I think there’s more to the parable of The Sheep and the Goats than an illustration of Judgment Day. Jesus really seems to be focusing on our treatment of others, and His reason is startling. Jesus is so intimately connected to humanity, that:
as you [cared for] one of the least of these my siblings, you did it to me
as you did not [care for] one of the least of these, you did not do it to me
I’m guessing that even if we had perfect empathy for others, we still wouldn’t be as connected as He is!
- incarnated into our earthly experience.
- spent His earthly life being an exemplar of empathy and caring for the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned, and urged (commanded) His followers to do likewise.
- gave His life to redeem the whole world (1John 2:2).
- mercifully continues to sustain and care for everything (Matt 5:44-48).
After all the above, is He really going to leave some of us eternally hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in hell?? Will He cease to have empathy and compassion?
I think this context should make us wonder why kolasis aionios (Matt 25:46) is often translated “eternal punishment”? Especially given translating aionios as “eternal” is an interpretive leap compared to “eon-ian” (“pertaining to the aion/aeon/eon/age to come”), which is a more literal translation. Here are three more reasons.
First, Jesus’ role in the parable is that of the shepherd, an analogy that He often used positively:
I am the living God, The Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his flock [not just the sheep].
John 10:11, Aramaic Bible in Plain English
The Lord is my Shepherd
Psalm 23, HCSB
Second, the Greek word eriphos/eriphion, which gets translated in the parable as “goats”, is translated as “young goat” in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This is the only other occurrence in the NT but as there are about 100 occurrences in other ancient texts, most Greek dictionaries say the word means “young goats” or “kids”. Even the conservative Pulpit Commentary acknowledges that, “The goats (eriphion or kids) [in this parable are] on the left.” Because of this, I think Jesus is deliberately contrasting mature sheep with kids who need a lot of maturing.
Third, it’s likely that “maturing” is associated with the Greek word kolasis, which gets translated “punishment” in the NIV. It only appears in one other place in the NT (1John 4:18) but it appears in a few hundred other ancient texts, so according to Perseus (online dictionary used by Logos―most widely used Bible software in the world) it means “checking the growth”.
Barclay, a theologian and author of popular NT commentaries, came to a very similar conclusion:
The word was originally a gardening word, and its original meaning was pruning trees. In Greek there are two words for punishment… kolasis is for the sake of the one who suffers it [i.e. correction to mature someone]; timoria is for the sake of the one who inflicts it [i.e. retribution]
William Barclay, The Apostles’ Creed
Some definitions include “maiming, cutting off”, probably as the correction can be severe (e.g. a surgeon may need to remove a gangrenous or cancerous limb to save someone’s life). Reminds me of Paul’s description of God cutting the Jews off for awhile, before grafting them back on again once the Gentiles had come in.
So in summary, I think it is fair to interpret Matthew 25:46 as:
And these [the immature] shall go into [God’s severe] eonian correction [until they are mature], but the just [the mature] into [God’s blessed] eonian life.
A friend made a helpful observation, “The other thing I like about this passage is that the kids are not creatures who don’t belong in the herd―they are the young of the herd. The word translated “sheep” can be a general word for small herded livestock―usually sheep and goats.”1
So maybe it should be called “The Parable of the Mature and Immature Goats”!
1. For the rest of the conversation see https://www.facebook.com/SoniaLJohnson/posts/10153734598621328
My friend Cindy also did a more thorough unpacking of this parable:
The Sheep and The Kids
What To Do With The Kids
Eternal Punishment & Eternal Life