The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
St. Matthew 25:31-46
The Sheep & the Goats
Proper  20 November 2011
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The courtroom is prepared. The defendants are all in place. And the bailiff bellows the familiar, “All please rise for the Honorable Judge. This court is now in session.” The Judge makes His way to the bench. The Judge’s entry at just that time was a surprise to the defendants. This is the end. This is the day of the final verdict. There is no appeal. This is the last trial that will ever take place on the face of the earth.
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
This parable pictures the Last Day. The Son of Man is there in His glory, the glory you can read about in Revelation 1 and Daniel. All the angels are there. All. And He sits on His throne, His glory-throne, in judgment, as did Solomon of old, but in a way Solomon could never imagine.
All nations are gathered before Him. All. Note the continuing occurrence of the word, “all.” That means no one is left out. All nations refers not merely to just the nations of the gentiles, but all Jews and all gentiles, all of the people who have ever lived—every single one. You will be there, too.
And things get interesting. He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. This King is the Judge. And He is also the Good Shepherd. He knows His sheep. And He knows those who are not His sheep. He knows. There are no witnesses, no evidence entered into the record of the court reporter—at least not yet. (Lenski, p. 988): This division and this placing are already a judgment and a verdict. What follows only justifies the act.
Keep in mind this very important idea: The sheep and the goats are separated before their actions and inactions are mentioned. This is incredibly significant. This teaches us that salvation is not the reward for good works. Something precedes these good works—Christ’s gift of faith and His Holy and Pure wool of righteousness that makes us His sheep. Sheep, by faith do what Jesus will describe. Goats do not and cannot.
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
Those on the right have been blessed by the Father, as have you. They have received His gifts and those gifts have come to fruition in service. Now such ones inherit the kingdom, as will you Christians who remain faithful to the end. Revelation says of these that they will wear crowns. Only royalty wears crowns. We will reign as kings with Christ, He who is the King of kings and Lord of lords. We are to be the lowercase kings and lords mentioned in those titles.
Think about the kind of service for which Jesus commends the saints. Each is a humble work, perhaps considered by some to be beneath them. Blessed are you who give food and drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. Such words give us pause to think about how we care for our family, our neighbors, our community. And how do we treat the visitor to the Divine Service, the prodigal returning for Christmas, the person fumbling around in the bulletin or hymnal—or how we treat one another in this congregation?
Humble work for Christians means that we follow in the steps of our humble servant-king, Jesus, who lived a life of love, sacrificing Himself for you.
Love sacrifices self. As she was growing up a young girl often saw her mother’s hands, which were badly marred with ugly scars. When she was old enough to compare the hands of other mothers, she asked one day, “Mother, why do you have such ugly hands?” Her mother quietly sat her town and told the story. “When you were a little child, sleeping in your crib, we had a sudden fire in the house. I went to your room, and the flames were all around your crib. I grabbed you and wrapped you in your blanket, but the flames had already reached the outside of the blanket, and my hands, as you can see, were badly burned. So, darling, that is why my hands are scarred and not lovely and smooth as the hands of other mothers are.” There was a pause, and then the girl’s face lit up. She reached down, picked up her mother’s hands, and pressed them tightly to her face. “Oh, Mommy, I love these hands.” Love sacrifices self.
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
How are the righteous made righteous? Jesus’ hands. Justification by grace through faith and not by works is summed up in that one word, “righteous.” Jesus’ gift of righteousness doesn’t carry with it moral perfection. O, that it did! We Christians are righteous in God’s eyes. He sees us through Jesus-colored glasses. And it doesn’t hurt that the Judge is also your defense attorney! The righteous are made righteous by Jesus calling us righteous. That is the verdict we have, hold onto, and await to be announced publicly on the last day.
'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' At first, “the least of these my brothers” referred to his twelve disciples. Christians cared for them in the Gospel accounts, the Book of Acts and beyond for the sake of the message. We honor the Lord by receiving His gifts. We honor His Word by making it a priority and by hearing and doing it. We show we are forgiven by quickly and gladly forgiving others. For the sake of the Lord’s Gospel, Christians care for the Lord’s messengers, whether they be seminarians, parish pastors, missionaries, chaplains, professors, or servants at District or Synod. When we care for Jesus’ servants, we show our love and care for Jesus.
