A real problem (for me) is the use of this parable in contemporary preaching. It is usually used for coercing people to bring canned food into the church food pantry around thanksgiving: “If you bring a can of cream corn to give to the poor, then you are helping Jesus.” (I always wondered what the poor people did with all that creamed corn and canned okra, but that is another problem!) While I think that we have to care for the poor, that may not be what this parable is about. this is a parable about the audacious grace of God.
This parable-like section is a grand conclusion to the Olivet Discourse and sums up many of the eschatological themes in Matthew. But is this a parable? Not in the normal sense of a parable, it is more of an apocalyptic prophecy with parabolic elements. The story is usually treated as a parable, despite the fact it is not a story drawn from everyday life. As an apocalyptic prophecy, the Sheep and Goats is an interpretation and re-application of themes from the Hebrew Bible to a new situation.
Clearly the “Son of Man” is not a symbol, Jesus is identifying himself as the one who will be doing the final judgement. There is, however, a shift from Son of Man to “the King” in verse 34. The King in this parable is not necessarily a metaphor for Jesus but an actual title of Jesus that he will have at that time. That Jesus sees himself as the central character in this parable helps us to read the previous parables – Jesus is the bridegroom in 25:1-12 and he is the king who went away in 25: 14-30.
The Sheep and the Goats are metaphorical elements that parallel the Wise and foolish virgins and the productive and unproductive servants in the parable of the talents. The elements of the judgement are not to be taken as metaphors, what the sheep do and what the goats do not do should be understood as a part of the judgement that they are facing at the end of the age. The wise virgin and prepared servant are more or less like the Sheep, the foolish virgin and the unprepared servant are more or less like the goats.
It is probably best to see this as a prophetic or apocalyptic parable using the metaphor of the separation of sheep and goats to indicate that at the end of the age the nations will be separated and judged. The basis of that judgement will be the treatment of the “least of these brothers of mine.” This prophecy may be based on several passages from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Ezekiel 34:11-17 describes Israel as a flock in need of a true shepherd. It is quite possible that the Sheep and Goats of Matthew 25 is an allusion to Ezekiel 34:16: “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.” (Joel 3:12 has a similar metaphor).
Like any of the parables, this story must be read in the context of the first listeners. The shocking end of the parables of the kingdom is that those that thought they were getting into the kingdom are not going to be there, and those that were on the outside do get in. The ruling Jews thought that they were going to be in the kingdom, in fact, they were the “keepers of the kingdom of God.” Yet when Messiah came, they did not recognize him. They never really had much of a chance to since they were not caring for the poor and the needy as they ought. Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees who liked their fine things, or the people giving in the temple and mocking the widow and her mites.
On the other hand, the underclass probably did not think of themselves are serious candidates for the first to get into the kingdom. They were told repeatedly that they were the unclean, “sinners and tax-collectors.” Yet they will enter the kingdom, and those that were accepting and caring for this underclass, as Jesus was, will enter as well. Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry this kind of grace by eating with sinners, now he is welcoming people into his kingdom who showed the same grace to other “least of these brothers.”