I come to so many Bible passages believing that I know what they’re about, and then I find something altogether different. Joel Green says, “The first step is a close reading of the text.” That involves not assuming I already have all the answers. Here’s another perspective on a passage I always thought I understood––Jesus’ discourse on the sheep and the goats.
Here’s the passage:
“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?’
“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.’
“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?’
“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.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I don’t think this passage is about Jesus encouraging his disciples to take care of the poor and needy. Good thing to do! We can point to plenty of places in Scripture and say, “We need to care for the poor and needy! We must!” But I don’t think it’s the main thing happening here…
Sheep and the Goats — receiving Christ
This whole address that Jesus is giving in Matthew 25 begins a chapter earlier. Look how it begins there:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3)
If you have a Bible that uses red letters to show Jesus’ words, everything from this point to the end of our passage on the sheep and the goats is red. The disciples ask Jesus this question––about the signs of the end of the age––and we get two chapters’ worth of response.
Some of the first part of Jesus’ response goes like this:
“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:9–14).
Persecution of the disciples
So they want to know about signs for the coming end of the age, and Jesus gets right to telling them, “you’re going to be persecuted and killed and hated.” Jesus never minces words when he’s talking about what life as a disciple may be like, does he? It reminds me of this famous classified ad about a South Pole expedition:
Hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
— Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington St.
This isn’t usually how we present discipleship today, is it? “Sign-up sheets for our discipleship groups are in the back. I hope you’ll join one! Oh, it may involve imprisonment and beatings…” To be fair, a lot of people around the world and in history knew that part. But I never have.
I wonder how it has changed our response to discipleship that we can hear that invitation without hearing imprisonment and beating along with it.
Witness of the disciples
Despite the danger, Jesus tells his disciples the gospel will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.
We see that coming to fruition at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus sends his disciples to make disciples of all nations. And he promises that he’ll be with them all the way to the end of the age. That’s an encouraging promise, given everything he told them they would endure.
Disciples in the sheep and the goats
In our passage about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Throughout the book of Matthew, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters? They’re the disciples! They’re whoever does the will of God.
Most people who have read this passage throughout most of history don’t think it’s simply about extending hospitality to the poor and needy. That’s a great and biblical and essential thing to do. They would all agree. But it’s not what Jesus is doing here. What’s Jesus doing here? I think he’s talking about how the world receives his disciples—those that he calls his brothers and sisters.
This is what things will look like after Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Some people will meet his disciples—hungry, thirsty, needing clothes, sick, and in prison––and they’ll give them hospitality. When they do that, they’re not just welcoming Jesus’ disciples, they’re welcoming Christ himself. Christ goes with them.
And when they reject the disciples, they reject Christ himself. Christ goes with them.
For the nations— for all people—I think Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats asks us how we receive those who bring the gospel. We’ve seen that since the first time Jesus sent his disciples out. Some people receive the messengers and the message. Some people reject them. Maybe hospitality can be a starting point for those who don’t know Jesus as Lord. Will they at least receive the messengers? Will they at least receive the ones he sends, and take care of them?
If you read this as someone who’s not sure that you’d call yourself a disciple of Christ — or you’re sure that you wouldn’t — this might be the place to stop and reflect. I’ve had lots of good opportunities to interact with people who aren’t Christians over the last several years. Several of them have wanted to talk about faith, not to spit in my face or debate, but to make a sincere effort at understanding. If that’s you, let me affirm you in that. We want you to claim this Christian message as your faith. But for now, receiving the messengers may be the best step you can take.
Now let’s consider those messengers. The amazing reality Jesus presents here is that we are the body of Christ! Where Christ’s disciples go, he goes. What happens to Christ’s disciples happens to Christ. How the world receives them is how the world receives him.
So for the disciples, where are they in this story? They’re the hungry, thirsty, stranger, needing clothes, sick or in prison, aren’t they? Jesus has assumed this about his messengers over and over. “Want to be my disciple? Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” “You’ll go out like sheep among wolves.”
We see all that come true in the apostle Paul’s life. Look at what he writes to one church about what he and his companions have been through:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment (1 Cor 4:11–13).
When I’ve read the story of the sheep and the goats, I’ve always seen myself standing in one place in the story. I’m the one who’s supposed to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. And if I haven’t stressed it enough, that’s an appropriate place to be.
But I’ve never read this and thought that perhaps I might be the hungry or thirsty one. Why?
Well, you might say that I have the great fortune of having never really hungered or thirsted. It’s not a position I relate to. And that’s very true.
I’m also able to have a job that involves preaching the gospel, and yet I’m not treated like the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world (a hearty thanks to the Offerings Community of First UMC for that). I’m not in rags or brutally treated as a result of it.
For all of that, I give thanks. I don’t wish for the other.
But as it becomes more and more clear to me that the disciples in this story are the hungry, thirsty, sick and in prison, it becomes more and more clear to me that I’ve never heard the kind of call to discipleship that they did. For them, a call to discipleship meant nothing less than going and making disciples of all nations, and that led to nothing less than hunger and thirst, imprisonment and beatings.
Matthew’s gospel is this extended call to discipleship. And every step along the way, that involves danger and rejection on the one hand, and the promise of Christ’s presence on the other. So I ask myself, if the call to discipleship had sounded somewhat like this for me,
how much might that have changed my whole understanding of discipleship?
I admit here that I’m asking questions I haven’t been able to fully answer. All I know is that it’s terribly unnatural for me to hear Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats and think that I might be in the position of the hungry or thirsty, and I think Jesus’ disciples hearing it then could have identified with that side quickly—not because of their social situations, their jobs, where they lived, or anything else, but simply because of the mission Jesus was giving them.
For as much as I don’t know, I’m pretty sure that a call to discipleship expects—demands really—that we’ll be bold in living according to faith despite the hardship that may come, that we’ll be bold in going out into our world and finding ways to share this faith with others. A call to discipleship expects that everywhere we go, we go as the very body of Christ. When we go places as Christ’s representatives, that means we’ll be received by some and persecuted by others. We’ll be welcomed by some and ignored by others. And where that happens, it’s not just us, but Christ himself, who receives that treatment. Our call to discipleship involves at least that much.
The great gift of God is that wherever we go, Christ is present with us. The great invitation of God is now to go boldly, in his presence and power. Christ has been made King—and the King says that however people treat his servants is how they treat the King himself.