the family of Jesus are kindnesses to Christ Himself. Just as He takes the persecution of His people personally (Acts 9:4), so He takes the care of His people personally.
It is a wonderful thought that the smallest acts of mercy – acts that we have long forgotten – are remembered by Jesus the Judge. On the other hand the goats are characterised by their callous indifference to the needs of Christ’s people.
Jesus says to them:
“I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” (Matthew 25:42-45)
Here is perhaps the most striking difference between the sheep and the goats: the sheep can’t remember when they did any good, the goats can’t remember when they didn’t! The sheep are entirely forgetful of the works they have performed. It is the goats that are mindful of their deeds (and indignant that they should be found wanting). The sheep have found righteousness in their Shepherd and unthinkingly express it to His brethren. The goats assert their righteousness to the Shepherd yet are unthinking towards His people.
Jesus is not laying out a programme of works for those who would earn heaven. Those who end up in the kingdom seem blissfully unaware of any “merit”. And the works that are mentioned have nothing “religious” about them. Those trying to climb the ladder to impress the Judge have forgotten what the Judge has done. He has stooped down to the very depths. He comes to us in grace, transforms us into little christs, then puts Himself into our neighbours and says, “Come away from the ladder, come out into the world, that’s where I am. I am always coming down. And my love is for spreading!” His life of self-emptying love is contagious. And wonderfully – according to this parable – it is the life of the eternal kingdom.