There is a story, a joke really, that I heard many years ago delivered by one of my pastors in a sermon. There was an old Lutheran pastor who died and ascended to the pearly gates where he was met by St. Peter. The minister of the Word gave his name, and St. Peter began looking through the Book of Life. After several minutes, Peter looked at this Lutheran pastor and said, “I am sorry. I do not find your name in the Book of Life. You may not enter. There is another place for you.”
In a heart beat, the minister found himself in the depths of hell. There were many who were weeping and gnashing their teeth. As this faithful Lutheran looked around, he saw many of his colleagues. He saw St. Paul. He saw Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, and other Protestant reformers. His soul in torment, this pastor then went up to Martin Luther. “Good doctor,” the pastor said, “what happened.”
With a sad, dejected look, Luther looked at the faithful, Lutheran pastor and said, “Maybe it was works.”
And for the second week in a row, we have before us a teaching of Jesus which seemingly indicates it’s all about our works. Our eternal destination depends upon whether or not we are placed with the sheep or with the goats–the sheep being those who gave to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned. Those who did not do such things–who did not care for the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and imprisoned are banished to eternal punishment. There seems to be no wiggle room. Everything hinges upon how you act in these circumstances. Case closed.
And so, Christianity basically boils down to whether or not you take care of others. Christianity basically boils down to what you do. Christianity is no different than any other world religion or philosophy that teaches to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And just like last week, we are forced to answer the question, “What happened to grace? What happened to what Jesus did on the cross on our behalf? Why does Matthew continue on to the cross if everything is left up to our work?”
Once again, I believe it behooves us to look carefully at this story. It’s not really a parable, per se. It’s really a story about what will happen when Jesus comes to claim His lordship over the entire earth and justice is fully and completely meted out. Hence, this text is quite often reserved for Christ the King Sunday. And justice is a huge theme the Bible. Scripture is chalk full of God’s call to care for the poor and the marginalized. It is chalk full of God’s desire for people to care for widows and orphans and those who are pushed to the edges. I certainly do not want to minimize this or the church’s role in helping those in need. It is very, very important. But, our salvation does not hinge upon it. Whether or not we get separated into sheep or goats is not based upon our actions. I will state this firmly and confidently.
You may think I am insane given what is before us in this parable, but I told you before we needed to look at it carefully. And that is just what we are going to do right now.
The story begins with a straight forward statement by Jesus, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats,”
We are going to stop right here for a moment. It is obvious, I think, that the Son of Man is Jesus. This has always been the understanding of the Church. There is no controversy here. The interesting part comes with the statement, “All the nations will be gathered before him.” Many folks understand “all the nations” to mean everyone–each and every individual who is living and who has died will stand before the Son of Man for judgement and separation. But I want to ask: is this the case?
I ask this for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is revealed later in the story. The King “will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
The next part is most interesting–most interesting indeed. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” Do you find those questions as interesting as I do? I mean, if you consider what those of you who have been raised in the church have been taught, if you consider that we have been taught from the get go that when we help the poor and the needy and the sick and those in prison, then we are helping Jesus. Are our memories erased when we stand in judgement? Do we forget all we have done throughout our lives? Do we forget what we have been taught and what we believe? The folks in the story are completely clueless. They have no idea they helped Jesus. None. Why? Why are they ignorant?
There are actually a couple of possibilities, but I am going to present to you this morning the one I think makes the most sense, and it goes back to what I asked earlier. Who are “all the nations”? In the Greek, the word ethnos is used here in verse 32. Interestingly enough, it can be translated a couple of ways–it can be translated as Gentiles or as nations. Translation is not an exact science. There is interpretation which is involved, but we can get some assistance from how an author uses a word within the context of his work. Matthew is no exception. If we look throughout the book of Matthew and see how he uses the word ethnos, we discover something very, very interesting. I will list several examples, and perhaps you can see the pattern that I saw:
Matthew 5.47: And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles (or the nations) do the same?
Matthew 6.7: ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles (or the nations) do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Matthew 6.32: For it is the Gentiles (the nations) who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
Matthew 10.18: and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles (the nations).
Matthew 20.25: But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (nations) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.
