Disclaimer: The following blog post was written before I became Orthodox and is currently in the process of being re-evaluated. Moreover, the notion (implicit in this article) that an historical-critical reading of the text renders other ways of reading the parable false, is an assumption to which I no longer subscribe.
“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. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you 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; 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 drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
“Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’
Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, the parable of the sheep and the goats is routinely read with the assumption that Jesus must be talking about personal salvation at the end of the eschaton. This salvation, in turn, is understood primarily or exclusively to be a matter of going to heaven when you die. The converse of this is to see Jesus’ pronouncement of damnation primarily or exclusively in terms of certain people going to hell when they die. Indeed, Matthew 25:46 is frequently detached from the rest of the parable (as well as the corpus of kingdom parables to which it belongs) and then used as the most-cited proof text for the doctrine of endless hellfire.
If we understand the parable as referring to the second coming, then it is hard to escape the force of this interpretive tradition, even if we want to nuance the meanings of salvation and damnation to encompass more than merely heaven and hell.
My suggestion is that this reading of the parable is anachronistic. A 1st century Jewish audience would not have taken this parable to be about Jesus’ final coming at all. Nor would they have heard it as referring to final rewards and punishments meted out to individuals at the end of the present age.
The key to understanding the parable is verse 31. “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.”
The idea of a king returning after a long absence is, of course, a recurring motif throughout the parables which Matthew records. The parable of the vinedressers (Mt. 21:33-44), the wedding feast (22:1-14) the foolish virgins (25:1-13) and the talents (25:14-30) all invoke this idea of a king returning in judgment. Clearly, the returning king is Jesus, who comes as YHWH’s representative to vindicate His people and to judge His enemies.
Jesus is drawing on themes that would have resonated deeply with a 1st century Jewish audience. The theme of YHWH returning to bless His people and judge His enemies goes back to the great covenantal blessings of Deuteronomy 30. There the Lord promised that YHWH’s return to His people would be marked by an end of captivity, blessing in the land God has given them and judgment on his enemies and theirs. After the people of Judah were exiled to Babylon in BC 586, Daniel took up this same theme, showing that there would be a return from exile when God vindicated His people (Daniel 9). This too would be marked by the Lord coming back to His people: specifically the “the Son of Man coming” (Dan. 7:13) to assume dominion of His kingdom and to make a judgment in favour of the saints of the Most High.
Many of the prophets took up this theme as well, pointing out that the return of God to His covenant people would be marked by the end of exile and the vindication of His chosen ones. For example, the Lord spoke through the prophet Zechariah, saying, “I am returning to Jerusalem with mercy” (Zech. 1:16) and “I will return to Zion, and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.” This return would be marked by God’s lavish blessing on His people (Zechariah 8 – 12) and judgment on His enemies (Zech. 9 & 14).
That is what many Jews in Jesus’ day were still waiting for. Although the southern tribes had returned from the geographical exile during the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and even rebuilt the temple, the great covenantal promises of Deuteronomy 30 and Daniel 9 were still unfulfilled. The people had returned to the land but God had not returned to His people. God’s presence had not returned to the temple in the way described in Ezekiel 40-48 and the Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine had a daily reminder that they had yet to be vindicated from their enemies.
This is why, according to many Jewish theorists of the time, the real return from exile was still future. The real return from exile would be when Daniel’s Son of Man came and assumed dominion of the kingdom, when God returned to His people to bless and vindicate them and judge His enemies. This was, of course, was what Messiah was expected to bring about.
But the return of YHWH to his people also included the sombre element that God would judge His own people. Those who claimed to represent the true worship of God but who had become unfaithful would receive the brunt of God’s judgment. The book of Malachi is taken up with this theme, as is Zechariah 11 and the first half of Isaiah 65. God would indeed vindicate His people, but this vindication would involve a separation between the true Israel and those who claimed to represent a tradition that they had in fact abandoned. This aspect was very much at the forefront of thinking during the second-temple period and had led to a number of sects, each of which claimed to be the remnant that represented the true Israel that God would vindicate when He returned to His people.
Now imagine that you are a 1st century Jew listening to Jesus’ kingdom parables. He invokes all of these themes: the return of God to His people after a long absence, judgment against those who thought they were the people of God but who had actually become unfaithful, and the vindication of His people against their enemies.
