The ‘parable’ of the sheep and the goats is pretty clear, in terms of its practical implications. But it raises some massive questions.
The basic message is that we will be judged on whether or not we provided practical care for Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ (i.e., his disciples). This is presumably because such actions reveal our attitude to Jesus himself: if we love Jesus, we will love those closest to him.
But there are two big problems here.
First, what about the final judgment? Are we supposed to believe in hell? Are we supposed to picture God throwing people into an eternal fire and subjecting them to eternal punishment? What kind of an evil monster would do that?
‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matthew 25:41, 46, NIV).
The passage comes at a climactic point of Matthew’s gospel, at the end of the fifth and final block of teaching. But there are numerous places – in those five blocks of teaching, and elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel – where Jesus speaks about judgment. He talks about the fire of hell, destruction, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and about a final division that will happen between one group of people who will inherit the kingdom, and another group who will be thrown out. So the passage about the sheep and the goats isn’t an isolated incident. We haven’t caught Jesus on an off-day. This is the kind of thing he was saying again and again.
What are we to do with this? Is the God of the Bible an evil monster who tortures people in hell?
Many people would say no, that’s not what God is like. They would say that God is love, God is good, and God is gracious. Indeed, the Bible says that again and again. They would say that a God of love would never create a precious human being and then allow them to be destroyed – or worse. They would say that, even though people persist in rejecting God, God’s love will win in the end, because God’s love is infinitely strong. They would say that Jesus’ death and resurrection were so powerful and so effective that every single person will ultimately have eternal life as a result. So even if we haven’t turned to God before we die, God will keep on loving us beyond the grave, until eventually we freely and gladly respond to the warmth of his embrace.
This all sounds very appealing. But what are we to do with the sheep and the goats, and with all the other things Jesus said about judgment?
Some people argue that Jesus was simply exaggerating for effect. They maintain that it would have been obvious to Jesus’ hearers that he didn’t really mean it. So he was merely using language of judgment to emphasise the importance of what he was saying.
I’ve tried quite hard to find this convincing, but without success. If you look at what Jesus says about judgment, and how often he says it, and if you look at the Old Testament (with which his hearers would have been familiar), then it seems that the inescapable conclusion is that Jesus really meant what he said.
But maybe Jesus didn’t actually say these things in the first place? After all, the gospels were written some time after Jesus lived. Maybe his disciples got it wrong, or forgot things, or embellished the story? Or maybe the people who wrote the gospels were influenced by their culture? Their culture was very violent, so maybe that made them picture God as being angry and violent?
So when Jesus came and taught them about the God of love, maybe they didn’t really get it? Maybe what they wrote down is a mixture of the truth about Jesus, who taught about the God of love, and their own mixed-up beliefs from their culture about a God of judgment? If so, then our job is to search through the gospels, to strip out all those horrible bits about hell and judgment, and to find the good bits about the love of God.
Is this a fruitful approach to take?
When we argue in this way, we are applying a hermeneutic of suspicion to the biblical writers. That is, we’re pointing at Matthew (for example) and saying, ‘Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? You’ve been influenced by your culture!’
But whenever we point the finger, we find three fingers pointing back at us. Have we been influenced by our culture in our view of God?
The writers of the Bible didn’t seem have any problem saying that God is love, and that God will judge people. That simply wasn’t a contradiction to them. But for us it is. Why is that? Why can’t we believe in a God of love, who also judges people?
I wonder if it’s because of what we think about ourselves and about the human condition. We think that our fundamental problem is that we are wounded, hurt, and unloved. And how could God send someone to hell simply for being wounded, hurt, and unloved?
I think the writers of the Bible would want to point back at us and ask us whether we are projecting our culture’s views about humanity onto God. Because what if there is a deeper problem with us? True, we are wounded, hurt, and unloved. But what if our problem goes deeper? What if, deep down, we hate what is good, and love what is evil? And if that’s our fundamental problem, then how should God respond to us?
These, I suggest, are the questions we need to be grappling with, if we are to take seriously what Jesus says about judgment.
Second, where is the good news in the passage about the sheep and the goats? All of us are like the goats. There are many times when we haven’t cared for Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ when they needed help. Are we all going to burn forever? Where is the good news for people who feel more like goats than sheep?
Although this passage comes at a climactic point in Matthew’s gospel, it doesn’t come at the end. In fact, the chapters that follow immediately after it look remarkably like the final judgment. Jesus is put on trial, condemned, and executed. There is darkness, then an earthquake, and then dead people come back to life.
In the midst of this we find someone called Barabbas.
Barabbas was a ‘goat’. He was a notorious criminal. He’d been tried, condemned, and sentenced to death. But the governor, Pilate, gave the crowd a choice: he would release to them either Jesus, or Barabbas. The crowd chose Barabbas.
Barabbas, deep down, hated what is good, and loved what is evil. He deserved to be punished. But Jesus took his place. Jesus went to the cross, and Barabbas was set free.
That is the good news for goats. If we feel like goats, Jesus invites us to come to him, to be forgiven, and to be transformed. As with Barabbas, Jesus’ death will mean that we go free. He will change us from being a goat to being a sheep. All the mess from the past will be wiped away, and he will give us a new heart, a good heart, so that deep down we will love God, and love what is good.
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 ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Matthew 25:34-36).