Jesus and the Goats

February 6, 2013Mark Van Steenwyk

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When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the 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 people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left…

We all know the story. It is usually told this way: At the end of time, Jesus is going to separate the sheep from the goats. The sheep inherit the kingdom of God while the goats are sent to hell. And the only difference between the two is that the sheep fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner.

Taken this way, the “take away” is that we should be compassionate people who practice what is often referred to as the “corporal works of mercy.”

But there are things going on in the passage that are often missed.  Others have already explored the issue of the identity of the “least of these”—that it is perhaps more likely that Jesus is referring to disciples, not to the universal poor.  Personally, I read this passage in a liberationist way—wherein the least of these—the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus are in fact the oppressed with whom Jesus is in solidarity.

The identity of the “least of these” isn’t the puzzle I want to explore. Rather, I want to talk about the identity of the goats. Often, we simply assume that the goats are the inhospitable. I don’t disagree that the inhospitable displease Jesus. However, I think Jesus is being more specific than that.

When Jesus employs the imagery of the “sheep and goats” it is likely that he has Ezekiel 34 in mind.

Ezekiel points to a time when God will judge the “shepherds” of Israel, depose them, and become the people’s sole Shepherd:

Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats…(Ezekiel 34:10-17, emphasis mine)

In the passage, the goats are the wicked shepherds which God seeks to depose. If this is the passage Jesus has in mind as he speaks in Matthew 25, then the judgment against the goats is not merely a judgment of some abstract group of inhospitable people. But against the shepherds who are, by virtue of their oppression, inhospitable. They are the very ones guilty of not caring for the “least of these.”

The “take away” of Mattthew 25:31-46 then is not merely that we should do charity. More than that, the passage indirectly “names” the source of oppression—the shepherds. The passage is, therefore, revolutionary.

With this perspective added, the parable could be read to suggest that the kingdom is made of those who stand in solidarity with the poor. And that excludes the competing shepherds–the rulers who create the injustices Jesus names in the passage. The kingdom is, therefore, fundamentally anarchistic.

  • goingthruchanges

    Your article is greatly appreciated, Mark! What are your thoughts about the shepherds not only representing those with the political power to oppress, but also the religious power too, in light of passages like this (below) that relate Jesus to being the good shepherd who enters thru the gate (as opposed to the “thieves or robbers” who enter in some other way)?

    John 10:12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.

    My understanding is that the “hired hand(s)” are those with leadership positions within most of institutional “christianity” that lead people to themselves, (usually for money, fame) AWAY from Jesus’ teachings and towards doctrines that bear almost no resemblance to the way Christ instructed his followers. Whaddya think?

    • markvans

      I think it could apply to any leader in Israel at the time, since the distinction between religious and political leadership was largely non-existent. When Jesus quoted it, it seems highly likely he was criticizing all of those with systemic power.

  • Kathleen Quiring

    Wow. That adds a fascinating new dimension to the story we thought we knew so well. Thanks, Mark!

  • Chase Hill

    Excellent insight, brother. I think it is necessary to read Jesus’ words through his eyes with a revolution in mind. All of human history could be summed up in the word “oppression”. We have been oppressed by nations/kingdoms/Satan, sin/death (and fear of death), technology, busyness/industrialization, religion, the rich, and so on. But in a world of oppression, Christ offers freedom. This is largely one of the reasons Christianity stands out from many religions. Rules/laws and the busywork of religion only enslave the man more, but Christ offers us total freedom, where our religion is to love as he loves, (which entails doing) and to preach his message, which is freedom from the oppressor Satan, (who is in essence sin and death).

    When we read the words of Christ our Lord as he says them, we will not find ourselves accepting an apathetic christian worldview, but we will find ourselves as radicals: passionately preaching as did the disciples/early church freedom in Christ, (fighting oppression of poverty, rulers, loneliness, prison, nakedness/shame and so on) to the point of death; for death is just another oppression which we have conquered through Jesus.

    • Frank

      not done…posted early.

      • Chase Hill

        Brother Frank,

        You seem to have a greater understanding of eastern thought than myself. I
        commend you for this. I am on a journey, as we all are to understand truth.
        That being said I would like to address a few arguments you make against my
        thoughts, clear up misunderstandings and reply to a few comments you made.
        I will try my best to understand some points you are making.

