Sheep and Goats
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we hear this Gospel reading, the natural reaction of our sinful nature is to take it as a set of guidelines for what we should be doing so that Jesus will allow us to enter heaven. On one side of the judgment seat are those whose works have served Jesus, though they did not know it at the time. On the other side are those who did not serve Jesus because they were unaware of His presence in those who were hungry and sick and naked and imprisoned. Our fallen human nature concludes from this that we need to be doing good works if we are going to be counted worthy to enter heaven. It is a constant temptation for us to take the Word of God and turn it into a list of requirements that we can fulfill that will make us right with God.
We would rather rely on our own goodness and love than on the goodness and love of God. But to do so is to deny the very heart of the Christian faith. To be sure, the commandments of God require that we help our neighbor in every bodily need. Works of mercy ought to be flowing out of us towards others. But we must not rely on those works to save us, for the Law of God always brings judgment. We never keep it perfectly as we should. Even our best efforts toward our neighbors fall short. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin, not salvation.
And so this Gospel reading is not really so much about good works as it is about faith in Jesus Christ. The focus is on Him and what He has done. But this raises an interesting question. Who are “My brethren” as Jesus refers to them? Are these just random works of kindness and mercy done to some unknowing individual? That is how this is often understood. Or could it be that Jesus is speaking of His disciples, those He sent out like “sheep among wolves,” to preach the Gospel? Could it be that He is referring to preachers of the Gospel? This, in fact, was how Luther understood this parable, which is why He understood it not so much as a discussion of what is or what is not a good work, but rather how one responds to the Gospel. Do you recall what Jesus said to His disciples when He sent them out to preach for the first time? He said: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose His reward.” The act of giving a cup of cold water was noteworthy not because it was a good work that merited anything, but because it was a sign of faith that the hearer believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ which His brothers, the disciples, had brought to them.
Jesus says to preachers of the Gospel still today, “He who receives you receives Me.” When a pastor speaks the words of forgiveness, he speaks not for himself but in the stead and by the command of Christ. When he says, “This is My body,” it is not his voice but the voice of Jesus that is heard. The same is true in Holy Baptism. The man He uses to do that is really secondary, which is why we cover him up in robes, to show that he represents not himself but the Lord. To receive a brother of Christ, who brings the Gospel, is to receive Christ Himself, for it is He who is present in the ministry of the Word and Sacraments for your salvation. That is what this is about.
So let us consider once again the scene in this Gospel reading. Jesus is seated on the throne of His eternal glory for the final judgment. All nations are gathered before Him, all those to whom the message of the Gospel went out. He says: “I have sent my messengers with My Gospel. They have been My mouth and My hands, to speak My words and to cover you with My mercy and forgiveness and righteousness. You on My right have believed the Gospel, and you have shown this by the way you have received and cared for My messengers. You may not have been aware of it, but what you did for them, you did for Me. But you on My left did not receive My messengers or My message. You did not believe the Gospel, and this was shown by your failure to receive those who brought it to you. You may not have been aware of it, but what you did not do for these My brethren you did not do for me.” That the brethren would be sick or hungry or naked or in prison was a very real possibility, especially in the days of the apostles, though it certainly remains the case in every generation of this fallen, rebellious world.
So this text is really about those who embrace the Gospel and those who do not. It is really not so much a call to do works of mercy, though such works of mercy will flow from faith in the Gospel, to be sure. This Gospel reading is finally about faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that is brought to perfection on the Last Day, when the sheep of Christ seem blissfully unaware of the things they have done. And that is because faith focuses not on one’s own deeds, but on the deeds of Christ. “When did we do all these things? All we did was believe the Gospel.” The faithful forget themselves that they may forever remember Jesus Christ and His eternal gifts.
Our Lord Jesus won those gifts for you by becoming needy in your place. He was hungry when tempted in the wilderness. On the cross He cried out in thirst. He bore your sicknesses in His body on the cross. He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people. He put Himself into the bondage of your sin so that He might break down the bars of your captivity by His glorious resurrection. Through Jesus Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him. He made Himself to be the least among His brethren that you might receive the greatest of His mercies. It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you, that you might live in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
And when Jesus comes again, He will surely say to you: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The Father in heaven has indeed blessed you by giving you the new birth of water and the Spirit into His heavenly family. You are now His sons and daughters in Christ. All that He has is yours; He has given you a share in His everlasting inheritance. And like any inheritance, it is not yours because you worked to get it but simply because you are a member of the family. In fact, this inheritance was being prepared for you from the beginning of creation, before your own life even began. It is all a gift, through the merits of Christ. Believe this! He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom through the body and blood of His Sacrament. Come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom; receive the King. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.