A new(?) interpretation of the sheep and the goats?

I’m in Matthew in my daily Bible reading. Today I got the part where Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats (matt 25:31-46), where all the nations are gathered around him, and he separates them into ‘sheep’ and ‘goats’. He says to the sheep:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

They respond with surprise – ‘When did I do this?’. and Jesus replies:

‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

This has traditionally been interpreted to mean that Christians should do good work and look after the poor and sick etc. However, in the study notes I am reading, Don Carson, in ‘For the Love of God’ proposes an alternate interpretation (He doesn’t deny that Christians should look after the poor and sick – as this is well attested in other parts of the Bible – he just questions whether that is what this passage is saying).

Carson states that Jesus is identifying with ‘these brothers of mine’ – Jesus’ followers who were suffering, and argues that the sheep were commended not for helping those who were suffering, but for helping Christians were suffering. The goats were scolded likewise. He uses Saul/Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9 to support it. Saul had been persecuting Christians, and Jesus appeared to him and said “Why do you persecute me” – implying that attacking or supporting Christians is the same as attacking or supporting Jesus himself.

In Carson’s own words:

“Real followers of Jesus will go out of their way to help other followers of Jesus, not least the weakest and most despised of them; others will have no special inclination along these lines. That is what separates sheep and goats”

This would certainly help explain the apparent surprise of the ‘sheep’ and the ‘goats’ in this passage. If Jesus was referring simply to general compassion it is hard to see why they’d be surprised. It also helps explain Paul’s very harsh words against anyone who persecutes Christians elsewhere and hinders the gospel from being spread. (see 1 Thess 2:14-16).

I’m not entirely sure what I think of this interpretation yet…

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