        (I will use capital letters to help make my post easily readable. I am not yelling)

        FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT: You say, “Christ, and the Christian religion,
        exist to point us toward the One, Who created and transcends the world. This is
        the goal of all true religion, not just Christianity.” I DISAGREE. Christ
        IS the one. He is the word – the Logos, (John 1:1-3). This quite different than
        other religions. To my knowledge, no one else makes this claim. Jesus is the
        law; he is God. Therefore, he says, “Take heart, I have overcome the
        world!”. Indeed, he has overcome Satan, death and sin. He proves that he
        is the logos by his miracles, (changing the molecular structure of water to be
        wine, raising the dead, defying gravity, healing the sick, casting out demons,
        (who are a power of this world) and through his triumph over death, (as
        well as many more).

        YOU SAY, ” The point of religion is not to give us ‘freedom’ in this
        world.” I AGREE. The point of Christ is to give us freedom FROM the
        world, (that is, Satan, death and sin) and draw us into union with
        God, (the three in one). This is why he gives us the Holy Spirit.

        YOU SAY, “But, God controls the destiny of this world, and all our days
        were written in his book before we were born.” MY RESPONSE: Does he? Where
        does freewill come into play? If he controls the destiny, why does Satan rebel?
        Why does man rebel? Why does God regret? How can God regret if he destines
        everything? – - – - – (3 examples) 1. In Genesis 6:6, God regretted making man
        (6 And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him
        to his heart.)

        2. 1 Samuel 15:11, 35 – 11″I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has
        turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.”

        3. 35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel
        grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that He made Saul king over Israel.

        Other examples are found throughout the OT such as Abraham reasoning with God,
        the people of Israel reasoning with God and Moses reasoning with God. If we can
        reason with God and God can have regrets, how does that fit into such a
        predestined view you seem to support?

        YOU SAY, “Jesus was, fundamentally, an esoterist like the Buddha – he
        spoke in a metaphysical/mystic language.” I DISAGREE. Though Jesus
        sometimes spoke in mystical language, it is because God is mystical. Jesus
        often spoke very clearly, such as of his death, loving thy neighbor, “You
        diligently study the scriptures because you think by them you possess eternal
        life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to
        me to have life.” (John 5:39), he calls out the religious leaders very
        plainly on their hypocrisy and so on. Jesus speaks mystical at times but also
        speaks very plainly at times to be understood by everyone. Jesus, God incarnate
        comes to earth and reveals himself to the point of being naked and bloodied on
        a cross. That is definitely a exoteric message. This is why Jesus refers to
        living like a child in regards to faith.

        YOU SAY, “To say religion ‘enslaves’ man, is completely backward. Religion
        saves man, that is its whole purpose.” TO CLARIFY, I SAID,
        “Rules/laws and the busywork of religion only enslave the man more,
        but Christ offers us total freedom, where our religion is to love as he loves,
        (which entails doing) and to preach his message…” Note, I did not say that
        religion enslaves man, but that the rules/busywork of religion enslaves man.
        I am not referring here to the religion that Christ declares by summing up all
        of the law into 2 commandments: to Love the Lord with all the heart soul and
        mind and to love thy neighbor as thy self. I also said that our religion is to love
        as he loves with entails doing. Love does. Love does not create organizations
        or institutions to talk about helping the world, but actually gets their hands
        dirty and loves as He loves. Saint James, our brother in Christ says, “Pure and
        undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this:
        to visit orphans and
        widows in their distress, and to keep oneself
        unstained by the world.”
        (James 1:27)

        YOU SAY, “Whats my point? Making Jesus into a political figure misses his
        TO CLARIFY, I have never made Jesus out to be a political figure. That is
        definitely the opposite of what I was trying to say. I am not actually sure how
        you even came up with that assumption. Jesus is not a political figure. He is
        God. He and his Kingdom are not of this world. Please understand me there.

        FINALLY…. YOU SAY, “The world cannot be perfected, it is earth, not heaven…”
        I SAY, Jesus tells to us to pray in the Our Father prayer, “Your Kingdom come,
        your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven comes to the earth and renews
        it. Jesus preached more than transcendence but was God coming to man and the
        Kingdom coming to world to set us free from the oppressor Satan and turn our
        eyes and hearts toward God.