It isn’t hard to see these themes at work in Jesus’ kingdom parables. For example, the parable of the vinedressers begins with a landowner who went into a far country (Mt. 21:33) and then returns in judgment (21:40), and this judgment lands on those who thought they were the heirs of the kingdom but who had actually become unfruitful (21:43). Similarly, in the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14), the intended guests are unfaithful and therefore overlooked. That parable ends with the sombre separation between those whom the king had called and the person who looked the same but was actually rejected. In the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the bridegroom unexpectedly returns to his people to bring judgment against those who thought they knew him, but to whom the bridegroom replies, “I do not know you.” (25:12). The parable ends with Jesus explicitly invoking the Danielian motif of the Son of Man coming: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” (25:13). Similarly, the parable of the talents begins with a man travelling to a far country and ends with His return in judgment against he who thought he was carrying out the master’s will but who was actually guilty of unfaithfulness.
In all these cases, I would suggest, Jesus is drawing on the great Old Testament themes discussed above. As such, his narrative is pretty standard for a Jew of the second-temple period. But at the same time, Jesus is adding a subversive twist. He is using motifs that were familiar enough to be understood by his audience, but re-applying them in ways that were deeply subversive. Jesus’ version of the story goes like this: after a long period of exile, Israel’s God is returning to His people in the person of Jesus Himself. (For an excellent treatment of how returning king motif is at the heart of the meaning of the gospel, see Derrick Olliff’s paper, ‘The Gospel: The Return of the King.) This return is marked by a separation between God’s chosen people and those who claim to follow YHWH but have actually become unfaithful. The referents of the latter group are those who reject Jesus’ message. By clinging to their own understanding of the kingdom and rejecting Jesus’ framework, they become the recipients of the covenant curses and not the covenant blessings. Those who thought they were faithful but rejected Jesus’ teaching become the real exiled ones, so that when Israel’s God returns to vindicate His people, they find themselves on the wrong side, cast into the outer darkness.
The parable of the sheep and the goats fits nicely within this matrix. It begins with Daniel’s Son of Man coming in His glory to assume dominion of the kingdom. He gathers all the nations before Him and He makes a great separation, as He does in the other parables. This time, the separation is pictured in terms of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. As in the other parables, this separation subverts the expected categories: those who thought they were faithfully serving the king receive only curses and are cast into exile with the devil, while those who were faithful to Jesus’ and His people are rewarded.
Following the proposal laid out by N.T. Wright in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, I would suggest that Jesus believed all this was happening in and through His ministry for the very generation He was addressing. The judgment on unbelieving Judaism to which this parable, like the others, so clearly points, was not something reserved for the end of time, as if Jesus was talking about heaven and hell or His final coming. Rather, it was a warning about the very imminent destruction that God had in store for unbelieving Judaism. In hindsight, and with the rest of the New Testament to guide us, it is not hard to see this destruction in terms of what happened to Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman in AD 70, when God’s vengeance was let loose against those who had persecuted the true Israel (Christians). But while Jesus’ message was specifically focused on the nation of Israel, the principle is international in application. Thus, throughout the present age, God continues to separate the sheep from the goats by judging or rewarding nations that help or hinder the progress of the gospel (pictured as their response to “the least of these My brethren”).
The obvious Danielian backdrop to this particular parable helps to clinch the fact that it has nothing to do with Christ’s second coming. In Daniel 7, the coming of Son of Man is not His coming to earth. Rather, it is in the other direction: He comes to heaven from earth. When He does so, He takes His seat with the Ancient of Days and assumes dominion of His kingdom (Dan. 7:13-14). The parallels between Daniel 7:13-14 and Matthew 25:31 are too obvious to overlook. By invoking Daniel’s picture to His hearers, Jesus is identifying Himself with Daniel’s Son of Man, showing that He too will be coming to the heavenly throne of the Ancient of Days, to assume dominion of the kingdom in glory. When He does this, He will vindicate the true Israel. As N.T. Wright puts it:
“In Matthew, the other parables in chapter 25 are focused, not on the personal return of Jesus after a long interval in which the church is left behind, but on the great judgment which is coming very soon upon Jerusalem and her current leaders, and which signals the vindication of Jesus and his people as the true Israel. There is, of course, a time-lag to be undergone, but it is not the one normally imagined. It is not the gap between Jesus’ going away and his personal return (the ‘coming of the son of man’ in the literalistic, non-Danielic sense); it is the time-lag, envisaged in Matthew 24, between the ministry of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem. This time-lag will be a period in which, in Jesus’ absence, his followers will be open prey to the deceit of false Messiahs, and will face a period of great suffering before their vindication dawns.” N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), p. 636.
