A Laughing Matter?
You would think that going to eternal hell or life is not a joke, but it is. There are so many jokes about it, and virtually all turn on doing or not doing something. The spelling test to get into heaven for everyone else is spell God', hell', or "Bible," but for the group that is to be turned away it's spell Mephibosheth.' The man's greatest fear is that he will be standing behind Mother Teresa and hear St. Peter say, "You know, you could have done more." Is eternal salvation a laughing matter? No and yes.
Good works aren't a laughing matter. It's not a joke to God whether or not you do good works. No joke, the Last Judgment is according to good works. In our official Confessions we cite Romans 2:6, "He will render to every man according to his works." Romans 2:10, "Glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good." John 5:29, Jesus says, "Those who have done good will come forth to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of damnation." And then we cite our text, "I was hungry, and you gave Me food, etc." Ending with etcetera shows we're referring to it all (AP, IV, 370). Our old funeral liturgy quotes 2 Corinthians 5:10, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body."
The Lutheran position has never been that good works aren't necessary. They are. What we deny is that they are necessary for salvation. We say, in an emphatic way unusual for doctrinal statements of faith, "No sane man can judge otherwise.in themselves [good works] are not worthy of grace and eternal life (Ibid. 375).
So, go ahead feed all the hungry you can; dig water wells in Africa till your fingers bleed; open your home up to the 2,000 homeless strangers in Austin this Thanksgiving; cloth every rag-tattered transient on the street corner; volunteer at Seton to care for the sick; start a prison ministry. And don't stop there. There is still money to give, homes to build, blood to donate, and soup kitchens to be staffed. Do all of these very good things 24/7, but know this: in doing so, you are not one bit worthier of God's grace then the biker dude smoking dope and knocking heads. Pursue the genuine good works that God Himself commands, and know that no matter how hard you work you do not make yourself worthy of eternal life any more than the person who doesn't lift a finger to help his fellow man.
If good works don't make us worthy of God's blessing; if good works don't merit things in the eyes of God; if as Luther said, "We need forgiveness for even our good works," or as God says in Isaiah 64:6, "All our good works are like filthy rags," why does the Bible mention them, command them from Genesis to Revelation?
The short answer is "evidence." In the Last Judgment, wouldn't you agree that the person who never failed to feed, water, welcome, clothe, aid, or visit was worthy of eternal life? See what you just did? I said, "worthy of eternal life" and you heard "made themselves worthy." Fallen man naturally responds to fear of dying or damnation like the Pentecost crowd and the Philippian jailer did: "What can we do?" So, when we hear someone is declared worthy, we naturally as fallen people think they did something to made themselves worthy.
The mention of works at the Last Judgement "is cited as evidence of the righteousness of the heart and of faith, and for this reason eternal life is granted" (Ibid. 373). Salvation is granted to the one who "believes that the Father is propitious [appeased] toward us for Christ's sake" (Ibid. 379). Good works are an outward evidence that such invisible faith dwells in the heart.
But evidence of faith is not the only reason God mentions works at the Last Judgement. We confess that works are pointed out "to make it clearer to the inexperiencedthat a new life and new birth are required and not hypocrisy" (Ibid. 374). In Confirmation class almost every kid misses the question: "It is obvious who is a hypocrite and who is not." They think it is, by definition it can't be.
The Jeff Foxworthy humor of the 90s was, "You may be a redneck, if." Well, our text puts before you, "You may be among the damned, if." You may be among the damned if like the goats you think you've never seen your Lord in need and failed to help. You may be damned if you think that you could do every good work necessary if you just knew where or when to do it. You are a goat if you think you can do a true good work without being reborn as a totally new person by a miracle of God.
If you're sitting there on the edge of your pew thinking, "I'm going out of here and giving the first hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, imprisoned person the shirt off my back", or, "I'm dumping that extra 10 in the plate," you're not "baaing" like a sheep; you're bleating like a goat. There is no peace of conscience in doing good works, and there is no true desire to do them apart from the miracle of rebirth (Ibid. 176). And the new birth doesn't happen by you moaning, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry" or by your resolution to do better from now on. The new birth only happens by the merits, the mercy, the miracle that is Christ.
