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Sheep and Goats

... but which is which...?

Readings

Matthew 25:31-46 & Ezekiel 34:17-34

My wife, Karen, dislikes this Matthew 25 passage because of the fate of the goats but this of course is not literal. Jews kept both goats and sheep and the reason they had to be separated was for the goats to be brought in at night to keep them warm and safe as they were even more likely to wander off and thus get themselves lost than the sheep.

What does it actually mean? There are all manner of interpretations including many ‘end times’ ones as well as a very straight forward reading that those who do good works are rewarded with everlasting life and those who do not do so, go off to eternal damnation. To understand correctly we need to look at it in context, against other scripture and against other statements by Jesus and others in the New Testament.

If we take it at a very simplistic level it does appear at first reading to propose that we are saved by good works. However this is not supported elsewhere in scripture where it is made very clear that we are saved by grace not by what we do or do not do.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8
Even in this particular passage verse 34 states,‘take your inheritance’ . Now you cannot earn an inheritance. It is given to you so this passage is not saying that salvation is through works.

When was it said and to whom? This is answered in the previous chapter Matthew 24: 3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. So it was to disciples privately not to crowds generally and not long before the Last Supper.

What does the allusion to sheep and goats mean? In the Ezekiel 34 passage there is a double comparison: 34:17 ‘“As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats”. The flock of sheep are the chosen people of God i.e. as far as Ezekiel is concerned the Jews. Goats are separate from the flock of sheep. Jews believed themselves chosen and special and thus different from and better than Gentiles. However Ezekiel also contrasts the fat sheep with the lean sheep (both Jewish). 20 ‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: see, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, 22 I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.’ When Jesus uses the metaphor everyone (Jews and Gentiles) are included as sheep:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
John 10:16
So Jesus redefines the boundaries by including Gentiles in the flock of sheep but separates people differently:
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.
Matthew 10: 42
So now the distinction is between disciples or followers and those who welcome those as against those who do not. It is not a Jew/Gentile divide but follower and supporter as opposed to those who not only did not wish to follow Jesus but did not even wish to extend hospitality to those who did.

Who are ‘the brothers and sisters of mine’ in verse 40 of Matthew 25? Jesus defines this earlier in Matthew 12:

49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
So we can now say that the sheep in Matthew 25 are those who support the followers of Jesus. The goats are those who do not.

Why did Jesus tell the disciples something which was not directly relevant to them but about others who did not believe in Jesus? Perhaps having told the disciples what awful things are going to be their lot as followers of him In Matthew 10 and other places, this is an encouragement that justice will prevail because Jesus will implement it personally.
Verse 32: he (Christ) will separate the people one from another. This confirms what is said elsewhere in scripture such as John 5:

26 You see, just as the father has life in himself, in the same way he has given the son the privilege of having life in himself. 27 He has even given him authority to pass judgment, because he is the son of man.

There is an assumption that Jesus’ followers would act in the manner that the sheep are portrayed. Jewish values of alms giving and charitable works would have formed a basis of this even before they listened to the words of Jesus himself. It was counter cultural in this time and place to act in the manner of the goats. This may explain the very harsh consequences for ‘the goats’ because these are people who not only did not want to follow Jesus but also were not prepared to support those who did who were in material need and the goats’ actions did not extend even to what were traditional cultural values of hospitality (this is also referred to in Matthew 10).

11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you.
So if is about what others do for followers of Jesus why should we as modern day Christians be concerned with this passage? Our culture is very different but there is still an assumption that as Jesus’ followers we will behave like ‘the sheep’. If we are not like the sheep are we truly doing the will of the father and thus truly one of Jesus’ ‘brothers or sisters’?

There are many scriptural injunctions in both Testaments about this; James for instance in 2: 14 states that faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. John in 1 John 3:18 states

let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Thus faith is in words and deeds. We could perhaps think of a seed or bulb which has the potential to sprout and blossom into something wonderful but if it does not grow, it simply rots away. So to be spiritually honest to God and ourselves we have to have a generous spirit.

