Works Given and Received
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Whenever good works are praised in Holy Scripture, it is important to consider the context. Our fallen minds are easily confused. We learn in Hebrews, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God.” This means no good work is pleasing to God without faith in Christ. Works only please God when they are performed by those who look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation. They cannot help but produce good works, and their good works please God.
When Jesus speaks here as though eternal life is given because of good works, it is understood that eternal life is given to the righteous—that is, to those have been declared righteous for His sake. Good works are the evidence of faith. There is no faith that does not produce good works, and no work is truly good if it does not come from faith. This is why our Lord lists these acts of mercy. He would show us that hypocrisy does not save. That which saves is the righteousness that He bestows in grace. That righteousness gives new life which produces good works.
So we ought therefore to measure ourselves against this standard: How merciful have I been? How evident is my faith in my life? Do the words of Christ about feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick describe my life? Woe to you if you think they do. Repent. Repent for not doing them, to be sure, but even more, repent for thinking you’ve done enough. Repent for thinking you’ve been pretty merciful. Repent for justifying yourself and appeasing your conscience by dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket while you go home to feast. Those who thought they’d done pretty well, who dared Christ to point out when they failed, go to the fire prepared for the devil and his angels. “If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities”—if the Lord should see our lack of mercy—“O Lord, who could stand?”
Not one of us can stand before the Lord in our own righteousness. It is only those who repent, who throw themselves upon God’s mercy, who are washed and cleansed by Christ—these are the saved. The sheep protest just as loudly as the goats. Getting credit for good works makes the sheep nervous. They do not look to their works; they look to Christ. They don’t want to be judged by their works, but by their Lord’s righteousness. We beg God to judge us by the cross, to keep His promise and accept the demands that justice has made on the Son.
We must also consider this: our Lord does not identify Himself with those who perform good works. He locates Himself instead with those who receive good works. It is those who received the mercy of others, who were the beneficiaries, who stand in His stead. “When you did it to the least of these,” He says, “you did it to Me.” The Church is not the healthy, well-fed, well-clothed, and powerful people of this world. The Church is those who need mercy; they are His brothers. That is why the righteous are confused by His description of their works. They remember being fed, not feeding. And what honor is there is being fed? It seems backwards. But that is how it is in the Kingdom. Our primary goal is not to perform good works, but to receive the good works of Christ: to be forgiven, washed, fed, clothed, comforted.
Certainly, you perform good works. You serve your neighbors. God is pleased with this. He loves your good works, even when you are unaware of them. As you receive mercy, you respond with mercy to others. Your mercy is imperfect, but it is purified by grace, accepted for the sake of Christ. God uses your hands as His hands in this world. He provides for His brothers through you. You are the baptized, the blessed of His Father. He has redeemed you to bring you home. 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.