The Sheep and the Goats

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation o24 the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:31:46 NIV

Whom are the 'least of these' that he is referring to in verse 45? Christians, all people, who?

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    Did you read the verses immediately preceding? They explain the context. – Flimzy Oct 15 '14 at 19:09
  • Yes, I read it. The verses preceding clarify the least of brothers/sisters, this 25:40 does not clarify this, I am not sure if he is referring to the least of the goats or the least of the sheep. Are we to supply material wealth and time to all sheep and goats or just sheep? – Greenman Oct 15 '14 at 20:12
  • Verse 37 is the clue. Then the righteous will answer him .. when did we see you hungry ... ?... then in 40 The King will reply, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. clearly The King is speaking to the righteous about their actions toward the brothers and sisters. So the brothers and sisters are the recipients of the righteous' actions (feeding, clothing, etc) – Flimzy Oct 15 '14 at 20:17
  • Thank you Flimzy for taking the time to answer this. This seems to be the way I read it too. You are very kind to help me out on this. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 3:24
  • @brasshat thanks for editing my original question to make it all orangie, I just now learned how to do this. Is that known as Blocking? Also, how did you imbed the link to the bible text [Matthew 25:31:46 NIV], when you click on it, it takes you to the text on a web site. I want to learn how to do that. How do you do that? – Greenman Oct 19 '14 at 14:56

The short answer: to our fellow Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Allow me to develop my answer by first contextualizing the verse. Notice in each of the preceding parables in Matthew 24 and 25, there is a pronouncement and/or an act by someone in authority:

  • a master (24:45-51) who in light of his slave's faithfulness while his master was away on a trip put him in charge of all his possessions

  • a lord (25:1-13, especially v.12), probably the father of the bridegroom, who says, "Truly I say to you, I do not know you."

  • another master (25:14-30) who said to two of his slaves, "Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master," but to the third slave who was unfaithful as a steward of the master's money, the master said, "'You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.'"

  • a king (25:31-46) who says to the sheep on his right, "'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'" To the goats on his left, however, he says, "'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.'"

What these parables have in common is a judgment rendered by a person in authority. That judgment determines who is rewarded and who is punished; who is let in and who is excluded; who is praised and who is censured.

I suggest the two categories of people are the faithful, who are the true believers in Jesus who are gathered to his right, and unbelievers, who are gathered to his left. The common theme in all the parables concerns faithfulness in doing what the person in charge expects to be done.

The first "work" of the true believers in Jesus' day (and by extension to all true believers in every generation since then) was to believe in him. Jesus said to a crowd of people whom he had just fed miraculously, and whom he suspected of following him simply because he fed them,

"'Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.' Therefore they said to Him, 'What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?' 29 Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'" (John 6:27-29 NAS, my emphasis).

The second work for the true believers in Jesus' day (and for us today) was to do things consistent with repentance. In other words, Jesus expected them to demonstrate their faith by their works, a concept which Jesus' half-brother James developed quite thoroughly, concluding "faith without works is dead"! (see James 2:26). Here is how Matthew had Jesus addressing the religious leaders of his day:

"But when [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham'" (Matthew 3:7-9; cf. Luke 3:8, my emphasis).

All this to say, the words of the king to which you refer in your question come from the mouth of the Son of Man (v.31) at a great judgment. It is a winnowing judgment at which "sheep" and "goats" are segregated. God then pronounces both a blessing and a curse.

His blessing (v.34) is directed to his true believers who demonstrated faithfully their love for "the least" of his (and their) brothers and sisters, all of whom are gathered together on the right of the Son of Man. They did so by

  • feeding the hungry among them

  • giving a drink to the thirsty among them

  • clothing the naked among them

  • showing hospitality to those strangers among them

  • visiting the sick and imprisoned among them

His curse (v.41) is directed to unbelievers who failed to demonstrate faithfully their love for "the least of these" (v.45). Notice that this phrase "the least of these" does not refer to "the least of these brothers of mine" (i.e., the king's) in verse 40, but simply "the least of these [goats]" (i.e., the unbelievers).

