Why This Text Bugs Us
The text before us as we continue our countdown to the end of the world on this the Second Last Sunday of the Church Year bugs us. The text is straightforward enough: Those who've fed, watered, gathered, or visited the least among the brothers of Christ go to eternal life; those who have not go to eternal punishment. Who among us can say we've fed, watered, gathered or visited enough? Who among us haven't somehow, someway turned away one of the least of the brothers of Christ and so turned away from Christ and deserve eternal punishment? This text bugs us because in our heart of hearts we fear that we might be goats.
Why in the world would people regularly in Church fear they might be goats? Because we don't make the goats as wicked as the text itself does. Goats were regarded as worthless in New Testament times. That's why the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son accuses his father by saying, "You never gave me so much as a goat." The goats here are even more worthless than ordinary ones because Jesus uses the word for a small goat. Jesus further show His absolute and utter contempt for the goats by placing them on His left. In Greek when left and right are made opposites, as they are here, the right denotes honor and the left dishonor.
Without saying a word to either the sheep or the goats, Jesus separates them. His first words to the goats leave us no doubt as to how Jesus regards the goats: He calls them cursed ones. There is no love loss between Jesus and the goats. He is not pinning away for them and their future in the eternal fire being endlessly burned without ever being burned up. The word picture here goes well with the actual picture from Revelation. The damned in Revelation 14 are shown as being tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of Jesus the Lamb of God.
There is no love loss on Jesus' side or on the side of the goats. They are in the face of Jesus. You should hear their question, "When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?" as a direct challenge. It's preposterous to them what Jesus has just said. When did they ever see Jesus in need and not help? They are bold and brazen in justifying themselves which is proof positive that they lack the justification that comes only through Christ. The attitude of the goats is precisely the attitude of the damned rich man in Luke 16 who screams "No!" when Abraham says the rich man's brothers can be saved by listening to Moses and the prophets in Church.
So friend, you may be goat alright if Christ regards you as worthless. But did He not pay a tremendous price to redeem you, to ransom you to buy you back from sin, death and the power of the devil? Are you in the habit of spending a lot of money for someone or something you consider worthless? Do you think Jesus is? Of course, you may have reason to be afraid that you are a goat if Christ calls you cursed, but aren't you hearing Christ Sunday after Sunday say to you that He blesses you, keeps you, makes His face shine on you, is gracious to you, lifts up His countenance upon you and gives you peace? I'd say He hardly considers you cursed.
I suppose you still could be a goat even though you're so valuable to Jesus that He shed His holy blood for you. I mean Judas was an apostle, very precious to Jesus, but nevertheless Jesus says Judas was a devil, a son of hell. So it's possible that while Jesus thinks you're valuable, you have remained a goat. Are you in the face of Jesus when He preaches the Law to you? Do you defend your sins, make excuses for your sins, justify yourself claiming you're not as bad as others? Well, then you are indeed a goat and you will go away to eternal fire. But you should not be afraid you're a goat if you have nothing to plead but the blood of Christ, the works of Christ, the forgiveness of Christ, the mercy of Christ.
This text bugs us because we don't see the goats in all their wickedness. We mistake our daily sinfulness which proves we're fallen and need to be redeemed as being the wickedness of the goats that proves they deserve to be damned. The second reason this text bugs us is that we don't see Christ in all His graciousness here. We see Him like the Medieval Church portrayed Him only as a wrathful, horrible judge. Praying to Mary became popular because it was thought to be useless to go to the hardhearted Christ. But wait; doesn't the text itself describe Christ sending the worthless goats into eternal fire without so much as a regret? Yes, but that's only part of the picture.
Did you hear what Christ the Good Shepherd calls His sheep? "Blessed of My Father" and "the righteous." Don't those words mean anything to you? Can you earn a blessing? Can you ever deserve a blessing? Words mean something. The word "bless" means "to make or pronounce holy." Doesn't this describe you? Or could it really be that you've been around Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion so long but have failed to see what is going on in these Sacraments? The Holy God by these 3 things imparts the holiness Christ won for you by His perfect life and bloody death. If God gives you holiness, you are holy regardless of what you think or feel.
Sheep are also referred to as "the righteous." In the Bible what is the only way anyone at any time is ever called righteous? Is it ever by doing works, trying hard, doing one's best? Isn't the only way anyone in the Bible is ever righteous in, with, and under Christ? By faith trusting in what Christ did not in what they did. Clinging to the fact Baptism washed their sins away; relying on the fact that Absolution sent their sins away; holding to the fact that by Communion Christ was in them and they in Him for life everlasting.
