This morning I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 25 where we heard about the parable of the sheep and the goats. This is an appropriate reading to have today as it is the last day of the church year, where the focus is on the end times.
When I was on vicarage at St Michael’s in the Adelaide Hills, I met some young people who are very passionate about their faith, but one of the readings they struggled with, was today’s parable. They could see that Jesus was telling them very clearly that serving the poor and the needy were commanded by Jesus, but they could also see that they really struggled with doing this. One particular person had so much doubt that he even wondered if he was saved or not.
On another occasion while studying at ALC I came across a pastor from another denomination, preaching to Christians that unless their actions lined up with this parable, then they were deceived and were going to hell. He saw himself as a prophet to the churches, warning us all that we will be going to hell unless we strictly follow this parable.
Why this is so concerning is that it put ordinary Christian people in a place where they strongly began to doubt, not in Jesus, but to doubt their salvation through him.
To be honest, when many of us hear these words of Jesus to us, they can be confronting. The fact is that there is no question about the message Jesus intends to convey here: we are to be looking after the poor and the needy. No amount of justifications or interpretation can get away from this. There is no dodging the impact of what Jesus is saying in this parable. His words are clear and easy to understand. And this parable has a very sharp focus on our actions towards others, particularly those in need. Because of this, it can easily be heard from this parable that when the time for Jesus’ return comes, there will be judgement, which is the truth, but that our fate is dependent upon what we do in this life; in other words, that our place in heaven is dependent upon our actions towards our neighbours.
Now as Protestant Lutherans we know that we are not saved by our works, but we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ only. So the question is how do we make sense of Jesus’ words to us from this parable?
As I was reading through this parable some things stood out that I believe are important to highlight. Notice how this parable starts: 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
The sheep and the goats have already been decided before any actions are spoken about. Jesus is describing what will happen at the end of time. The reasons for our judgement lie well beyond the actions of the sheep or goat in this parable. This was already decided at the beginning of the world. The sheep are you and me, and all other followers of Jesus as the ones who are chosen by God. We do not have any right on our own to be at Jesus’ right hand. We are the righteous by grace in Jesus Christ.
As for the goats, it is important to see that there is no mention of a place prepared for them for eternity. Those who reject Jesus are to go to a place that was not prepared for them. This place was called into existence only out of necessity. You see, condemnation was not the plan of our Triune God at the beginning of the world.
So when we look at the actions, described by Jesus, of his people who belong to him and those who don’t, he is not saying that these actions contribute to our salvation. Rather, he is describing what we do as his children.
Neither goat nor sheep in this parable are aware of the presence of Jesus in what he calls “the least of these.” Now we would expect this to be the case when it comes to the goats—it is no surprise, because they have no belief. But the surprising thing is that the sheep have no awareness of Jesus in the midst of our neighbours.
We often speak about and we hear about “serving Jesus” by putting our faith into practice through our actions, in the world. Often we think that we need to do this to serve Jesus. But this parable is suggesting that we serve our neighbour for the sake of the neighbour; the single motivation necessary to serve is the need of the neighbour. Sheep serve because they love their neighbour for their own sake, not because they perceive Jesus in their midst. The sheep have no idea that Jesus is there, but they just act. This describes the Christian life. The connection between our actions, following Jesus and his command to love our neighbour, and our relationship with our Lord, should not need to be explained or separated. The point that Jesus is making is that because we are his followers we act as his followers.
In this is the challenge to all of us. Jesus expects you and me to act like his people. Sheep take care of their neighbours. There is an expectation, even an obligation, for Christians to serve those in need and this has nothing to do with our salvation. We are to simply act from who we are: God’s children through Jesus Christ.
We do know this, but we all do from time to time become complacent. We forget. Or we become apathetic. Living in our society at this time in history makes it so easy to get caught up in our own lives. We can too often become so distracted and occupied by things happening in our own lives that we struggle to see the need in our neighbours. And whether we like to admit it or not we often fail to serve others ahead of ourselves.
This is always a challenge for us, but when we become aware of it, we repent, ask for forgiveness and keep on following our Lord.
One of the ways that we can find great encouragement and comfort is knowing that no action of service, regardless how obscure, insignificant or unappreciated, is ever wasted or lost. Our Lord Jesus keeps track.
Notice what the King says in this parable “… ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” We do these things because we are already blessed and chosen by God, not to earn favour with him.
Our Lord Jesus is the one who calls us as his children, and the one who at the judgement will separate the sheep from the goats. He is the one who showed us throughout his earthly ministry how to love our neighbour as ourselves. He is the one who set the example for us to follow. We as his children are to follow his lead in serving all no matter whether they are sheep or goats; we are to serve them all.
My encouragement to you all then is to look for the ways that you can serve those around you in your ordinary everyday life. In doing this you will be serving our Lord without even knowing you are doing it. I encourage you to see that God already has you as his child, and he has a place prepared for you at the end of time. Knowing this I encourage you to serve him with all your hearts and your actions.