“Eternal Life” and “Everlasting Punishment”
Much confusion has been generated by the language of “eternal life” and “everlasting punishment” in verse 46. It is often asserted that if “everlasting punishment” is taken as anything short of never-ending hellfire then the “eternal life” of Christians must also be limited because of the obvious juxtaposition of the two. Of course, this assumes that Jesus’ parable is addressing the post-mortem state. However, Jesus’ hearers would not have associated “eternal life” with “going to heaven when you die” or even resurrection. Again N. T. Wright is helpful in explaining the matter:
In its original Jewish context the phrase [‘eternal life’] fairly certainly refers to ‘the life of the age to come.’ The ‘present age,’ according to some Jewish thought, would give way to ‘the age to come.’ One of the great beliefs of the early Christians was that God had already kick-started the ‘age to come,’ even though the ‘present age’ was still in some sense continuing…. The phrase ‘eternal life’ should…refer to a new dispensation which God will create in the renewal of all things. Perhaps we should translate zoe aionios differently, to make the point. (N. T. Wright, New Heavens, New Earth: The Biblical Picture of the Christian Hope (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1999), p. 7. For a more detailed study of the meanings of the Greek aionios (“eternal”), see Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes (Carlisle, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1994), chapter 2.
Understood as such, when Jesus invokes the ideas of eternal life and eternal punishment, he is invoking the historic-temporal blessings and curses that would occur in the age shortly to come – the age he was even then inaugurating by His kingdom announcement. In the chapter just previous (Matthew 24) Jesus had described the judgment upon Jerusalem that marked the passing of one era and the establishment of another in which the glory of God is no longer concentrated in the Temple but in the Son of Man. (There is not space to discuss the matter here, but a compelling case can be made for reading Matthew 24 and the parallel section of Mark 13 as referring to Christ’s “coming” in judgment at AD 70.) These are not realities reserved for Christ’s final coming, but dire warnings to the very people Jesus’ was addressing. These warnings are not about hell fire (at least not in the sense that hell is traditionally conceived), but Roman fire, falling masonry and crosses outside the city.
On the other hand, if the kingdom parables are simple stories about salvation and damnation, then who can the foolish virgins or the unfortunate wedding guest be other than those who want to access Christ’s salvation but can’t. It is unconvincing to say that these are people who were trying to achieve salvation in the wrong way – say, by trying to earn their salvation by works – unless we are prepared to swallow the even more implausible idea that Jesus was a poor communicator that the meaning of these parables would lie shrouded in mystery until post-reformation Europeans came along to de-code them. The advantage of the interpretation I am pressing is that in all likelihood, this is what the audience of Jesus’ day would have heard Him as saying.
Before closing, it is worth noting that there is a tradition of universalist interpretation which maintains that the age-abiding punishment of the goats is representative of a period of corrective chastisement. However, when the parable is put into its first century context, we see that this is just as untenable as the position which maintains that the parable supports the doctrine of endless hellfire. To start with, it is hard to see in what meaningful way the sack of Jerusalem can be said to be anything other than retributive for those who perished in AD 70. Those who maintain that the punishment is an “age-long chastisement” are obliged to either re-locate the parable (and by extension the other kingdom parables from which this one cannot be separated) at Christ’s second coming or to say that those who perished in AD 70 learned a lesson in the next life because of the “discipline.” We have already seen the former of these suggestions fails to take seriously the Danielian backdrop. The latter proposal is equally problematic, not only because the text gives us no indication that this is what Jesus had in mind, but because it anachronistically moves the locus of the parable to what happens in the next life.
Further, if taken in the context of the other kingdom parables I have briefly addressed, Jesus is not issuing mere empty threats, nor is he preaching a judgment that ends in hope; rather, He is setting forth the very real possibility that those who reject His ministry will be left out in the cold, exiled from the covenantal blessings like the devil and his angels, where they can do nothing but weep and gnash their teeth. Jesus is taking all the Old Testament promises of covenant renewal, as well as the warnings about covenant curses, and showing that they find fulfilment in how people and nations respond to His own ministry. It is to this reality, not our preoccupations with what happens when you die, that Jesus’ kingdom parables so vividly point.