Beyond this Paul in Acts 20:35 states

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”’
Although we have no written Gospel reference for this, we can easily believe Paul when he says Jesus did say it. This takes us into something very personal. It is the person doing the giving who is getting more than the person receiving and we probably have all had experience of this either in the glee of someone receiving a present for a birthday or Christmas in our families or in seeing what charities have done with whatever we have given them. In the latter case this may well not be money but other things such as time, labour, skills or whatever.

In regard to people at large we can probably all observe a great split between those who are generous and those who are not. At Christmas here in the UK although not many people may read the bible they will almost inevitably see one of the various film versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens but they still often do not take the lesson on board about Ebenezer Scrooge who we could say in Ezekiel’s words, ‘shoved with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep’
This lack of generosity and love of personal material wealth loses Scrooge his fiancée and he becomes a sad solitary figure who people would be pleased to see dead. The changed (redeemed?) Scrooge is not only liked but is so much happier himself. Scrooge is fictional but we can probably all relate to real people like him in our modern day world where materialism and self-serving is so rampant. As with the fictional Scrooge, it is also often not those that have least material wealth who are most stressed but often those who are much more affluent.

There is secular research to support a concept of a spirit of generosity producing better physical as well as spiritual well-being.
Some studies done by the University of Zurich have shown that older people who are generous tend to have better health and other research has indicated that ‘spending money on others can be as effective at lowering blood pressure as medication or exercise. Moreover, there is a positive association between helping others and life expectancy - perhaps because helping others reduces stress.’ So instead of giving money to a gym give it instead to a worthy charitable cause!

So on a more serious note, what should we be doing as modern day Christians? Assuming we are at least reasonable ‘sheep’ if not exactly perfect ones, we may still need to reflect on how close we ourselves match up to the sheep in this Matthew passage and that we are not like the goats or the fat sheep in Ezekiel. Maybe if we are honest with ourselves and with God this is an area where we all need to do some work. We can check with real friends who will be honest with us, There are always plenty of opportunities to show more generosity both in regard to small things as well as large. If we cannot bring suitable ones to mind, prayer will I am sure provide some guidance.

We need to constantly be on our guard against becoming less generous and thus more like ‘goats’ (cynicism can be useful but too much can be harmful to others and ourselves). Instead we need to stay generous. This is not just in terms only of material things Important though that aspect is, but also of compassion, mercy and time. We need to maintain a spirit of generosity. Judaism describes this as having a good eye as opposed to a bad eye.

We need also to be careful not to be arrogant as Christians. By the definition of the sheep and goats we have established here, many non-believers may not strictly be goats (we can think for instance of those non-Christians who are supporting the work of the Maidstone Churches’ Winter Night Shelter). So we definitely must not tell all those we believe may be ‘goats’ that they are all going to eternal punishment (however we interpret that). We should note that it is Jesus who makes that decision and not us Verse 32: All the nations will be gathered before him, and he (Jesus) will separate the people one from another

We need instead to show those we might think of as ‘goats’, the compassion and generosity which are good for our own personal health as well as being good for them. We need also to show them that we have something even beyond that in our faith in Jesus. If we can guide them to that love of Jesus we can make them fully sheep (although not the fat sheep of Ezekiel!) That will be much more healthy and joyful for them and for us!

A PRAYER
Lord of All Gifts, You taught us to live and to love.
You taught us how to serve one another as You served, not counting the cost but being available to all.
We pray that You will give all of us Christians and others, more generous hearts and spirits that willingly give of time, talent and treasure to build up Your Kingdom here on earth to truly be more like it is in heaven.
Take our feet where they need to go, give us hands that readily reach out to others, give us ears to hear the silent cries of another, eyes to see their needs and hearts to reach out to them. May we help bring others to You in our own unique way.
We ask this in all humility and gratitude.
Amen.