Go home and read chapter 25. This is the very last week of Jesus' life. It's Wednesday before Maundy Thursday. He tells the Parable of the 10 Maidens, then the Parable of the Talents, and then BOOM! He drops the parables. Even His enemies need to hear the plane truth of judgment. The Father has handed all judgment over to the Son says Jesus in John 5:22. And not just to the Son but to the Son of Man. The Son of Man as a Man was tempted in all the ways you are yet was without sin. Because He is a Man Hebrews 4:15 says we have a high priest who is able to empathize with our weaknesses. And the great Psalm of forgiveness, 103, says, "He knows our frame; He remembers that we are but dust."
When the Son of Man returns, He comes in glory, all the angels are with Him, and He is seated on His throne of glory. Yet He's a Man that you can look at not a blinding light you can't bear. He's a Man that you can touch, feel, not a force. And He's your Man. He entered your flesh and blood to keep the laws you can't keep, to do the good works you can only taint with your sins, and then to die as a wrath-satisfying sacrifice on a cross.
Let me ask you. Are you going to be afraid of the fireman who pulled you out of a burning building and burned his arms horribly while doing it? Are you going to be afraid of the cop who took the bullet for you? Wouldn't rather you be happy to see either man again? How much more the Man who loved you and gave Himself up in your place to save you from eternal flames and an eternity of being shot?
Our text isn't hypothetical, and it isn't a parable. This is reality. The Son of Man returns on His glory throne, but the first thing He does is shepherd. He separates the sheep from the goat "as a shepherd." Note well when the Good Shepherd does this. Before works are even mentioned. This shows the works are evidence of, or fruit of, or proof of what sheep and goats are. They're not what make you a sheep or goat. So, what makes you a sheep or goat? Your relationship to the Good Shepherd, of course!
Jesus says His sheep are those He knows by name. What's that? I hear Him calling your name and it's coming from that Baptismal font. Jesus says, "My sheep listen to My voice and they follow Me." In a few minutes, His sheep will follow His voice to this altar and "take eat" and "take drink" just as He invites them to. Jesus says His sheep have had their sins taken away by the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world. Didn't you see yours go by earlier when by the command and in the place of the Good Shepherd I sent your sins away as far as Psalm 103 says they are: "as far as east is from west"? That means by the Shepherd's absolution, you and your sins or that sin can never meet again.
Get out of your head that this a parable and rejoice in the reality that Judgment Day is for sheep of the Good Shepherd, for siblings of the Son of Man, for subjects of the King of kings. Do you see how Jesus shows Himself like a many faceted diamond? Here you see the Son of Man. There you see the Good Shepherd. And behold here is your King. "Then the King will say to those on His right literally, "Come those of you who forever have been blessed by the Father of Me, you must inherit the kingdom that has forever been prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Jesus says your inheritance is a must not a maybe, and it has been ready for you from before the world was created.
So why do you sit here in 2017 wringing your hands about an inheritance that has been left to you in Jesus' name from eternity? Men mess with inheritances all the time. God Almighty doesn't. From the foundation of the world, exact same Greek words, God tells you two things have been reality: The Lamb of God has been slain and your inheritance has been prepared. God shed the blood of the Lamb not for His sake, but yours. He rescued you from sin's tyranny, Death's stalking, and the Devil's slavery. These claimed you for Laws you didn't keep and for payments you couldn't make. These unholy 3 lost their claim when Jesus from the foundation of the world kept the Law and removed its accusations and bill by nailing them to the cross.
I think salvation is a laughing matter. Jesus says in John 8:56 that Abraham saw My day and had a belly laugh. Psalm 126 says that when the Lord rescues His people their mouths are filled with laughter. Men try to break the handcuffs of law, judgment, hell by reasoning, by doing, by ignoring. It doesn't work. They fall off altogether at laughter arising from the joy that your sins are completely forgiven for Jesus' sake (The Pilgrim's Regress, 72). Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
2nd-Last Sunday in the Church Year (20171119); Matthew 25: 31-46