'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' If you’re willing to give food and drink to even the most insignificant person in the eyes of the world, welcome the grubbiest stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison, Jesus says, you would do such things for anyone—even Him. In this way, “least” includes all. For the sake of the Gospel, we are also to feed those hungry for the Gospel, even if they don’t know it yet.
Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' This is a phrase in common to both the sheep and the goats. Now to the other side.
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?' Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
The verdict on the goats is, “cursed,” far, far worse than a mere “guilty.” Remember, there’s no appeal. The sentence is the second death, the lake of fire, truly capital punishment, an eternal life sentence in hell’s prison. Hellfire was not originally designed for humankind, but only for the devil and his evil angels as a result of their apostasy. It will be the eternal destination for those who reject Christ and follow the devil’s ways.
One of those devilish ways is resisting the Holy Spirit. The sin against the Holy Spirit is continually resisting His work through God’s Word. Resisting the Spirit leads to the sin against the Holy Spirit, the only unforgivable sin, incurable apostasy. Why is it not forgivable? The Holy Spirit delivers God’s forgiveness. If you resist Him, you resist that delivery, and hence, cannot get God’s forgiveness.
Therefore, do not take worship lightly. Do not think of “getting your life in order” as something that can be put off. The Judge comes at any hour. Which side will you be on? Which side will your spouse be on? Your friends? Neighbors? Family members? Share the Word of God. The Spirit works with that Word where and when He wills to create faith. Pray that those who hear will not resist. Invite them to Bible study or church. There is still time while the Lord delays His coming, but do not doubt that the time is short, and the arrival, unexpected.
When we confess our sins, we should confess that we have sinned against God by what we have done and that we have also sinned by what we have left undone. We tend to focus a lot of time and energy on that first group—sins of commission, sins we do, sins we commit as crimes against God. We often ignore “what we have left undone.” Those are sins of omission. We tend to forget that it is sin when we omitted to do something good that God has commanded. We ought to remember that sins of omission are still sins and can sometimes have lasting effects.
A couple of scenes from a blockbuster movie illustrate the consequences of sins of omission. Peter had just won a contest. When he went to pick up the prize money, the man in charge said that Peter didn’t qualify for the big money because of a technicality. Peter was upset. He was given only a couple hundred dollars and was told, “Hey, it’s not my problem.” Minutes later, the man in charge of the contest was held up at gunpoint. Running off with the money, the thief ran right past Peter, who could have stopped him. After the thief’s escape, the man in charge asked Peter why he didn’t do anything. He told the man, “Hey, it’s not my problem.” As Peter left the building, he looked around for his uncle who was coming to pick him up. All he saw was a crowd huddled around a body. It was his uncle, shot to death by the thief he could have stopped. Sins of omission have consequences. It was his problem. We are to be our brother’s keeper, even if you are Spiderman.
Sin is a problem. It leads to hell. Ultimately, it is unbelief that damns. Unbelief refuses to act. Faith does those things. Faith sees Christ in all His humble glory, enthroned as the King of the Jews upon the throne of the Cross. Unbelief does not see Christ in humble situations like the cross, church, water, bread and wine, words, the Lord’s human servants, or the hungry, thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, or those in prison. While they’re out looking for glorious manifestations of the divine, God Himself is hidden, right before their eyes in their daily lives.
The sheep and the goats are separated before their actions and inactions are mentioned. Salvation is not the reward for good works. Something precedes these good works—Christ’s gift of faith and His Holy and Pure wool of righteousness that makes you His sheep. Sheep, by faith do what Jesus describes. Goats do not and cannot.
There is a big distinction between a human definition of “good works” and God’s definition. The world’s definition is pretty broad. People call something good if garners a lot of attention. It may be a selfless act of giving, a brave rescue, a sacrifice of self for someone else. Such deeds are commendable, and certainly give us good role models and heroes. Such a definition may suffice for the world.
In God’s dictionary, good works can only be done by those with faith. An unbeliever cannot please God—even if He finds a cure for cancer, donates a billion dollars to the needy, or lays on a landmine to save a buddy. In God’s dictionary, even such selfless acts are not good works. What then, is the work of God?
Our Lord says in John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” God desires to keep us all out of hell. Therefore, He sends the Spirit to use the Word to give you faith—even the believing is God’s work in you. Some will resist the Holy Spirit. I pray that you will not.
Let us pray for the coming of the Kingdom, soon, when the King will say (to those on his right,) 'Come, you who 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 drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' …[Enter] … into eternal life. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.