The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 2)

What they have done is taken care of “the least of these” is very simple practical ways, usually described as social responsibilities, things that were valued by the Jews at the time of Jesus. The idea that a righteous person takes care of the poor and needy is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic thought and becomes cornerstone to Christian ethics.

Job defends himself by arguing that he has not defrauded the poor (Job 31:16-21).  These same sorts of “good deeds” are typical of righteous Jews in the Second Temple Period.  For example, Tobit 4:16-17: “Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus as alms, and do not let your eye begrudge your giving of alms. Place your bread on the grave of the righteous, but give none to sinners.”  Likewise, Sirach 7:35 says “Do not hesitate to visit the sick, because for such deeds you will be loved.  Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty are things which the person of God does because they are God’s people (Prov 25:21, Ezek 18:7-9).

The sheep are also praised for sheltering the foreigner and stranger as well as clothing the naked.  This pair deals with basic hospitality requirements in the Ancient Near East. The word for stranger may mean someone from your country that is passing through your village or someone from another country.  Think of this as “when I was an immigrant, refugee, etc. in your land, you sheltered me.”  In b.Shab we read “Hospitality to the wayfarer is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekinah.”  Job claims that “no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler” (Job 31:32)

They also visit the sick and the prisoner.  Visiting the sick becomes a key virtue in the early Church (see James 5:14, for example).  Visiting the prisoner was necessary since the Greco-Roman prison system did not provide any food, water, or other needs for prisoners.  If the person was to survive in prison, there had to be friends on the outside to bring the person food and water.

The Testament of Joseph 1:5–6 “I was sold into slavery, and the Lord of all made me free; I  was taken into captivity, and His strong hand succoured me. I  was beset with hunger, and the Lord Himself nourished me. I  was alone, and God comforted me; I  was sick, and the Lord visited me; I  was in prison, and my God showed favor to me.

Babylonian Talmud (t. Bab. Nedarim) “he that does not visit the sick, is as if he shed blood:  says another, he that visits the sick is the cause of his living; and he that does not visit the sick, is the cause of his death: and, says a third, whoever visits the sick shall be preserved from the damnation of hell.”  Visiting of the sick was reckoned, by the Jews, a very worthy action: they speak great things of it, and as what will be highly rewarded hereafter.”

There is a question of application here – usually this verse is used to guilt people into giving to a food drive or money to a homeless shelter.  While that application is fine (I am a big fan of helping the poor), but I am not so sure that is what Jesus is talking about.  The people who enter “eternal life” are those who have actually done the will of God by caring for the least of the brothers.  In every other text in the gospel of Matthew, the brothers of Jesus are the disciples, the Jews who are following Jesus.  It is possible that Jesus is not referring to the generic poor of all ages, but specifically the disciples who will suffer greatly for their testimony.

The Sheep and the Goats – Matthew 25:31-46 (Part 1)

This pericope 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 judgment.  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 king who went away, Jesus is the bridegroom.

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 judgment 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 judgment 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 is prophecy that is 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 judgment 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 a reflection on 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.”  Compare also Joel 3:12: “Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side.”  The Animal Apocalypse in the 1 Enoch is very similar – the sheep represent Israel, while other animals represent the nations.

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 mite.

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.