Could this winnowing, or separating, be part of the "Great White Throne Judgment" John wrote about in Revelation, chapter 20, verses 11-15? Quite possibly. Regardless of whether it is or isn't, there is a common thread in all four parables; namely, there will be a day of reckoning for all humankind, with there being only two classes of people (or "nations," as John puts it) gathered before God:

  1. the blessed (Matthew 25:34), who are the elect of God who have been faithful in serving Christ by serving their brothers and sisters in Christ in need

  2. the cursed (v.41) who have proved they are not among the elect by not faithfully serving the needy among them

Notice that the judge does not use the phrase "one of these brothers of mine, even to the least of them" when addressing the goats. He addresses them instead as follows:

"'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me'" (v.45, my emphasis).

In other words, the people whom the judge refers to as "the least" are not fellow believers (i.e., the judge's "least" brothers) but fellow unbelievers among the goats on the left.

I could go on at length about how Jesus will judge unbelievers not only by whether their names are written in the Lamb's book of life (Revelation 20:12), which they are not, but also by their works. In my view, there will be degrees of punishment in the "eternal fire" of which the king in Matthew 25 speaks. The more heinous the deeds done, the more severe the punishment will be.

Suffice it to say, in conclusion, that while we believers are alive and in the world, "working out our own salvation" (Philippians 2:12-13), we also,

"while we have opportunity . . . [are to] do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith" (Galatians 6:10 NAS, my emphasis).

By doing so we prove we are the elect, the sheep belonging to the "good shepherd" who gave his life for the sheep (John 10:11 and 14).

  • 1
    Rhetorician, thank you so much for this well thought out and thorough answer. I had been meditating on these versus for awhile and suspected that might be the case, but obviously I did not want to err. For me I have learned that the only true currency of any value on this earth is time, and that is borrowed. Devoting it towards the elect first and to all others secondarily seems to be the best use for that currency. I thank you for your time on this, it is precious to me. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 3:15
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    Also, I come from a military background where we had a rating system for performance reviews. One of the sections contained the text, "going the extra mile", which was to be desired for true excellence. It seems the truly elect will provide their time and resources to all regardless of division, so there is no question about their true worth and quality. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 3:42
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    In fact, after reviewing both answers, I was just reminded of Mathew 5:43-48 and 6:1-2. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 4:23
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    But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 4:27
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    The short answer: to our fellow Christians, our brothers and sisters in Christ -- I'm pretty sure this is incorrect. The surrounding verses make no mention of other believers--only "the least of these" (the poor, the underprivileged, in modern speak). Nowhere does it say that those who received help of the "sheep" were other believers. – Flimzy Oct 16 '14 at 12:19

Taken in context, those declared to be sheep (that is, those described prior to 25:40) fed people who were hungry, gave drink to people who were thirsty, clothed people who were naked, visited people who were sick, and people who were imprisoned. But obviously, from their answers, the did not recognize Jesus as any of the ones they had served. To paraphrase their answer "We didn't see YOU among those we served, to which Jesus proclaimed, "as you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.

Jesus does not specify, beyond the fact that they were the "least of these", exactly who these brothers and sisters were. But as a devout Jew (the fulfillment of the Law) and his audience would well have been familiar with Deuteronomy 10, where we read

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (17-19, RSV)

These need not have been Christians (or Jews), as in the parable of the Godd Samaritan, Jesus holds up as a foreigner, and not just a foreigner, but a Samaritan, as a example to be learned from. Too many forget today that to the devout Jews hearing the story, the Samaritan was regarded with little, if any respect respect by the Jews. The regard is about the same as if Jesus was telling the tale today to an audience of citizens of the US, and used a North Korean in place of the Samaritan. So it is likely that Jesus, when he referred to the "least of these brothers and sisters of mine", was including all people, and that the "sheep" described in 31-40 had ministered to the poor and needy, whether or not they were Christian (or since Christians did not yet exist, Jewish).

By contrast, we know from the verses following verse 40, that the people who were described as goats, did not feed poor people who were hungry, gave them drink when they were thirsty, clothe the naked, visited the sick, or come to the imprisoned, because when, just as the righteous had done, the "goats" protested that they had not seed Jesus hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in prison, because we have Jesus word that they did not do so, even though their answer is very similar to the answer given by the righteous "But we did not see YOU in need. Jesus response to those compared to goats is the same as he gave to the sheep.

