Summary: Does this parable really teach salvation by works?No!
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats
Story: A young police officer was taking his final exam for the police academy. And he comes across this question:
“You are on patrol in the outer city when an explosion occurs in a gas main in a nearby street.
On investigation you find that a large hole has been blown in the footpath and there is an overturned van nearby.
Inside the van there is a strong smell of alcohol. Both occupants—a man and a woman—are injured. You recognize the woman as the wife of your Chief of Police, who is at present away in the USA.
A passing motorist stops to offer you assistance and you realize that he is a man who is wanted for armed robbery.
Suddenly a man runs out of a nearby house, shouting that his wife is expecting a baby and that the shock of the explosion has made the birth imminent.
Another man is crying for help, having been blown in the adjacent canal by the explosion, and he cannot swim.
Describe in a few words what actions you would take.”
The young man thought for a moment, picked up his pen and wrote,
“I would take off my uniform and mingle with the crowd.”
I feel very much like that police officer when I am asked to preach on difficult passages of Scripture.
And this parable is one such Scripture - because on the face of it - it seems to preach a gospel of salvation by works that runs contrary to the whole of the New Testament teaching that salvation is by grace alone
For St Paul says for example
8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:8-10)
So what is the parable all about?
I believe the key to this parable is the nature of the sheep and the nature of the goat
In Israel, in Jesus day it was difficult to tell the sheep from the goats. They look very similar
The difference however is in their nature
As one commentator has written:
The earliest animals to be domesticated were sheep and goats.
They are very common in the Middle East, and the Hebrew language is particularly rich in vocabulary that distinguishes sheep according to sex and age.
Our ancestors in the faith were impressed that sheep suffer in silence.
Sheep came to symbolize honour, virility, and strength.
Goats were considered lascivious animals. Unlike rams (male sheep), goats allow other males access to their females.
Goats symbolize shame and shameful behaviour. http://liturgy.slu.edu/ChristKingA112005/theword_cultural.html)
A Jewish commentator writes:
Although goat’s milk was widely used as a remedy for a chest cold (Proverbs 27:27), the rabbis frowned upon the rearing of goats.
Goats were regarded as "armed robbers who would jump over people’s fences and destroy their plants”
Although sheep and goats both belong to the category of small cattle called (tzon) in Hebrew, there is a marked difference in the grazing habits of each species.