The text we (and others) are studying for Sunday, December 30 is Matthew 25:31-46, “the judgment of the nations” or “the sheep and the goats.” Here are some questions around that text that we might want to consider before or in class:

The story begins with the arrival of the “Son of Man in his glory;” we normally assume Jesus is talking about himself here. When we think of Jesus, how often do we think of him as the Son of Man in his glory? Why is that, do we think? How comfortable are we with this side of Jesus? Why is that, do we think? How does knowing this side of Jesus affect our relationship with Jesus? Implications for us?

When we picture a shepherd separating sheep and goats, what do we picture? What impressions or details of this image seem relevant to our understanding of the text? Does it make a difference in our thinking about what is going on if we think that sheep and goats are obviously different in many ways, or if we learn that sheep and goats may look very much alike? What difference does it make, and why?

Do we have different impressions of sheep and goats? What are they? How does this affect our understanding of this story? Do we find the judgment against the goats or “those on the left” surprising? What is our response to this surprise? Why? What impact does it have on us?

How are Christian readers supposed to respond to this story, do we think? (e.g., should this story motivate us to be more charitable? Should it make us feel secure in God’s grace, or insecure about our eternal destiny, or … ?) Why do we think that?

Does the standard of judgment in verse 40 seem gracious? Does the standard of judgment in verse 45 seem ungracious? Are they the same standard, do we think, or different standards? How so? What are the implications for us of our answer?

What does it mean to “be watchful” in relation to the coming of the Son of Man in his glory, do we think? How watchful do we feel we are? What would we need to do to be more watchful?

A couple of additional resources related to sheep and goats: discusses how to tell sheep and goats apart – these days. Reportedly, however, in the 1st century sheep and goats looked much alike. Apparently, this can be true today as well, as attested by this episode of NPR’s Goats and Soda.

Kathleen Weber [WEBER, KATHLEEN. “The Image of Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59, no. 4 (1997): 657-78. ] has analyzed the different cultural images of sheep and goats in herding cultures, hoping to shed some light on how these animals would have been understood by Matthew’s earliest readers. Her conclusion is that Matthew’s Christian audience would have been shocked by the judgment on the goats – at least, from the perspective of what people thought about goats, namely, as pretty much the moral and value equivalent of sheep. This shock may have been intentional. For Weber, the point of the story, which would be consistent with Matthew’s overall message, is that entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is difficult – you have to find the narrow entrance, your righteousness has to exceed that of the Pharisees, you don’t get to doze off or opt out – and the judgment of the Son of Man is absolute. Something to ruminate on.

painting of a family around a table