I grew up in country Victoria where sheep are obviously different from the goats. But in Palestine, the sheep are not white with ears that point out (like ours), but black faced with ears which hang down and look like goats until a closer examination shows the difference. Why the need by the shepherd to be separated? They are often grazed together and the sheep are prone to diseases which the goats are not; the sheep are shorn whereas the goats are milked.
At the end of time, Christ as King will come. He is called the ‘Son of Man’ – an image taken from Daniel 7:13-14 of a heavenly being who is given the authority from God’s throne. The text highlights that just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, he will separate people into two groups. The basis of the division is whether a person has cared for the poor and vulnerable person. The righteous are surprised when they are separated from the goats and called, ‘blessed by my Father’, inherit the kingdom’. (vs 34)
It is often assumed (in error), that this passage grounds our eternal salvation on our works of kindness to all in need; that is, to merely minister to anyone is ‘to do it to Jesus’. However, a careful reading of the text would suggest otherwise. The particular group which is ministered to is none other than the brothers and sisters of Christ – in other words, fellow disciples or Christians! We see this also in verse 40. In Matthew 10:40-42, Jesus highlights that offering even a cup of water in his name to one of his “little ones” who is a disciple will not lose their reward.
In the remainder of the NT, in Gal 6:10; 1 Jn 3:17; & Jas 2:14-17 it is the care of our fellow disciples of Christ who are emphasised – and this care demonstrates whether we belong to Christ’s flock or not. Once again, well intentioned religious practice must be informed by the biblical text. It does not mean we ignore the needs of people generally, but that caring for our brothers and sisters takes priority and will be the demonstration to Christ that we genuinely belong to him.