The Goats of Wrath

MATTHEW 25:31-46



sheep and goats


The Galapagos Islands. These are the famous Islands where Darwin formulated his famous Theory of Evolution, though I don’t want to talk about the controversy surrounding that theory today. These Islands are home to some of the most exotic species on Earth including the famous Galapagos tortoises.

But in the fifteen hundreds pirates and whalers would stop at the Galapagos on their way to the east. They would pick up some tortoises to eat and leave behind some goats to eat when they returned from their voyage. For hundreds of years on the Island of Isabella, molten rock on the Island separated the goats from the tortoises. But by the 20th century some brave goats decided to cross these black lava fields to the tortoise territory. By 1994 there were over a hundred thousand goats on the Island. And they ate everything, devastating the Island, and the tortoise population.

So from 2004-2006 the Galapagos conservation agency launched a massive extermination campaign, hiring sharp shooters on helicopters to shoot the goats. Within a year they had killed 90% of the goats. But soon enough the goats learned that the sound of the helicopter meant death so they would hide from the helicopter. So the exterminators used what they called “Judas Goats”. Goats with radio transmitters that would lead the helicopter to the Judas goat’s friends. This strategy helped the conservation agency eliminated 250,000 goats by mid 2006. This caused plants to reemerge and a resurgence of the tortoise population.

This is a pretty dramatic picture of how wrath helped bring about new life. And it reminded me a lot about our text today. Before we talk about what Jesus is saying here about the final judgment of the nations it would help if we understood a little more about the context in which Jesus is telling this story.

I know some of you are farmers so you probably know more about sheep and goats than I do, but in my mind sheep and goats have some defining differences. Goats are fearlessly independent. They generally eat anything, while sheep just eat grass. Apparently, ancient shepherds would herd sheep and goats together. And since goats have hair and not wool, the shepherd would separate them out of the flock at nightfall, and the goats would huddle together for warmth, while the sheep would continue to graze. Thus, the imagery of the separation of the sheep and the goats would be very familiar to many in this agrarian society. Goats are generally smarter, most of the males have horns and can defend themselves from predators. Sheep for lack of a better word, are sort of stupid and defenseless, requiring the shepherd to come to their defense. Sheep, symbolically, can be seen as creatures who give, in the sense that you can make clothing from their wool. Thus it makes sense for the shepherd to keep sheep alive for more than just food. Goats on the other hand are primarily good for clearing brush and providing food. Indeed, the only other place in the New Testament where the Greek word for Goat is used is Luke 15:29, the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable the Good Son complains about how the Father has provided the prodigal son with the fatted calf at his return, where the good son has done everything the Father has asked and yet the Father has not even provided a young goat for him.” The implication is that goats were used for food, and that their meat was considered to be inferior to that of the fatted calf.

I think in modern times this story has often been interpreted as a call by Jesus to care for the less fortunate of the world, making how we treat “the least of these” the criteria of eternal judgment and damnation. This is a popular interpretation in more socially progressive ends of the church, though such segments of the church don’t really take seriously ideas of eternal judgment. And though there are many texts in the New Testament we can draw on to support God’s call for justice for the poor, most of the commentaries I read, and a careful reading of this story will show us, that this modern interpretation of the parable of the sheep and the goats is simply not valid.

The key phrase that challenges this interpretation is when Jesus says in verse 40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did to me.” The key word here is the “my brothers” which often gets left out when we quote this text. In the Gospel of Matthew “my brothers” is clearly used by Jesus to refer to his disciples. Indeed, in Matthew 13:10, Jesus tells his disciples that he speaks in parables, not to better illustrate his points, but to make his teachings confusing for those who are not willing to push in and seek him, to those who have a desire to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. And in Matthew 12:46-48 Jesus tells the crowd, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” So in this parable Jesus is basically saying that the nations will be judged by how they treat his followers, by how the world treats Christians.

In 2012 Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali born, American writer, activist, and avid atheist, published a controversial Newsweek article entitled, “The Global War on Christians In the Muslim World.” I mention Ayaan’s avid atheism, to show that she is no friend of Focus on The Family, and yet even she recognizes that there is a persecution of Christians going on in the Muslim world of biblical proportions. To quote just a small portion of the article;

The 2.8 million Christians who live in Pakistan make up only about 1.6 percent of the population of more than 170 million. As members of such a tiny minority, they live in perpetual fear not only of Islamist terrorists but also of Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. There is, for example, the notorious case of a Christian woman who was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. When international pressure persuaded Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer to explore ways of freeing her, he was killed by his bodyguard. The bodyguard was then celebrated by prominent Muslim clerics as a hero—and though he was sentenced to death late last year, the judge who imposed the sentence now lives in hiding, fearing for his life.

