What's the Difference?
Our text is no parable. This is literal. You should see a throne bathed in heavenly glory, Jesus sitting on it, and all the nations stretched out in two long, long lines one on His right and the other on His left. There are only two lines, so what's the difference between them?
The world believes the difference is works. Works are prominent in the Last Judgment, but don't you think it strange that only works relating to the 5th Commandment are mentioned? The sheep are praised for helping and supporting their neighbor in every physical need. Where is evangelism, stewardship, Christian living in general? Where are works related to the First Table: believing, speaking, and hearing the true God? Surely doing good to a soul, yours or another's, is a far better work than doing good to someone's body. And are the wicked sent to eternal fire for their sexual sins, their idolatry, their greed, or their stealing? They aren't sent for doing anything wrong but only for failing to do right by the 5th Commandment.
The world passes by this strange treatment of works. This is because to fallen man any work is like crack cocaine. He knows he gets himself in trouble by doing wrong, so he thinks the way out is by doing right. "What must we do?" ask the people at Pentecost. "What must I do?" asks the Philippian Jailer. "What must we do?" asks the crowd in John 6. "Tell us what to do; give us the drug to get us better."
People hear the sheep did this, this and that, and the goats didn't do it, and they conclude, "I will be a sheep by doing what they did." To be a sheep, you don't need the Shepherd or the fold all you need are their works. Our world has peddlers of the drug of works on every corner. There must be in Austin alone a dozen or more agencies promoting the drug of doing good as the antidote for the wrong you did. Deeds not creeds, doing not believing is the answer. Blotting out what you've done wrong by doing right.
If going to heaven is a matter of doing what the sheep did, of being socially responsible, when can the doing stop? When can you say I've done enough? You can't. You think it's enough that we collect food once a year to give to the Salvation Army? Every single night in Austin there is a hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, jailed person that you could help. And if that's not enough for you world relief agencies place the needy of the whole world on your conscience. Do you think that the 5, 10, 50, 100, 1000 dollars you give is enough? Shame on you! How could it be? When can you ever lay your head down and say, "I've done all that a sheep could do today?"
If you're a sheep by doing, if you're saved by doing, the doing can never stop because you can never be sure you've done enough. But it's even worse if you're ever sure you did enough because then you are a goat. The damned, cursed goats are the ones who brazenly say to Jesus, "When did we not help You?" Although the Lord tells them all that they omitted to do, the goats have the nerve to say the never omitted anything.
Follow the reality Jesus paints. Jesus returns in glory with His angels. All the nations are gathered before Him, "And He will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Jesus forms the two lines, does the separating before any works are mentioned. You stand in this line; you stand in that line. You're a sheep; you're a goat.
Again with no mention of works good or bad, Jesus calls the sheep "blessed by My Father," and the goats He calls "cursed." Even before He labels them that way, He commands those on His right, "Come" and those on His left, "Go." So the judging starts, the separating starts, seeing the difference between the two happens before works are mentioned. Jesus returns in glory and bam! He starts separating. So what is the difference?
Jesus is the difference. Did you catch the different titles Jesus gives Himself in His description of the reality of the Last Judgment? He starts by calling Himself the Son of Man. Then He goes on to speak of Himself as Shepherd, King, and Lord. In using these titles Jesus shows us just what a difference He makes.
When Jesus returns, "He will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Jesus is the active agent. People aren't jumping up and down saying, "I'm a sheep; I'm a sheep." In Palestine sheep and goats are often pastured together, but at night they're separated into different folds. Also at watering holes there will be several flocks at a time, when a shepherd leaves he only takes his own.
So how does a shepherd separate his sheep from other sheep or goats? By his voice, by his spoken word. Jesus says in John 10: The sheep listen to My voice. I call My own sheep by name and lead them out. I go on ahead of them, and My sheep follow Me because they know My voice. They will never follow a stranger because they do not recognize a stranger's voice. The Shepherd makes the difference. His voice separates sheep from goats. Sheep hear; goats don't. Sheep follow His voice; goats don't.
