There’s something about Jesus’ sheep and the goats parable that I find harrowing. It captivates me like none of his other teachings—and haunts me.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“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 of the world. 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, 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.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“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. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 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.’
“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?’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”—Jesus, Matthew 25: 31–46
Here are a few reflections on the portions of this parable that jump out to me:
1. Godliness is responsive
This is really the no-brainer interpretation of this passage, but it’s important to point it out. Being ready to respond to the needs of others is incredibly valuable.
2. Godliness is proactive
I am tempted to see the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick as those who I need to respond to—but only if I see them. But after a while, the needy in the periphery of my life just fade into a dull tableau. I convince myself that I’d respond if they cross my path, but I become desensitized to them. That’s why “I was in prison and you came to visit” is the game changing part of this parable.
Visiting those in prison is the one facet of this parable you can’t misinterpret. Spending time with someone doing time is a proactive activity. You don’t accidentally stumble upon someone in prison. You have to pro-actively seek them out.
The prisoners inclusion here activates the rest of these activities (feeding the hungry, looking after the sick, etc.). Now the poor, sick, and hungry are elevated from potential, random opportunities for giving to actual responsibilities for us to ardently seek out.
3. Godliness is not judgment
Another way that the prisoner angle changes this parable is that it releases me from choosing who deserves to be served. Without it, I might be tempted to help those who I feel are hungry and thirsty through no fault of their own. I don’t get that luxury with the prisoners. The likelihood that the captive deserves his/her plight is pretty high. But it doesn’t matter.
And if it doesn’t matter for the prisoner, I can’t imagine that it matters for the poor or the sick. I am completely free from trying to figure out if someone deserves my help. I just get to serve them. And by serving them, I serve the Lord.
4. Godliness is resolution
It’s important to notice that neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they did (or didn’t do) to deserve Christ’s commendation or condemnation. The sheep didn’t do good for the purpose of praise. They didn’t do it because they felt obligated. They did it because they were resolved to do it.
Many of the goats, on the other hand, probably had the best of intentions—they just lacked resolve.
Jesus doesn’t micromanage his kingdom. He isn’t standing over us directing our every movement, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t paying close attention. We spend a lot of time agonizing over what God’s will is for our lives. Honestly, I think we all have a good idea where to start.
5. Godliness is service
Imagine walking home after listening to Jesus give this parable. What would your impression be? I hate to say it, but let’s be honest, you’d think that your eternity depended entirely on what you did or did not do.
The faith/works pendulum has swung so far in the faith direction that we don’t let Jesus words have the impact that he intends. We’ve emphasized right belief to the extent that, even when you talk seriously about New Testament teachings like this one, Christians warn you not to fall for that “social gospel.”
The New Testament plainly teaches that those who have the faith to follow Christ will (should) be transformed into the kinds of people who give of themselves selflessly. True, living faith transforms how we look at our time and our finances. The only way that this becomes a faith/works questions is when we ask ourselves, “Is my faith an assent to an ideology or is it a life-giving, perspective-changing plunge into a new kind of living?”
Here’s the $1,000,000 question: If Jesus was completely serious about wanting his people to serve the marginalized and the societal cast-offs, how else could he make it more clear?