Such cases are not unusual in Pakistan. The nation’s blasphemy laws are routinely used by criminals and intolerant Pakistani Muslims to bully religious minorities. Simply to declare belief in the Christian Trinity is considered blasphemous, since it contradicts mainstream Muslim theological doctrines. When a Christian group is suspected of transgressing the blasphemy laws, the consequences can be brutal. Just ask the members of the Christian aid group World Vision. Its offices were attacked in the spring of 2010 by 10 gunmen armed with grenades, leaving six people dead and four wounded. A militant Muslim group claimed responsibility for the attack on the grounds that World Vision was working to subvert Islam. (In fact, it was helping the survivors of a major earthquake.)”

Ayaad concludes that while the term “Islamaphobia” has become more of a catch phrase in today’s media, the reality suggests that “Christianphobia” is actually a greater problem around the world.

While even an atheist may recognize the reality of the persecuted church, I still think this particular interpretation is dangerous. Not because I don’t believe in heaven and hell, I do, but because I think this interpretation can lead Christians from assurance to self righteousness, which is exactly what Jesus was trying to avoid. If we are saved and that causes us to look down upon people and just declare the world a lost cause, that does not seem to be the spirit with which Jesus judges.Notice that one of the main themes of this story is surprise. The righteous, i.e the sheep, are surprised that they are being let into the Kingdom, and the unrighteous, that being the goats, are surprised that they are being cast into eternal judgment. How are we to reconcile this cosmic surprise at the last judgment with the Christian doctrine of assurance and justification by faith? How can any of us be sure that at the last day Jesus won’t say to us, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”? How do we know that we are sheep of salvation and not goats of wrath?

During my study of the scriptures I have noticed two trends that are pretty prominent in the scriptures. Jesus challenges people’s notions of who is saved and Paul preaches, “If you declare with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). In other words, Paul assures people of their salvation and Jesus challenges people about their position before God. Who is right? Well I think they are both right, it is just that Jesus and Paul are each addressing different issues. Essentially, Jesus is challenging legalism and Paul is challenging idolatry. Jesus is teaching people about the Spirit and Paul is teaching people about the Truth. And as Jesus tells us in John we are called to worship in Spirit and Truth.

Much of Jesus teaching, is not focused around philosophical or religious discussions about which religion or worldview is true or not. This is because Jesus ministered primarily to the Jewish people in his lifetime. Instead, much of Jesus critique is against the religious elite, who see the Law as an end in itself, instead of as a way to bring people closer to God. Jesus revealed himself as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, especially in Matthew. Jesus’ critique was against legalism and hard heartedness. He was dealing with people who knew a lot about God’s Truth but did not know the Spirit of God by which they were to apply that truth. I think most people my age, the millennial generation and below, are empathetic with Jesus teachings because we constantly come across religion that seems lifeless and not freeing.

Paul, on the other hand, mainly ministered around Gentiles. He ministered around people, such as the church at Corinth, who were “spiritual but not religious.” He ministered in cultures with a Parthenon of gods. A god for every taste and every like. He met a lot of people who knew how to have an open spirit, because they were basically open to worship anything. Yet, he ministered to people who were ignorant of the Truth, the Truth that there is indeed a spiritual realm, but not all the forces we encounter are worthy of worship, and some are indeed dangerous and are out to deceive us. Instead of Legalism Paul dealt with idolatry and a laze faire morality. Many of the Gentiles he dealt with understood the reality of a spiritual realm, they were good people, but they were far from the Truth. So he preached the message of salvation in Christ and the assurance of a God who loved his people and had already made the greatest sacrifice. The Gentiles didn’t know what to believe so Paul preached assurance of salvation. The Jewish leadership thought salvation was only for them so Jesus challenged that notion. Assurance and challenge, resting in the finished work of the Cross and working out our salvation in fear and trembling are all part of the Christian life.

We have entered into the time of Advent in the Christian Calendar, a word that means “coming.” During this time as the natural light of the sun shortens we remember the eternal light of Christ that came into the world as a helpless child. But advent speaks of another coming. A coming of the Son of Man, the Divinely anointed Judge, who will sift the chaff from the wheat, the sheep from the goats, a judge who we all will have to stand before, Christian and non-Christian. But the Christians advantage on that day is that our judge…is also our shepherd.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


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