        I appreciate your reply and thank you for your insight. Peace be upon you

  • John T.

    I do not think Jesus or Ezekiel are equating goats with shepherds. It appears obvious to me, and I suspect it would also to ancient herders, that goats are herded by the shepherds just as sheep are. There is nothing in the story to suggest that the goats are actually the shepherds.

    In terms of Ezekiel 34, the passage before vs.10 clearly specifies why Ezekiel is against the shepherds – it is not because they are shepherds but because they did not look after their flocks properly, they failed in their shepherd role. Vs5 – “So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered.” This is clearly referring to the exile, as is the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

    Furthermore, the shepherd paradigm is embraced by Ezekiel, not rejected – vs. 23 “I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David.” While David was long gone by this time, the House of David and the stump/root/branch of Jesse is the shepherding entity (of which Jesus was born). Jeremiah, probably a contemporary of Ezekiel, says this specifically – Jeremiah 33:15 ‘In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.16 In those days Judah will be saved, And Jerusalem will dwell safely. And this is the name by which she will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’ 17 “For thus says the Lord: ‘David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel”

    A major theme in the new testament that seems to have been totally overlooked by Christendom is the relationship between Judea and Samaria and the broader exiled diaspora that is based directly in the exile story and prophets. The tribe of Judah/House of David/stump of Jesse remained faithful to god and remained in Judea while the other tribes chose to follow Babylon and were eventually exiled and enslaved. Those who were released from exile returned to Samaria – the Northern kingdom of Israel but did not re-connect with Judah – they are the lost sheep that Jesus refers to.

    To understand Jesus use of the goat and sheep metaphor we do need to understand passages such as Ezekiel 34 but it must be read in the context of the rest of Ezekiel’s story. Similarly we need to understand Jesus’ other separation metaphors such as grain and chaff, weeds and vines and the ten virgins (ten lost tribes) of whom only some were prepared to marry their bridegroom.

    • markvans

      Fair enough. But the separating of rams from the goats comes within the larger context of God coming to become the sole shepherd of the people. Jesus’ reference to the metaphor of separating sheep from goats brings with it an indictment against the existing political system with its corrupt shepherds, does it not? It was a bit sloppy for me to directly equate the wicked shepherds with the goats. However, within the parable Jesus offers, the identity of the goats becomes more clearly aligned with the wicked shepherds.

      • John T.

        Hello Mark,

        Ezekiel 34 does say that the sheep are God’s and God will seek out his sheep “as a shepherd” (and then judge them) but it clearly says that David is the Shepherd.

        vs 23 “ I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken”

        Or is David God?

        In Matthew 25 the “Son of Man” “will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats”. Again, the shepherd and the goat are not the same thing.

        Is God the son of man?

        • John T.


          I am not suggesting that the bible promotes authoritarian leadership. The key to understanding the difference between a good shepherd and a bad shepherd is Matthew 20 -

          25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. 26 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. 27 And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

          The sins of the bad Shepherds of Ezekiel was to rule their flocks in the same fashion as Babylon, the proto-gentile empire. This is the very thing that caused the exile.

        • markvans

          It says that both God will shepherd and that God will set up David to shepherd. This would seem to bolster the notion that the Messiah’s actions will be God’s actions (in the sense that NT Wright and others suggest). This doesn’t mean that the passage is teaching that the Messiah is God or anything of the sort. But it goes beyond a mere reinstatement of a Davidic King over Israel. Particularly when we see the ways in which Jesus embraces-yet-subverts kingly and Messianic language.

          • John T.

            Where does Jesus subvert kingly and messianic language? He certainly expounds the language but never subverts it. He fulfills it.

            Romans 13, if read from the Greek, also deals with all this. It is not a universal justification of the state as it has been interpreted in English by the state-church. It is a juxtaposition of two modes of authority (like Matthew 20), the authority of the rulers who are revered (fear – phobos) by those who do evil and the higher authorities appointed by God. ( )

            This is the difference between decentralised tribal structures as described in Moses law and gentile kingships. David’s kingdom re-instituted the tribal laws including the Jubilee. David did not institute the decentralised tribal law by his superior right and power like the gentile kings, he did it by by leading military campaigns on behalf of his people to defeat the colonisers and liberate the country to return to the old tribal ways. The different kind of king between Saul and David is another juxtaposition of modes of kingship.

