You Are Not Alone in Being Alone
The ministry of Christ in the parable of the goat and the sheep and our duty as His people.
Matthew 25:31-46 31 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, just as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, but the goats on the left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 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; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You as a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me.’ 41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, you accursed people, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me, either.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
The parable of the sheep and the goats tend to be very famous in the Roman Catholic liturgy and seemingly unpopular within our worship service. Just like the book of James, this parable has been often misunderstood as a contradiction to what we Born Again believers uphold - Salvation by Grace through Faith and not by works. This is because as converts from the Roman Catholic Faith, we still wrestle with the issue of works and how it relates to our Salvation.
I have observed a similar knee-jerk reaction during my experience as a short term missionary in Japan back in 2008. While the Japanese converts did not wrestle with the issue of good works, they had a knee-jerk reaction to us Filipino teenagers back then who happen to smash bugs while being in front of them as the church that hosted us was in a rural area in Ibaraki prefecture. They later confessed that the reason why they had such knee-jerk reaction, albeit not obvious, to our behavior is because from their previous belief as a Shinto or a Buddhist, smashing bugs was considered a taboo for it may either be a god or a person.
While they have long recanted those views, they were reminded of that reality when a group of young Filipino short-term missionaries who are so afraid of bugs smashed them. This knee-jerk reaction towards the parable of the sheep and the goat came from our background as Roman Catholic Filipinos that we are only accepted by God if we are good.
But isn't it what the passage is saying? The righteous a.k.a. the sheep were accepted while the unrighteous a.k.a. goats were rejected. Yes and No. Yes in the sense that the Righteous was accepted but No in the sense that we must not interpret it through our previous Roman Catholic framework but as how the text says it is- THIS IS A DESCRIPTION OF THE SHEEP. This is not meritorious work but rather a description of a mark of a true follower of Christ. What Jesus describes in this parable is the fruit that would serve as a distinguishing mark for His people. In order to understand the passage better let us take note of its context. We can begin to look at Matthew 23 wherein Christ rebuked the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others."(23:23) In Matthew 24 He pronounced the destruction of the temple as judgment and encouraged the disciples to remain faithful and continue in their faith in spite of persecutions that would happen. Matthew 24:42-51 served as our first of 4 parables, 25:1-13 is the parable of the wise virgins which points out the necessity of being prepared for the Lord's return. 25:14-30 is the parable of the talents but I would call it the parable of the servants because it described what real servants do - they please their master. 25:31-46 is our parable of the goat and the sheep. Chapter 26:1-5 gives us the conclusion of the parables and sets us up to what will happen next, the betrayal of Judas.
When Jesus had finished all these words, He said to His disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion.” 3 At that time the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the courtyard of the high priest named Caiaphas; 4 and they plotted together to arrest Jesus covertly and kill Him. 5 But they were saying, “Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people.” -Matthew 26:1-4
From the context alone we could discern that the goats refer to those who are like the Pharisees who are empty professors but are hypocrites and blind guides, while the sheep refers to Christ's people. There is a sharp contrast between the false teachers and Jesus but in this parable, the followers of Christ who are the sheep must resemble what their master looks like or imitate what He has done: To care for the powerless, poor, and hurting as a ministry of justice and mercy.
Now these are all 'law' in the sense that we have discussed what we ought to do. If we only focus on that then we haven't escaped the tendency to interpret the passage as referring to how our good works could save us.
So what is the gospel in the parable? The gospel in this parable is about what Christ has done for the powerless, weak, and poor. He identified with the hurting: "And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me.’ (25:40), and " Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for Me, either.’" (25:45) This would make sense especially when we consider what happens to Christ in chapters 26 onward. He was targeted (26:4), He was grieving (26:38), He was alone in praying (26:40), He was betrayed with a kiss (26:49), He was arrested (26:50), He was falsely accused (26:59-66), He was physically abused and mocked (26:67), He was denied by a friend (26:69-75), He was a victim of injustice (27:24), He was tortured (27:26), He was crucified and humiliated (27:35), He was left alone to endure the wrath of God (27:46), He died (27:50), and He was buried (27:60).
All of these things He suffered yet He does not truly deserve. But isn't this the wonderful message of the gospel? Christ who is truly God assumed humanity and as a true man shared in our misery and suffering so that we will not be alone in our suffering. He joined us in our suffering and misery as a true man. But He took our suffering and carried them alone in His shoulders that He alone bore the wrath of God that was supposed to be for you and me. He took it to the grave but as a true God, He conquered death and sin so that those who would put their Hope in Him, His People, would rise with Him in His resurrection.
And so we now have a better perspective to understand the parable of the goat and the sheep. It is not about our ability to take care of the weak and the powerless but rather how Christ produces new life in us that would also identify with those who need mercy. And as how Christ was merciful to us, we too would take it upon ourselves to join in the suffering of others as Christ shares with theirs. But we can only operate as such if we are first recipients of His mercy and we rest in knowing that Christ shared in our suffering so that we would not be alone in our being alone. Mercy is a mark of a believer as Tim Keller said, but that mark is not something that is innate in us but rather worked in us by the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead.
You are not alone in your suffering. No one is and no one should feel that they are. Christianity is about understanding this as we grow to share in the burdens of each other not because we are the savior but rather because we want to join the Savior in His ministry of mercy to those who are hurting. May we be an instrument of healing as Christ heals us.
Pastor Kyle Quevedo is Associate pastor of Christ Alone Redeems Eternally And author of the 5Rs Gospel Presentation. (Currently undergoing Pastoral Internship at Evangelical Community Church in Abu Dhabi)