Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Date: Last Sunday in the Church Year + 11/23/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we hear the words of our Lord Jesus talking about the coming Last Day of judgment. What may be surprising, however, is that our Lord actually speaks less about the events of that day than of the kind of life one ought to live before that day arrives. The chapter begins with the parable of the Ten Virgins, which speaks of the spiritual wisdom of being ready now by taking advantage of the grace of God available today. The parable of the Talents then speaks of using that grace of God in fruitful good works. Finally, today, we have the courtroom scene of God’s judgment. Though He uses parabolic language Jesus never says this is a parable. This is what “will” happen, he says, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” Notice the word “glory” is repeated. This indicates that, on that Day, there will be nothing hidden anymore as it was in this life bur rather on full display for every eye to see (Rev. 1:7).
Then notice that this courtroom is not gathered for a trial to determine guilt or innocence. You may have read or heard popular stories describing judgment day for the Christian where Jesus is the defending attorney, the judge is God the Father, and the evidence of your innocence is in the bloody nail prints of the cross in Jesus’ hands and side. Actually that trial finding guilt or innocence is going on right now, as St. John writes, “My little children…if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). And St. Paul asks, “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). As one pastor said on the basis of this text, we have the best trial lawyer in the business. It is after the trials of this life, this struggle with the devil, the world and our own sinful flesh, and after the verdict has already been announced by your baptism into Christ, that, as the Book of Hebrews says it, “just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:27-28). So it is apparent in our text that the decision has already been made. To use the imagery of the parable, the sheep are sheep and the goats are goats, standing in their assigned places variously to the right and the left of the throne already before the scene starts. This should make you ask what it is that determines whether you are a sheep or a goat in the first place, whether you will be gathered on the saved side or the condemned side. The difference is whether you have received Christ as Savior and Lord now in this life or have neglected and rejected Him. So once again we say, today is the day of salvation. Come to the feast of God’s grace.
This courtroom scene is but the sentencing phase where those acquitted are freed to enter the kingdom and receive their inheritance, and those found guilty are condemned to eternal punishment. The most important detail, of course, is the reading of the evidence, the works of mercy done by the righteous or neglected by the unrighteous. And it is of utmost importance to know that these works are evidence of something and not the cause of anything.
But notice how the old, sinful, spiritually ignorant nature that still resides in all of us hears these words as if these good works were the reason, the cause or grounds of salvation. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For”—and here it sounds like the reason you are being welcomed—“For I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc. On the other hand, it appears here is why you are rejected—“For I was hungry and you gave me no food,” etc. Right? That’s just how our old, fallen, works-righteous, blind and deaf nature hears these words; exactly how all people on the street apart from the revelation of the Gospel hear these words. That’s why God the Holy Spirit needs to be involved when we proclaim the Gospel, to work the gift of faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel; to open the mind to understand the scriptures as Christ did for His followers after His resurrection (Lk. 24:45).
For those with the old ears of the old, spiritually deaf Adam, the fact that neither of the two groups seemed to have been aware that they were variously serving or rejecting Christ when they were either serving or neglecting people in need doesn’t make any sense. “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” “or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you?” (vv. 38, 43). For if you are a score keeper, one who takes note and keeps some sort of record of works you consider especially good or praiseworthy, surely you wouldn’t be so ignorant, would you?
But these works are not the extraordinary, over-and-above sort of noteworthy works as the world notices or rewards. These are, rather, just the normal way things are, the Christian living in loving service most of the time without thinking about it or taking note of anything. And notice that Jesus is speaking here of “the least of these my brothers,” implying especially serving other Christians. As the Apostle Paul said, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:9-10). But so also are the goats pleading ignorance before the throne. “As you did it or did it not to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it or did it not to me.”
Well, there you have it. We’ve done it once again. It’s taken an entire year to tell the story—the story of the Gospel of God’s salvation, the story of Jesus, His human birth in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, His active earthly ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, His passive obedience unto death, even death on a cross, His rising from the tomb on that first Easter Day, His ascension into heaven and the sending of His Holy and life-giving Spirit; the story of the struggle to live the baptized life and to remain faithful to the end, looking for our final deliverance when our Lord comes to judge the living and the dead and to take His own unto Himself, new bodies for old into the eternal life of the new heavens and the new earth. And just in case someone came in in the middle of the story we will begin to tell it all over again, God willing, in a new Church Year beginning next Sunday.
Our Lord says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).