The Sheep and the Goats

The Sheep and the Goats or "the Judgment of the Nations" is a pronouncement of Jesus recorded in chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, although unlike most parables it does not purport to relate a story of events happening to other characters. According to Anglican theologian Charles Ellicott, "we commonly speak of the concluding portion of this chapter as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but it is obvious from its very beginning that it passes beyond the region of parable into that of divine realities, and that the sheep and goats form only a subordinate and parenthetic illustration".[1] This portion concludes the section of Matthew's Gospel known as the Olivet Discourse and immediately precedes Matthew's account of Jesus' passion and resurrection.[2]

Jesus separating people at the Last Judgement in Fra Angelico's The Last Judgement, c. 1431

This story and the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents in the same chapter "have a common aim, as impressing on the disciples the necessity at once of watchfulness and of activity in good, but each has ... a very distinct scope of its own".[1]

Text of the passageEdit

The text of the passage appears in Matthew's Gospel and is the final portion of a section containing a series of parables.

From Matthew 25:31–46:

"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’

“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did not do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


The connection between the images of king and shepherd, recalls the figure of David. [3]

The three parables that precede this one (The Talents, Bridesmaids, Unfaithful and Faithful Slaves) all stress waiting for and preparing for the return of Christ. "This parable is similar to the Rich man and Lazarus in that the time to repent and be converted, the time to care for the poor on one's doorstep, is past."[4] It also recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan. As associate professor of Biblical Languages at Union Presbyterian Seminary, E. Carson Brisson, says, "Let it be noted that this list of afflicted and needy individuals is, at first glance, a list of the very ones who appear to be bereft of God's favor. These are ‘the least.’ These are truly ‘other.’"[5] Also, see Ezekiel 34:4 for a similar list of afflicted and needy individuals whom God favors. This pericope is also similar to the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds which will be sorted out on Judgment Day. What distinguishes the sheep from the goats is the acceptance or rejection of Jesus' message.

There is some difference of opinion among scholars regarding the identity of "the least of these my brothers", with Reginald H. Fuller and others holding that it refers to the disciples Jesus sent out on mission. "The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself; cf. Mt 10:40, “Whoever receives you, receives me.”"[3][6] "For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct."(Mt 16:27).

True compassion requires action.[4] Those who believe in justification by faith may still accept that good works may function as a test or measure of belief. See James 2:14-17, which appears to indirectly reference this parable: "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "Matthew 25". Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers. Retrieved 2018-04-15.
  2. ^ Jerusalem Bible sub-title for chapters 26-28
  3. ^ a b Fuller, Reginald H. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today, The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition)
  4. ^ a b McKenzie, Alyce. "Judging Sheep and Goats: Reflections on Matthew 25:31-46", November 14, 2011
  5. ^ Brisson, E Carson. "Matthew 25:14-30." Interpretation 56.3 (2002): 307-310. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 5 Sept. 2013.
  6. ^ NAB, note Matt.25:31-46