The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt.25:31-46) occurs at the end of a lengthy teaching that Jesus gave in a private conversation with his disciples during the final week before his crucifixion. In response to their questions about the end of the age (Matt.24:1-3), Jesus outlined the signs of his coming (Matt.4:4-41) then focused on their need to be prepared (Matt.24:43-44), responsible (24:45-51), ready (Matt.25:1-13), productive (Matt.25:14-30), and living lives of compassion towards the needy (Matt.25:31-46). To bring home the impact of his challenge, Jesus made use of three parables: the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and goats.
In this last parable, Jesus uses the separation of sheep and goats as an analogy of the final judgment scene to occur after the return of the Son of Man. This will be a time of accounting and a time of division, with blessings for the righteous and punishment for the wicked. This is one of the most vivid parables that Jesus ever spoke and the lesson is crystal clear. God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. Our service to Jesus is demonstrated best by how we serve and care for the most needy.
Jesus calls us to help with the simple things – giving a hungry person a meal, or a thirsty person a drink, welcoming a stranger, cheering the sick, visiting the prisoner – things that anyone can do. Those who helped did not think they were helping Christ and thereby earning their salvation. Their help was the natural reaction of a loving heart. In contrast, the whole attitude of those who failed to help was: “If we had known it was YOU we would have gladly helped; but we thought it was only some common person not worth helping.”
The intent of Jesus in crafting this parable was not to console his disciples about potential future persecution (an interpretation that sees the needy “brothers” as referring only to disciples) but rather to warn them to give priority of showing mercy and caring for those who are unfortunate (see also Matt.5:7; 12:7; 18:33; 23:23). The conditions of those called “least” are typical of those suffered by human beings the world over and in every age (see Isaiah 58:6-7. Zech.7:9-10). There is nothing in this list that characterises the suffering of Christians or missionaries alone. Such an interpretation is narrower than required by the text. This parable corresponds directly with the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In both cases, the criterion at the final judgment is whether or not a person has cared for the one in need.
Jesus includes multiple occurrences of a list of six needs: hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and in prison. This list is only representative. It covers the most basic needs of life in order to represent the meeting of human need of every kind. These people are simply treating other people as they would wish to be treated (Matt.7:12). Their surprise when the Son of man himself claims to have been the object of their loving action throws doubt on the suggestion that their actions were specifically directed toward those they knew to be disciples. They thought they were merely meeting human need. The general principle that “the person who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord” applies here (Prov.19:17). As the apostle Paul later said, “Therefore, as we have the opportunity, let us to good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Gal.6:10).”
Firstly, open your eyes. Become aware of the needs around you. Allow God to move your heart. Understand the needs in our local community as well as our global village, especially of those worse off than us. Don’t bury your head in the sand or become immune to the challenges people face daily.
Secondly, reflect on your own values and lifestyle. Where do you spend your time and resources? Reject advertising that seeks to seduce you into buying one luxury after another. Distinguish between necessities and luxuries. Question your own lifestyle, not your neighbours. Consider simplifying your own lifestyle. Spend less and give more away.
Thirdly, take action. We can’t do everything but we can do something. Sponsor a child, volunteer to serve others, become a foster carer, or make a financial donation to someone in need or to a reputable organisation such as our own community ministry, CityLife Community Care.
God is not just looking for our worship or our engagement in religious activities. He is looking for our love for him demonstrated through our love for the poor and needy in our world. Ask God to fill you afresh with his compassion. Make justice, love, and mercy your priorities. Be part of the solution. After all, the meaning of life is about loving God and loving others. It’s in giving that we make a life.
Are you a sheep or a goat? Is there enough evidence to convict you?
1. Reflect on Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt.25:31-46). The only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did and didn't do. Why do you think Jesus make care for the poor and needy THE issue by which he evaluates his followers in this story – rather than doctrine, personal holiness, or something else?
2. Reflect on the difference between “salvation by works” and the “good works.” God calls us to as his followers (refer also to Eph.2:8-10 and Jam.2:14-26). Without doubt, Jesus is more concerned about a possible lack of authentic obedience than about anyone trying to earn their salvation by works.
3. Debates occur today about the tension between the spiritual and the social aspects of evangelism. How can we keep both of these important activities in balance?
4. The Bible refers to God’s heart for the poor and the needy frequently. Do you think that this theme is talked about enough in the church or has it been somewhat overlooked?
5. How can we live with a greater awareness that as we serve others, and care for the needy, we are really serving Jesus?
6. What practical things could you do to demonstrate a greater concern for the poor and needy on a regular basis? What about your family or your small group?