            The messiah-king is a liberator, not a pharaoh or caesar that “lords it” over their flock.

            To dismiss or subvert the messiah-king is to gut the new testament of its meaning. The first story of the new testament (that I know is a random ordering of books) is Jesus genealogy linking him to David and then the nativity story announcing the real king of the Jews, Jesus, who the phoney king of the Jews, Herod senior, tried to kill. Again a juxtaposition of modes of kingship, although this is not its central theme, the central theme of that story is indigenous sovereignty.

          • markvans

            But David represents a departure from the tribal community, not a return to it. I confess my dependence upon Ched Myers’ Wes Howard-Brook’s read of things. Ched builds a case that Jesus’ understanding of Messiahship challenges the myth of a restored Davidic kingdom. The end of chapter ten of Binding the Strongman tries to show how Jesus rejects the notion that the Messiah is to be the Son of David and subverts the Davidic vision. Wes’ book “Come Out My People” gets at this as well; here’s a little quote: “Jesus sharply seeks to silence any association between his mission and Davidic kingship…To ‘listen’ to Jesus is to accept and trust in his version of the scriptural story. Peter is wrong to hope for a Davidic warrior king. That is not YHWH’s will. Rather, the path of Isaiah’s suffering servant, embodied as we’ve seen in Daniel’s maskilim and refracted through 1 Enoch’s Messiah Son of Man, is the course Jesus takes and calls any who follow him to take.”

          • John T.

            It was Saul who represented the departure from tribal ways, he was the gentile-style king that the unfaithful Israelites demanded. David was the restoration, or at least thats how the bible tells the story.

            I suggest the authors you have cited are wrong and the bible certainly does not portray David in any other way than the most beloved of God, the liberator of Israel, the last unified kingdom of God and the archetype that repeatedly describes Jesus in in the new testament. His only crime was the murder of Uriah.

            The re-corruption of the kingdom began during Solomon’s time with leniency towards foreign idols and presumably the sociologies and economies that go with them. This corruption unfolded as the previously united Israel embraced the culture and power of Babylon – into which they became dispossessed slaves (except Judah, the hose of David who remained faithful).

            The continuum of the fall from the garden of Eden through to agriculture, cities and empires as described by theologians such as Ched Meyers (who I greatly respect even if he is wrong sometimes) is not un-interrupted progression in the bible, it is not a one way street. The notion of restoration is crucial to the overall bible narrative, restoration after Noah, Restoration after Moses, Restoration by David, restoration of the Maccabees revolt and restoration by Jesus. The messiah archetype has always been a restorer. The essence of the Jubilee year, that was proclaimed by David and Jesus, was perpetual renewal.

            Anarchism is a coherent philosophy and ideology born of our times and relevant to it. It is correct on its own terms. The stateless tribal communism of the bible has a lot in common with anarchism but the two are not the same thing, one cannot explain the other, one cannot be fitted into the other. We have more to learn from the bible if we read it on its own terms.

  • travis

    I, also, can’t see how you get from goat to shepherd, but I was thinking about that Matthew passage recently and this reminded me of something that leads to a similar conclusion. When Jesus talks about visiting prisoners he doesn’t specify what kind of prisoners. As a shortcut to what I’m getting at, I’m referring to what’s the behind the contemporary, anarchist slogan “All prisoners are political prisoners.”

    I won’t be surprised if John T. comes to say Prisoner meant something very specific, but if it means “revolutionary” or something like that, the point still stands, obviously. If it means “debtor” it probably still stands too, but it’s a little more work to explain. Anyways.

    • John T.

      No, prisoner just means prisoner, Hebrew – ‘aciyr, Greek – desmios. However all the prisoners in the New Testament are revolutionary political prisoners. There are not many of them as revolutionaries were generally crucified.

      I think there is a broader (not more specific) meaning to the word but it is in its context not its etymology, it gets meaning from being associated with the hungry, naked, blind and ill which is all very political in a colonised country.

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