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The Sheep and the Goats

by Brant Pitre November 06, 2020 0 Comments

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So we will read this parable and then we will try to unpack it and link it in a special way to the Church's doctrines on heaven and hell, which are very important, very central doctrines rooted in the Scriptures themselves.  So let's read the parable and put it in its original context.  Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says this at the end of his famous discourse:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'  And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'  Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?'  Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.'  And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Okay, so what's being described here?  Well although we call this a parable, it's a little different than some of the other parables we've been looking at in Matthew's Gospel.  It's not a long story, it's really almost more of a short analogy where Jesus is briefly comparing his parousia, his second coming in the final judgment at the end of time, with the separation of sheep and goats by a shepherd.  So the opening lines of the parable make clear that that's the context.  First, when it says “when the Son of Man comes in glory,” Jesus is talking about his final advent, his final coming at the end of time.  Second, when it talks about all the nations being gathered before him, that's describing the final judgment.  The final judgment is at the end of time when all of the dead will be raised, and not only the Israelites, but every nation, every people under heaven, everyone who has ever lived from the beginning of time until the end of time will be judged by the Lord in what the Church refers to as the general judgment or the final judgment.  So Jesus makes clear from the beginning of this parable that that's what he's actually talking.  He's talking about the coming of the Son of Man at the final judgment.

And in that context, he uses the analogy of a shepherd separating the sheep and the goats as a metaphor for the final separation of the righteous, who will inherit everlasting life, and the wicked, who will inherit everlasting punishment.  So the imagery here is not an accident because if you look at sheep and goats, one of the things you will notice about the two animals is that they have very different, so to speak, personalities.  Sheep are, as a rule, docile to the master.  They follow the shepherd, they follow his voice, they flock together, they are docile creatures.  Goats — and if you ever had a goat you would know — are stubborn, as a rule they are very stubborn animals.  So even with the imagery here of sheep and goats, you can kind of already get a sense of what the difference between the righteous and the wicked are.  The righteous are those who are obedient to the Lord, who are docile to the will of God; whereas the goats, the wicked, are those who are prideful, who are stubborn and who have refused to do the will of God.  Jesus doesn’t make that explicit, but it is just kind of implicit in the language and imagery of sheep and goats.  So he puts the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left hand, and then he begins to pronounce judgment. 

So the judgment of the sheep is “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  This is interesting.  So a few elements here.  First, salvation is a blessing.  It's a gift of God.  That is why he calls them “blessed of my Father.”  Second, it's described in terms of inheriting the kingdom.  So notice — my English teachers always used to tell me don’t mix your metaphors —  that Jesus is mixing his metaphors here.  On the one hand he is using an image, a metaphor of sheep and goats and a shepherd, separating them, and in the very same parable he's also using the metaphor of a king giving an inheritance to his subjects.  So they are inheriting the kingdom of God, which it says here “was prepared from the foundation of the world.”  So this isn’t an ordinary kingdom, this is an eternal kingdom.  In other words, God has known from the very first day of creation, from the beginning of time, those who would inherit eternal life.  This is called the doctrine of providence, that God knows all things.  He's not surprised by how things will turn out at the final judgment.  He knows everything that has ever happened or ever will happen until the end of time.  This is his divine foreknowledge and also his divine providence, that he's been guiding it and preparing for it from the foundation of the world.

Now, the question everyone wants to ask though is how do I get into the kingdom?  What's the condition for entering into the kingdom?  And in this parable Jesus says something that might be shocking, it might be a little striking to us.  We can imagine him saying enter into the kingdom, inherit the kingdom all of those of you who believed in me or who accepted me as the Messiah.  You would think that he might put faith as a condition for entering into the kingdom, and we'll see elsewhere that knowing Christ is an essential aspect of entering into the kingdom.  We saw that earlier in some of the parables.  But in this parable the emphasis falls on what the Church calls the corporal works of mercy.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, visiting the sick, caring for those who are in need; these corporal works of mercy, welcoming the stranger, what does that mean?  It means in particular sojourners, immigrants.  So in the first century A.D., when a person would immigrate from another country into the holy land, they were essentially bereft of the protections, the ordinary protections, of family, friends, employment and those kind of things.  So God made very clear to the people in the Old Testament that they were to welcome the stranger and not to abuse the stranger or abuse the immigrant or the alien or the person from another country.