Jesus is the difference on the Last Day. He makes a difference by being the Shepherd, and He makes a difference by being the King. With no explanation Jesus goes from saying the Son of Man will act as a Shepherd separating sheep from goats to saying, "Then the King will say to those on His right, Come, you who are blessed by My father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.'" You don't, can't work for an inheritance. An inheritance can't be earned, it can only be given. If an inheritance is earned, then you're no longer an heir but a worker and your inheritance is payment not gift.
The inheritance of the sheep is the kingdom prepared for them since creation. Jesus speaks this same language using the same word in John 14. He says, "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." Here are all the elements of this text. You have God the Father, a glorious kingdom, God the Son preparing a place for His followers, and returning to bring them in. Jesus speaks these words about going to prepare a place on Maundy Thursday. You know what happened next, but hear it again.
To prepare a place for sinners in a holy kingdom, Jesus had to deal with the Law which convicts us of all our un-holiness not just sins against the 5th Commandment. Jesus did this by keeping the Law. Jesus could say at the end of every day, "I did it all. There is not one thing left for Me to do. I've done it all perfectly." Sheep in this Shepherd's fold can say the same thing since Jesus kept the Law not for His sake but theirs. Not only the 5th but every Commandment is a done deal. The world, our conscience, or the self-righteous have no unfilled Laws they can hold over our head for us to do.
So Jesus prepared the kingdom for us by keeping all of God's holy laws, but what about our sins not only against the 5th but against the 6th, 7th, 4th, and especially the 1st Commandment? By not fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things as we fail to do everyday, we show ourselves to be idolaters. To prepare the kingdom for us, Jesus had to pay for these sins and His Father had to accept His payment. It would take dying and rising to get that done. And not just dying but suffering, sighing and bleeding too.
Jesus got what we deserve both in time and eternity on the cross. He suffered the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and His angels. He suffered hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness, and prison on the way to the cross. And then He declared, "It's done, and God the Father agreed. He showed that Jesus had satisfied all His Laws and paid for every last broken one by raising Him on Easter. What is left for us to do to be saved? What is left for us to suffer to satisfy God's wrath against sinners? What preparations need to be made before Jesus can give us the kingdom of heaven? None.
Jesus is the difference. He is the King and a king can give His kingdom to anyone He wants, and He gives it to you sinner, you sheep, you blessed, you righteous. He's prepared a kingdom for you where there's no condemnation, no guilt, no undone Law, no unpaid sins. But what about the goats? King Jesus sends them away not because He wants them to go but because they do. They don't follow His voice as Shepherd; they think they can prepare their own kingdom with no help from the King, so what is left for them but eternal fire? But it's not an eternal fire prepared for them; no God could never even imagine any of His children going there. He prepared the eternal fire not for them but for the Devil and his angels.
The difference in the Last Judgment is Jesus. Jesus is Shepherd; Jesus is King; and Jesus is Lord. As Lord of all, what Jesus speaks is reality. This isn't news to you. Jesus says this Water gives life and baptized you live. Jesus says these words forgive and absolved you're forgiven. Jesus says this Bread is His Body this Wine is His Blood, and communed you eat His Body and drink His Blood. Our life in Baptism is realer than the death that stalks us. Our forgiveness in Absolution is realer than the sins that haunt us. Jesus healthy, young, living Body and Blood in Communion are realer than our sick, aged, dying ones.
As Lord what Jesus says is reality. So, the goats failed to do the good works as Jesus says even thought they said they didn't. And you sheep have never failed to do the good works Jesus says you did even though you say you didn't. On the Last Day what Jesus says will make all the difference in the world between heaven and hell, life and death, sheep and goats even as what Jesus says makes all the difference on every day till then. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
2nd Last Sunday in the Church Year (20081116); Matthew 25: 31-46