Christ calls sheep blessed and righteousness 2 words that bespeak grace and mercy not works and merit, and He tells these sheep that they literally "must inherit the kingdom." How are we heirs of Christ? By birth? No, by birth we're goats and heirs only of the fires of hell. But by adoption, we are sheep, sons and daughters of a king. Christ adopted us making us His heirs through Baptism. Read Titus 3:5-7. There Paul tells us we are saved by Baptism and made heirs of eternal life. Have you been baptized? Then you are an heir to the kingdom, blessed of the Father, righteous and a dear sheep belonging to none other than the Good Shepherd.
"Okay so what about all this talk of works in this text? Better yet, first tell me why everywhere the Bible plainly says the last judgement is according to works?" Friends, while it's true that Scripture does say the last judgment is based on works, it nowhere says that salvation is. You can see this in our text. The works are mentioned to show someone is a sheep not to make someone a sheep, to show someone is saved, not to save someone.
Follow what the text says in the order it says it. The separation of the sheep and goats takes place before Jesus mentions a work good or bad. What makes you a sheep or goat is not your works. Jesus word does. If He says you're a goat, that's what you are. If He says, you're a sheep that's what you are and you go and stand with the sheep. Jesus in this courtroom scene introduces works only to prove His judgement is correct. The goats are indeed worthless, accursed people who failed ever to do anything good. The sheep, on the other hand, never failed to do a single good thing.
Now how can that be? It certainly wasn't because they were living their lives with a laundry list of things they had better be doing because they themselves say "When did we do these things?" It can only be what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 5: God put all of our sins on Christ and all of Christ's good works on us. Imagine a video playing before all of heaven on the Last Day. There's your life. You shudder because you know the sin, the filthiness, the shameful things you've done or thought. But none of that is there. Christ has erased all of that with His blood. To your surprise all that's left is the good things Jesus did. You see what looks to be Jesus going through your life feeding, visiting, clothing and helping, but when at last the person looks toward the camera you gasp because it's you!
Let's go back to the Book of Revelation; there we see in pictures what Jesus describes here in words. Revelation 20 is a figurative presentation of this scene. Revelation refers to 2 books, one of deeds and one of life. Verse 12 says people are judged from the things written in the books according to their deeds, but 20:15 says, "If anyone's name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." So rather than being so afraid of what is written in the book of deeds, you should look at that Book of Life and see if your name is there.
What does it take to be written there? Can't be works because that's another book. Revelation says the Book of Life was written from the foundation of the world; interestingly enough it also says the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world. Then we jump back to our text and read that the kingdom of the Father was prepared for His sheep not since creation, as the bulletin translates, but from the foundation of the world. So, using the exact same words in Greek, our Lord tells us that from the foundation of the world Christ the Lamb was slain, the Book of Life was written, and the kingdom for sheep was prepared. Before Adam and Eve, Eden and the Fall, the Book of Life was written, Christ was crucified and the kingdom prepared for sheep. In time Christ gathers His sheep whose names have been written in that Book and leads them into His kingdom.
Only the names of sheep are written in the Book of Life, so the important question is who are the sheep? Sheep are the one's blessed of the Father; declared righteous by the Son, and made heirs of the kingdom. But how do you know you're a sheep? Jesus tells us in John saying, "My sheep listen to Me." Look at our text. Jesus says the sheep did wonderful works; the sheep don't remember, but they go by what Jesus says not by what they think or feel. You know you're a sheep if you are hearing the voice of the Shepherd. He declares that Baptism clothes a person with Him and all His good works and sheep say, "Amen." He forgives their sins in Absolution; sheep sing, "Amen." He says in Communion, "This is My Body and Blood for forgiveness, life and salvation;" sheep eat and drink saying "Amen."
This text bugs us because we think it's a warning to do good works or else. But it's not. It's a comfort. It shows us that the Good Shepherd knows the difference between sheep and goats and will separate them on judgment day giving to the goats what they deserve and giving to sheep what He deserves. This text will cease to bug you once you stop asking, "Have I done enough good works?" The only answer can be, no you haven't. The right question to ask is am I sheep. The devil, your conscience and the world all will shout, "No!", proving it by the sinfulness that still clings to you and your feeble works. But your Baptism, the Absolution, and Holy Communion all shout, "Yes you are a sheep!" Then see what Jesus says in this text about sheep. They're blessed, heirs of the kingdom, doers of good works, righteous, and will go away to eternal life. He doesn't say this is what sheep ought to be but what they are. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (11-17-02), Matthew 25:31-46