So what Jesus is saying here is that all those works of mercy, what we call the corporal works of mercy, when you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.  Now that is a fascinating verse.  It's been made famous by Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, the Daughters of Charity, who as their mission have the care for the poor and the needy.  And Mother Teresa very famously said that those five words were kind of the essence of her mission and ministry: you did it to me.  When Jesus says that he tells us everything we need to know about the poor and the lowly, namely that any act of charity done to the poor is in essence an act of charity done to Christ himself.  It's a kind of mystical theology of the poor as living members of the body of Christ.  So Jesus says when you have done it to the least of these my brethren, the sick, the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry, you actually did this to me.  So the reward for those acts of mercy is to enter into the kingdom of God.  And the parable ends by saying that the righteous will enter into eternal life.  So that's another image for not just the kingdom of heaven, but what the Greek says here is zōēn aiōnion.  We get the word zoology from that, the study of life.   Zōēn aiōnion is a life that lasts forever, it's the life of the age to come, eternal life.  That is the sheep.

What about the goats?  This one is somewhat less positive.  The goats who were placed on the left side are not blessed but cursed.  In other words, they were punished for their sins.  “Depart from me, you cursed,” he says “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”  So instead of being saved and inheriting the kingdom, they are damned.  They enter into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  That's a very important point there.  You can see Jesus teaching that the fallen angels are themselves separated from God for all eternity.  An the image that he uses to describe the pain of that separation is the image of eternal fire.  This obviously, in this context here, would refer to a kind of spiritual fire, because the angels don't have bodies, but they're experiencing in some way, in some mysterious way, the pain of being separated from God for all eternity.  And in this case, it is very sobering, Jesus says that the damned are separated from God, but in a sense are joined to the devil and his angels.  Their lot is with the devil and his angels in this eternal fire.  Again, this is part of divine providence, it has been prepared by God from the very foundation of the world and now it is being brought to culmination at the final judgment.

So you might want to ask yourself here, what's the reason?  What do I need to do to avoid experiencing this eternal separation from God?  I always like to joke with my students, if you're at the final judgment and you see two lines, get in the sheep line, don’t get in the goat line.  But obviously that's just a joke here, the judgement is already decided on the basis of the actions by which we have lived our lives.  And in this case, the goats, again it doesn't say they are adulterers, it doesn't say they are murderers, it doesn't say that they are idolaters or any of those positive sins that we would normally associate with grave sin — and rightly, those are definitely described as grave sins in the Old Testament and in New Testament — but what is described here, and this is really shocking, is sins of omission.  Namely, that unlike the sheep, the goats here fail to perform the works of mercy, the corporal works of mercy, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit those who are sick or in prison, to give water to the thirsty.  So that's the only thing described here; it is that they did not do those things to the least of Jesus’ brethren, and so as a result Jesus says when you fail to do that to them, you also fail to do that to me.  In other words, when you fail to love your neighbor, you actually fail to love God.  It's a very sobering, very important principle of the law of Christ in the New Testament.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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Life after Death, a Bible study on the 7 last things

This study could also be titled: the 7 most important things to know in our earthly life, as what happens when we die, affects how we live today.
Brant Pitre is one of the most outstanding teachers of Scripture.
He takes a complex topic, breaks it up into bite size chucks, articulates it in a way that is comprehensible, referencing Scripture.
He covers so much ground in a limited time frame, never a dull moment.
He has a good sense of humor too.
In this study, using Scripture, he helps us understand the many questions we ask about what happens when we die.
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This is so good that I bought two more to give as gifts!


This is a beautiful and moving study of the Triduum, my favorite time of the year. It’s also my first presentation from Dr. Bergsma, but it definitely won’t be my last.