In both circumstances, Jesus makes clear that the righteous will serve the needy, whoever they might be.

  • The slight difference between the two responses troubles me. To Goats he refers to the "least of these" To Sheep he names "Brothers and Sisters" Are the least of these, the brothers and sisters too? Or is he referring to the least of the Goats, which don't appear to be his brothers and sisters. Implying that the brothers and sisters are only the redeemed and not all peoples. Implying that we only need service Christians with material wealth and personal time. – Greenman Oct 15 '14 at 19:43
  • I think the author's intent is that in both instances Jesus was referring to the same beneficiaries of the ministry of the righteous and the unrighteous, "the least of these, my brothers and sisters", and that the author simply felt that he could be just a bit mor hasty, and not repeat the "brothers and sisters" bit. Kind of like if one has just chastised children, "My beloved children, Jack and Jill, stop jumping on the furniture, and then a few moments later says "My beloved children, dinner is ready". I think Jack and Jill are both invited, even though not more specifically identified. – brasshat Oct 16 '14 at 2:20
  • Brasshat, thank you for taking the time to answer this. I see where you are going and wondered the same thing, was the author being hasty (which does not seem likely given that it is the Bible but not impossible) or was there more too it? Which is what was bugging me and prompted me to ask the question in case I was missing something. – Greenman Oct 16 '14 at 3:34

I have been trying to understand this passage as well. The interpretation I learned in church is that we are to treat fellow believers with compassion, but those who are not believers have it coming to them. However, I have come to see it differently because, if you follow each possible interpretation to its logical conclusion, the two purposes in the comments just trail off into gibberish. Let me illustrate.

If the "least of these" refers only to the chosen/believers throughout the passage, then how does a member of the flock become a sheep or a goat? Are they sheep because they cared for downtrodden sheep and goats because they didn't care for downtrodden sheep? In that case, salvation is by works alone and pretty wonky ones at that. Will unbelievers be judged as such because they didn't care for believers? The rest of scripture tells me that we will be judged by out faith rather than our works, and our good works are a product of our faith. This interpretation is linguistically bound to the conclusion that it is a set of [rather bizarre] works is the progenitor of faith. To say that we are saved by our works is biblical gibberish.

The other proposed interpretation is that the "least of these" refers each to its kind. The shepherd addresses the sheep about fellow sheep and the goats about fellow goats. In this case a goat is deemed a goat because it did not help fellow goats. If this is true, what of the goat that did help its fellow goats? What has become of the beneficiary goats? If the charitable goat becomes a sheep, it is judged by whether it was charitable to its fellow sheep since the sheep are judged to be sheep because they cared for sheep. Does this mean that the beneficiary goats also become sheep so that it may be said that the new sheep is such because of its care for sheep? How then can sheep be judged as sheep by their charity toward sheep if some of them are sheep because they are the recipients of charity rather than givers. Even if the the charitable actions are the result of faith, the logical conclusion of this interpretation didn't merely contradict the rest of the Bible, it contradicts itself. It creates linguistic optical illusion, a mental image that is a non-entity in reality.

I have come to understand that the least of us are all those in need, not just believers. In this parable, the shepherd refers to all of humanity as his brothers and sisters as a reminder that we are all created by God, we are all God's children. Our salvation is one of redemption not of creation. We do not become children of God through our faith, but become absolved of what we have done to be cast out of His family.

Go, therefore, and extend to all of God's children the same compassion, grace, and charity that God has extended to you.

  • Welcome! Sadly, this answer seems to just express your opinion, which isn't what this site is about: here we focus on explaining and learning about the documented beliefs of Christian groups, not individuals. Please take a minute to learn how this site is different from others, and review how your answer can be supported. – Nathaniel Nov 13 '15 at 14:28
  • Welcome @Timothy. I actually think this is a fine answer to this question (+1), but be aware that this question is very atypical. The vast majority of questions here only work when scoped to ask what a specific group of Christians teaches. Questions about analyzing the text usually belong on the Biblical hermeneutics SE instead fo here. – ThaddeusB Nov 13 '15 at 15:12

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