Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Sheep and the Goats


Matthew 25:31-46

The parable of The Sheep and the Goats is only one of the parables included in Matthew’s Gospel that deal with judgment.1 In this parable, Jesus himself is the judge of all the nations 2. But how can this be done if other nations have not yet heard the gospel? Answer: They are judged on the basis of their treatment of those Jesus represents—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner.

In this parable Jesus separates people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Such mixed flocks were common enough, both because it was economical to work with one herd, but also, apparently, because the more restless goats tended to keep the herd on the move and so to produce more effective grazing in the sparsely vegetated areas. But at night the herdsman would divide up his herd so that the hardier sheep could be left outside and the goats be brought in overnight. 3

The sheep are put at his right hand and are commended and accepted into his kingdom because they have helped those less fortunate than themselves. They are surprised at what Christ tells them because many of them have never heard of him, seen him, or consciously done anything for him. How could Christ say they had fed him, given him drink, welcomed him, cared for him in his illness, or visited him as a prisoner? Christ's answers. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

On the other hand, Christ has bad news for those on the left hand. “You that are accursed, depart from me 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 nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

While those on his right hand were surprised at Christ's commendation, those on the left hand are surprised because they do not recall ever seeing Christ in need of help. They ask, "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison?" If Christ had announced himself, they would have dropped everything to serve him. They would have gone hungry to feed him, they would have given him their last drop of water, they would have taken the shirts off their backs to clothe him. After all, he was an important person, the Lord, the one who could reward their good deeds with heaven. But he arrived unannounced, poor, hungry and thirsty, and they ignored him. That was a mistake with eternal consequences!

What does this parable teach us?

1. We will all face the judgment. Whether the gospel has been preached to us or not, we shall be judged. No one can hope to escape the judgment because that they did not recognize Christ when he appears in human form.

2. Different scriptures mention different criteria for judgment, but our treatment of the unfortunate members of society whose influence, wealth, or power cannot be of any advantage to us is a fundamental requirement for citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.

3. Our service to others must be without thought of reward. A stranger came in to look for a room at a hotel where George Holt was the hotel clerk. Because every room was taken, he offered the stranger his own room. The stranger happened to be John Jacob Astor who later built the Waldorf-Astoria. He remembered the kindness of Mr. Holt, looked him up, and hired him. Consequently, George Holt became the most famous hotel manager in America. 4 He was rewarded, like those on the right hand of Christ, because he performed a selfless act without thought of reward.

4. Theological correctness is not as important as spontaneous goodness.

Ellen White writes:

Those whom Christ commends in the judgment may have known little of theology, but they have cherished His principles. Through the influence of the divine Spirit they have been a blessing to those about them. Even among the heathen are those who have cherished the spirit of kindness; before the words of life had fallen upon their ears, they have befriended the missionaries, even ministering to them at the peril of their own lives. Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God. 5

Leo Tolstoy tells the story of Martin Avdeich, a cobbler in a little town. His shop was in a tiny room in a basement with a window through which he could see the street above. He had lost his wife and children years before and since then he was in constant despair. An old friend of his came to visit him, and Martin told him that he wanted to die, that there was no point in his living.

The friend told Martin that he felt that way because he was only thinking about himself. "Read the Gospels," he admonished him, "and God will tell you what to do." And so Martin bought a Bible and began to read it. One night he read the story of the Pharisee who had invited Jesus to his home but did not show any kindness to him, but the woman who was a sinner washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and poured expensive ointment over them. Martin wondered if the Lord should come to him, whether he would act like the Pharisee or the woman. Then he fell asleep. All of a sudden he heard a voice that woke him up. No one was there but he heard Jesus’ words distinctly. "Martin! Look out into the street tomorrow, for I shall come."

The next day when he started work, he remembered the voice. He kept looking out of the window to see if Jesus would come. He saw Stepanich clearing the snow outside and then rest against the wall. Martin called him in to warm himself and gave him a cup of hot tea. He refilled the cup as often as Stepanich emptied it. Stepanich thanked him and left.

Martin continued stitching a boot but kept looking out the window. He saw a woman poorly dressed with a baby in her arms. She wore thin worn summer clothes and was trying to shield the baby from the cold wind. Martin went out and invited her in. He gave her some bread and hot soup. She told him she was a soldier's wife whose husband had gone off eight months ago, and she had not heard from him since. She had to sell everything she had, even her clothes, since she could not find any work. She finally had to pawn her shawl the day before. Martin gave her an old cloak. The woman took it with gratitude and wrapped the baby in it. Then he gave her some money to get her shawl out of pawn. The woman thanked him and left.

As he returned to his work, he glanced out the window in the hope that Christ would appear, but instead he saw a young boy attempt to steal an apple from an old woman selling apples. The woman seized the boy by his hair. The boy screamed. Martin dashed into the street. The woman threatened to call the police. Martin told the boy to ask for forgiveness. He did and the woman forgave him. Martin took an apple, paid the old woman, and gave it to the boy.

The woman said, "The boy ought to be whipped."

"Oh, Granny," said Martin, "If he should be whipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins? God bids us forgive or we shall not be forgiven. We should forgive a thoughtless youngster most of all." As she was lifting her sack on her back, the boy offered to carry it for her.

Martin went back into his shop to work again. His work was done for the day. He swept the place and took the Bible from the shelf and opened it, and when he began to read. He heard footsteps. A voice whispered, "Martin, don't you know me?"

"It is I," said the voice, and Stepanich came from a dark corner and then disappeared.

"It is I," said the voice again, and the woman with the baby in her arms appeared and vanished.

"It is I," said the voice once again. and the old woman and the boy with the apple came forth and disappeared.

Martin continued reading from this Bible, "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in." And then he read from the bottom of the page, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." 6

And so Martin realized that the Master had really visited him that day, and he had received him three times.

How many times a day does the Savior appear to us? Is he is standing in the food line at a homeless shelter, is she a neighbor who can’t pay her rent, is he an old man who needs help getting into his car, is she is a young woman who needs a job? How do we respond?

1 Others include The Wise and Foolish Builders, The Wheat and the Tares, The Good and Bad Fish, and The Laborers in the Vineyard.

2 In Scripture, sometimes God is referred to as the judge and Jesus is our advocate and other times Jesus himself is the judge as in this parable. In effect it doesn't matter since in both cases we know that the judgment will be fair. Jesus as well as God the Father loves us.

3 Wenham, p. 89.


5 White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, p. 638.

6 Tolstoy, Leo, “Where Love Is,” Reader’s Digest, December, 1982, pp. 112-115. Condensed from a short story in Twenty-three Tales, English translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude.