If you’ve been following along with my dilettante effort to understand the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, then you’ll slide right in to these words. If not, you may want to check them out here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (wow!). Or… you could simply accept my conclusion that Jesus’ words in the thirty-fourth verse indicate that every warning He gave to His disciples was meant to inform them that they could expect the fulfillment in their generation. If so…
Immediately following His cautions, Jesus begins teaching His disciples how they should wait. (I hate waiting) Jesus does not simply give them a cut and dried list of waiting procedures… He teaches them in parables, as He often does.
I’m going to do something strange. I’m going to start with the last parable and work backwards. I’m not insinuating the Bible gave them to us in the wrong order, by the way, I merely want to pluck from these amazing texts something I think is needed before looking at the preceding parables.
You may know the parable. It’s the one about the sheep and goats (if not, take a quick read: Matthew 25:31-46). It has been explained in so many different ways that it is a wonder that anyone even dares use it for teaching anymore.
If you know the story, then you know the conclusion. Jesus says, “Hey, you that helped the hungry, hurting, imprisoned, etc., welcome to glory! You that didn’t, so long!”
If I can find a way with my frail mind to answer two questions about this text, I’ll be content. First, who is it that is being helped? Second, why were both parties shocked that Jesus concluded their efforts were for Him rather than those in the parable?
So who is it that Jesus was pleased that the sheep helped? Remember… I believe this message was first and foremost to those standing in front of Jesus as He taught. Who does He say the sheep helped? Here, let’s read the text. “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it (or didn’t do it) to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Did you catch that? He said, “My brothers!”
Listen, I’m not going to imply here that we don’t have an obligation to take care of the poor… all of the poor. We do! But the context of this passage isn’t looking at a global effort to feed the hungry. Jesus is saying that His sheep will take care of His brethren!
Who are His brethren? He made this (who His brethren are) perfectly clear one day when someone wanting to let Him know that Mary, His mother, was waiting for Him. How did Jesus respond? “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” Matthew 12:49-50
I believe (in the context of this passage) that Jesus is telling us that the sheep are those who meet the needs of those who are serving Him. These who are His brethren are hungry, naked, imprisoned, etc… while doing the will of God. Jesus is saying that the sheep are identified by their support of His Apostles and those serving with them.
What would it have meant to those He was speaking to? Take a quick survey of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Read a little bit of church history! Pick up a copy of Josephus’ works. What was happening to the Apostles and those serving hand in hand with them? They were being persecuted, thrown in prison, and killed! Many had no income and were completely dependent for basic needs on the aid from others. What did Jesus expect the sheep to do for them? Support them, feed them, visit them… quite simply, be there for them! …and they were!
I’m sure someone will say at this point, “Is there then no message for us today?” Yes! Yes! Yes! We should hear the same message that they heard. We simply need to identify whom the sheep should be reaching out to today. Who is on the front lines of the faith of Christianity today? The list could be long, but allow me to share a couple: How about our pastors? They’re looking out for our souls. They’re being bombarded by attacks from the devil, society, and often the goats. Shouldn’t we get behind them and support them with prayer and love? What about our missionaries? Shouldn’t we be meeting their needs with prayer and support to ensure they are getting into the lands they have been called to with the gospel of Jesus Christ?
To further concrete the idea of Jesus that sheep were in effect meeting His needs, not just human needs, consider Paul’s Damascus road experience. Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting My Church?” No, no, no,…He didn’t say that! He said, “Why are you persecuting Me!?”
The second question I had was why were both the sheep and goats surprised by Jesus’ associating their support with Himself and not just those whose needs were being met? Who are the sheep and the goats?
Are the sheep ‘Christians’ and the goats ‘atheists and agnostics’? I don’t think the text allows for this. If it could, why then would they be surprised? The atheist has no intention of helping Jesus… or some poor missionary who has been thrown in prison in Iran. Why would he be surprised when Jesus confronts him? He wouldn’t.
The only thing that makes sense here is that both the sheep and the goats are those who profess to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior! The goats are surprised because they have spent Sunday after Sunday dressed in their finest attire being admired by their peers. They know all of the right words to say. They know exactly when to bow, when to sing, and when to shout, “Amen.” Who knows, they may teach Sunday school classes, serve as deacons, and they may even write Christian blogs! But they are never moved to do without another serving of banana pudding so they might fund a missionary. They’ll not be found missing the Super Bowl or a fishing trip to spend time pleading with God on behalf of their pastor.
Why then are the sheep surprised? Didn’t they know they were helping meet the needs of Jesus’ brethren? Yes, but they didn’t see it as a work… it came naturally (supernaturally). They didn’t give because they felt it was earning them some favor with God. They did it because they love Jesus and knew if He were here, He would do the same thing (by the way, He is… we’re His body!). They were giving to Jesus and didn’t want to be recognized for it. It’s as though they’re shocked that Jesus even remembered it! In the shadow of the cross, any labor we can offer causes that reaction!
There’s only one question left to answer (I know… I didn’t tell you there would be a third). According to Jesus’ definition, are we sheep… or are we goats? To the sheep Jesus says, “Enter My rest!” To the goats, “Depart from Me, I never knew you!” Are you actively waiting for Him to return?
- Sheep vs. Goats (susangray2011.wordpress.com)
- Matthew 25: Stay Alert! (kingdomnewtestament.wordpress.com)
- The difference between the Sheep and the Goats in the parable, is what they DID and DIDN’T DO (bjorkbloggen.wordpress.com)
- Amusing the goats but starving the sheep!! (atwistedcrownofthorns.com)
- “As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (worryisuseless.wordpress.com)