Matthew 24.9: ‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations (Gentiles?) because of my name.
Matthew 24.14: And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations (Gentiles?); and then the end will come.
I know those are quite a few texts to be read quickly in a sermon, but did you notice something about all those texts? Did you notice how Matthew used them? They all, without exception speak to those outside the Church! Without exception, Jesus draws a contrast between those who follow Him and “the nations” or “the Gentiles.” Do you see this? And here is the most interesting question: would Matthew change his meaning for this particular story? Would he break the consistency he has used up to this point?
I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. In fact, I think Matthew is being purposeful here. He is making a contrast between those who are outside the church and those who are inside the church. Those outside the church will be judged by their actions, and those inside the church are judged according to God’s grace. But it’s not just the nation’s actions that count. Those actions are very specific.
For Jesus says this to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Once again, Matthew is helpful in making sense of this statement. For some believe Jesus is talking about all poor people. All sick people. All in need. But I don’t think so. Again, not to minimize the church’s call to minister to those in need, but Jesus here isn’t talking about judgement upon Christians and their actions. He’s talking about judgement upon those who are outside the church. Therefore we must ask, who are Jesus’ family? Who are the least of Jesus’ family?
Matthew 12:46-50 “46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Pointing to His disciples! Here are my mother and my brothers! The one who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. Jesus says, “My family is my disciples, and when you do things to the least of these, you do them to me.” I hope you realize this is why the Church is oftentimes called the body of Christ in this world!
So, here we have the judgement of nations before us–the judgement of those outside of the church. They are separated into sheep and goats. Those who treated disciples of Jesus with compassion and care are let in, and those who treated the church with contempt and had no compassion are led away. But that does leave us asking a very important question: what does this have to do with those of us who are in the Church? What does this have to do with those of us who are under God’s grace–who are judged not by what we have done but by what Jesus has done? How does this story impact us? Or does it at all?
Last week, we heard the parable of the talents. We heard how this parable is about the attitude the slave has toward the master. The slave who does not fear his master seeks the will of the master with reckless abandon. The slave who does not fear his master seeks to expand the master’s wealth and kingdom. The slave who does not fear the master throws himself into producing more for the master because he loves the master. And it is the Master’s will–it is the Master’s joy to bring everyone into His kingdom.
For you see, there is one more place in the book of Matthew where Jesus speaks about the nations. There is one more place where Jesus speaks about those who are outside the Church. Let me read it to you now from Matthew chapter 28, “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
You see, it is not God’s desire; it is not Jesus’ desire to judge the nations based upon what they do. It is not God’s desire to judge them on how they treated those of us who are disciples of Jesus. It is not God’s desire to have any goats to send into eternal punishment. “Make disciples of ALL NATIONS!” Why?
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”
God wants to bring everyone into His kingdom. God wants to save the lost. God wants to bring all to the fullness of what it means to be living with Him in glory. God’s deepest desire is to share His love–the same love and glory He gets in the divine dance of the Trinity. It is His desire to have the entire creation experience this dance. And they cannot get into that dance by earning it. They cannot get into that dance by working toward it. Those of us within the Church know this. We are too broken. We are too sinful. We know this to the depths of our souls.
And we know what Jesus has done for us on the cross. We know that He endured the punishment meant for us. We know that He endured God’s wrath for us. We know that He clothed us with His righteousness so that we can stand before God with confidence on that last day–not with a righteousness of our own, but with the righteousness of Christ as our clothing. In this, we have placed our hope and our trust, and in this, we know the rest of the world can place their hope and their trust.
It therefore becomes our job to proclaim it. We know the one who saved us wants to save the rest of the world. We know the only way they will come to know the grace of God is for us to tell them–to proclaim the cross. The cross on which the King bled and died to reconcile the world unto His Father.
Therefore, let us not be afraid to evangelize. Let us not be afraid to make disciples of all nations–teaching them what God has done for them through Jesus Christ; so that on that day of judgement when Christ the King returns, there is no us and them; there is no separation of the sheep and the goats; there is simply the Church; those brothers and sisters of Jesus whom He died for. For God so loved the world...Amen.