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Soldarnal has already asked who are "the least of these my brothers" in Matthew 25. But I think we also need to ask who are the sheep and the goats?

Matthew 25:31-46 we read

When the Son of Man comes… 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.

To those on his right he says,

‘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.

The righteous are shocked. They ask,

Lord, when did we see you…

He answers,

I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

The King then turns to those on his left and pronounces the opposite judgement with a similar pattern. They are cursed and sent away to the eternal fire because when they did not do it for them they did not do it for him.

So what is the meaning of the parable? Who are the least of these my brothers and by extension who are the sheep and the goats?

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3 Answers 3

The parables’ interpretation hinges on the identity of Jesus’ brothers. While it is true that at least some of these “brothers” are in need, their need does not define them. The need simply identifies them as the “least.” Jesus, in Matthew 12:48, has already made known the identity of his “brothers.”

Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

His brothers are His followers.

It doesn’t make sense than to say that the sheep and the goats are likewise Christians, followers of Jesus. You would think at least the sheep as “true believers” would recognize their Lord in helping those who likewise followed Him. They’ve heard this parable right? But its significant that neither the sheep nor the goats recognize the Son of Man.

The parable identifies the sheep and goats as the gathered nations or gentiles. And in Matthew 18:17 gentiles means outsiders.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Thus it appears that the sheep and the goats collectively represent all those who in the days prior to the kingdom did not knowingly follow Jesus. The nations are all those who have not recognized the Son of Man.

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Goats and sheep are indistinguishable from a distance in the same way that wheat and tares are indistinguishable. Both sheep and goats are also "kosher" animals, which makes them similar. Thus this judgment is not between the righteous (believers) and wicked (unbelievers), but between the righteous (believers) and the apparent-righteous (unbelievers). In other words, the scope of this judgment is for the declared followers of the shepherd, who are ostensibly "kosher" creatures.

Ezekiel 20:33-44 appears to be the parallel account in the Hebrew Bible to this passage in Matthew, when the Lord God will one day regather his people from the nations of the world in order to be their king. That is, this regathering will be a mix of the righteous (believers) and the apparent-righteous (unbelievers). Thus he will judge his people in the "wilderness of the peoples" (Ezek 20:35). The comparison here is to the wilderness of the land of Egypt (Ezek 20:36), where the Lord had "purged" his people in order to prevent "rebels and transgressors" from entering the Promised Land. Thus the scope of judgment is limited to the declared followers of the Lord. As the shepherd he will make his people "pass under the rod" (Ezek 20:37). In this context, the goats will undergo the following.

Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB) 21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

At the end of Matthew 25:31-46 the announcement is made: “These (goats) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (sheep) into eternal life.” That is, the sheep are the righteous (believers) and the goats are the unrighteous (unbelievers) notwithstanding that both groups were the ostensible and therefore self-declared followers of the Lord.

The idea here is that those "believers" who love other "believers" through both their words and deeds are indeed the sheep (cf. Ja 2:15-17 and 1 Jn 3:18), whereas the remainder (the goats) are those whose spiritual gifts (which were prophesying, healing, miracles) were of no use or benefit to the sheep (hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness, and their loneliness in incarceration) and therefore the goats were never "known" by the Lord.

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The sheep and "the least of these my brothers" are mutually-defining. The kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom of koinonia, partnership. Just as Yahweh self-identifies with Abram his covenant partner in Gen 12:3 ("I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, I will curse"), Jesus says the same here regarding those in the kingdom. They are his "brothers," members of his family—a theme and connection which Paul expands in Gal 3 by showing that those baptized into the Messiah (who is the mature and eschatological heir of Abraham) in fact are clothed with him, and receive his blessings. As a result, they too are both "sons of Abraham" and "sons of God."

Incidentally, the theme of caring for the poor and using one's material resources for others which if found here in Mt 25 is also echoed in Galatians, including the connection with eschatological blessing; see Gal 6:6–10, where what begins as an encouragement to "partnering" with faithful teachers of the Word becomes a statement that doing good to all, particularly of the "household" of faith (cf again, the family theme of Mt 25) is in fact "sowing to the Spirit" toward an eschatological harvest.

In Genesis, Matthew, and Galatians, there is thus a connection and mutual identification between God or Jesus and His people, such that those who partner with them are partnering with God, and those who curse, abuse, or disregard them are doing so to God.

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