Identifying the Middle Eastern cultural elements of this familiar scene help place it in an unfamiliar focus.
Honor and Shame
First notice the explicit and very pointed context of honor and shame, the core values of Mediterranean culture. The Son of Man comes “in glory” (= honor) and sits on the “throne of his glory” (= honor). All his angels accompany him (= honor) and all the nations will witness the scene (= honor). The king (Mt 25:33, 40, same as the Son of Man) separates honorable people from dishonorable people as a shepherd separates sheep (= honor) from goats (= shame).
Sheep and Goats
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. They compared men to sheep and considered suffering in silence to be the sign of a real man (Isa 53:7; Acts 8:32-35; Mk 15:25-37). Sheep came to symbolize honor, virility, and strength.
The ram was associated with honorable Greek gods like Zeus, Apollo, and Poseidon, while the goat was associated with Greek gods known for shameful and unrestrained behavior like Pan, Bacchus, and Aphrodite. Goats also are associated with women (women keep goats and milk them) and the devil (see Mt 25:33, 41).
Ingroup and Outgroup
The separation of sheep and goats is a symbolic way of drawing even stronger lines between an ingroup (sheep) and an outgroup (goats). Matthew’s Jesus sent his disciples only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (the ingroup) and were forbidden from going “among the Gentiles” or entering any “town of the Samaritans” (outgroups, see Mt 10:5).
An ingroup generally consists of one’s household and one’s extended family and friends. People from the same village are ingroup when they meet elsewhere, but in the village they may belong to one of the outgroups. The boundaries are fluid.
Outsiders looking at Israel saw a single ingroup and called them Judeans (in Greek, Ioudaioi, a term sometimes erroneously translated and interpreted as “Jews”). Israel, the single ingroup, tended to consider all the rest of the world as one large outgroup. There are references to “all [the other] nations” (Mt 25:32) or “the Gentiles” (Mt 10:5).
What is the basis for this final, definite determination of in-group (sheep) and outgroup (goats)? Hospitality! In the Middle East, hospitality is extended mainly by men and solely to complete strangers. (Kindness extended to relatives is not hospitality but steadfast love, a very frequent term in the Old Testament describing what God offers to Israel.)
The “sheep” extended hospitality to strangers (“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry, etc.?” Mt 25:37-40); the “goats” neglected that opportunity (Mt 25:44-45; compare Mt 10:40).
Ultimately, in the Middle Eastern view, it boils down to a matter of honor. Any Middle Easterner—Israelite, Christian, pagan—is expected to treat strangers hospitably. Whoever does so has treated Jesus hospitably and will enjoy companionship with God in the kingdom. How can a contemporary believer translate this into American culture where honor does not count for very much?