A parable is a figure of speech, an extended metaphor, a story using common actions or circumstances designed to illustrate a spiritual truth, a principle or a moral lesson. The word parable comes from the Greek word parabole, which means to place beside or side by side for the purpose of comparison. A parable can usually be identified by the use of the word “like.” This was the method of teaching Jesus used most often.
The message Jesus taught in Matthew 25:31-46 is sometimes characterized as a parable, although, unlike most parables, it does not relate a story of events happening to other characters. In this discourse, Jesus associated the final judgment with separating sheep and goats. This separation was something familiar to the people who were listening, because they lived in an agricultural environment. It doesn’t mean that people are of the same worth as animals, or that goats are actually cursed creatures. The comparison likely was used only to get the people’s attention. Jesus’ emphasis was on something far more important — what they were doing with their lives.
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy 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 them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.”
Jesus spoke of Himself in a future tense, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, the Judge of all humanity. Paul taught, “He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained…the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom.” (Acts 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1)
In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus separated based on works. “Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father… for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when…?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘… inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
It must be noted that Jesus was teaching Israelites under the Law, not Christians, because the church didn’t exist yet. Jesus was teaching works because that was still the criterion for righteousness. “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.” (Deuteronomy 6:25)
“Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels…” This group represents those who did not obey the Law, for example, in Leviticus 19:15-18: “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not hate your brother in your heart… but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” Jesus taught that these people had condemned themselves by their failure to do the kinds of humanitarian acts that the obedient people had done, saying, “…inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It wasn’t as if they had no warning. Besides the Law, which was taught in the synagogues regularly during Jesus’ time, Solomon had written in Ecclesiastes 12:14, “For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Even earlier in Jesus’ ministry, He had taught this. “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.” (Matthew 16:27) Revelation 20:11-15 corroborates this.
Similar to the parable of the tares and wheat, and others, like the parable of the wedding banquet, and the ten virgins, Jesus was trying to wake people up to the reality that life is short and death is certain, and what one does in the here and now determines ones eternity. This is still true in essence for the Christian, although righteousness is imputed by faith in Jesus Christ, not works. God has made available salvation by grace since Pentecost, but hand in hand with that gift of salvation is a tailor-made destiny complete with a challenging but satisfying job description including good works. (Ephesians 2:8-10)