Matthew 25:31-46 (ESV)
Jesus said: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 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. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 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. 35 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, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 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.’
41 “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. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 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.’ 44 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?’ 45 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.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we might help and serve those in need around us and so also serve our King, Jesus Christ. Amen.
As good little Lutherans, we’ve all been taught we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. We’re not saved by our good works because we’ll never be good enough. Only Christ is good enough. Only Christ brings us peace with God the Father. We believe this.
But at first glance, what Jesus says to us today seems to challenge our thinking a bit. We seem to hear that on that great and glorious Day of the Lord when we stand in front of our God in judgment, we’re going to be split up into two teams. These two teams won’t compete against each other to see who wins, because the result has already been decided.
The ones selected for the winning team will inherit the kingdom of God with all the eternal benefits, which has been prepared for them since the foundation of the universe. You want to be part of that team because the other team of losers will enter the eternal fire of hell, which has been prepared for the devil and all his angels.
So, for the members of these two teams, it’s entry into heaven or hell. You’ll either be blessed or cursed. That’s the choice, but it’s not your choice. God chooses. By this time the result is already decided and you can’t appeal his decision.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re already asking: ‘How do I know which team I’m going to be on?’
Well, according to Jesus, it seems to be based on your good works. In other words, all those who do good things like feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, and so on, well, they’re in. They go to heaven.
But if you’re not merciful and gracious enough because you don’t do these things, then it seems you’re out! It’s hell for you!
So, how many of you are confident you’re going to heaven based purely on being a good, merciful and gracious person who willingly and regularly gives food to the hungry, supplies glasses of water to the thirsty, welcomes strangers into your homes, clothes naked people, visits the sick, and goes to see those in prison?
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re starting to have some doubts!
It then seems the greatest and most unforgivable sin Jesus mentions here is inaction! This means, if you don’t help or serve those in need around you, if you don’t show mercy to the homeless and depressed, if you don’t welcome people into your homes, or if you don’t visit criminals in their prisons, then you’re in deep trouble!
For this reason, this text has the power to make us very worried! After all, how many times have we not acted when we should have? How many times have we made a conscious decision not to help, or serve, or provide, or give, or visit, or bless?
When you and I don’t serve the down and out in these ways, do we hope it’s someone else’s job to feed them, give them a drink, donate to that appeal, or visit them? Do you think it’s only the pastor’s job or the elder’s job to visit the shut in and help the needy? Maybe you think you don’t know how to help which you hope will justify your inaction.
In this case, when you stand in front of Jesus, how do you think he’ll answer you when you say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, but I thought so-and-so was supposed to do that!’?
Jesus is saying your acts of grace and mercy to other people aren’t optional extras, but they’re essential – in fact it seems your salvation is totally dependent on it!
Well, so far it sounds as if all of us who don’t perform these acts of mercy aren’t going to heaven!
But if this is really the case, then it seems faith in Jesus isn’t essential anymore! It seems we’re saved by doing good works! Isn’t this a little different to what we’ve been taught as good little Lutherans? I mean, as mentioned earlier, haven’t we all been taught we’re saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by what we do or don’t do? Have we got it all wrong?
Well, no, we haven’t got it wrong, because there’s something else strange and unexpected in this text.
You see, the ‘blessed ones’ on the team going to heaven didn’t even know they were helping Jesus!
For them it was no surprise Jesus expected them to feed the hungry, provide drinks to the thirsty, welcome strangers, cover the naked with clothing, and visit the sick and those in prison, because they did these things naturally anyway. But what surprised them was that when they did any of these things to those who most people look down on, no matter what the person looked like or how they acted, they were doing it to Jesus himself!
So here Jesus tells us he fully identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick and those in prison; so much so, that when you provide for these people’s basic needs, you’re doing it for Jesus himself!
This is because Jesus doesn’t abandon those who don’t have basic needs, but is there with them in their hunger, in their thirst, in their sicknesses, and in prison with them.
And we thought Jesus is only present in churches! Imagine going to prison and seeing Jesus there! Imagine seeing a homeless person sleeping under a bridge, and that’s where Jesus is! Imagine caring for someone sick in bed, and that person is Jesus.
Now, this doesn’t mean you do these things just because you know you’re doing it for Jesus, but because you’re naturally merciful to all people.
It works like this: for those who believe in Jesus, helping the needy isn’t an optional extra, but a natural part of their life of faith.
To make it plain: Good works won’t save you and get you into heaven. Jesus is the one who forgives you. Jesus alone saves you. So yes, you’re saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone. But what Jesus is saying here is this gift of grace to have faith in Christ alone doesn’t come alone.
You see, the more you’re exposed to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and his holy Sacraments, the more you receive Christ’s nature. The more of Christ’s nature you receive, then the more naturally you care for the needy because Jesus identifies and cares for the needy.
So, although faith in Jesus isn’t mentioned, it’s implied because:
Only those who have received the grace of God will become gracious people.
Only those fed and nourished by God will feed and nourish others.
Only those visited by God will visit other people.
Only those healed through the blood of Jesus will visit and care for those who are still sick.
Only those clothed by the righteousness of Christ will seek to cover up other people’s shame by clothing them.
Only those who have been freed from the prisons of hate and fear and guilt will go to visit those in prison.
In other words, Christ-centred people will naturally become needy-centred people. It almost goes without saying then: self-centred people will naturally ignore the needy.
But notice you don’t have to heal people or release them from prison, and so on, but simply supply their basic human needs – a meal, a drink, clothing, a welcome, and a visit. Big miracles aren’t happening, but little ministries of grace and mercy are happening. Even when we have restrictions placed on us on how we interact with each other, those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, will also love their neighbours, and show it in real, tangible actions.
So Jesus isn’t expecting you to provide a miracle cure, or a magical answer to take all their cares away, or the perfect words to make them feel better, or for you to make things right, but you just help them as you’re able. Therefore, this is something all of you can do, no matter how young or old or able bodied you are!
Strangely, it seems as you attend to the needs of others, you’re also attending to your own salvation. Notice this doesn’t mean you’re saved by your good works. Again, to make it clear, you’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone! But the result of having faith in Christ is your faithful service to people around you, such as the infirm, the lonely, the misunderstood, those in nursing homes, the foreigner, the outcast, the unborn, the criminal, and so on.
This is because the fruit of your faith is shown – not through your holier-than-thou attitudes or long-winded sermons or prayers, but through your actions. Jesus expects good fruit to be produced on a good tree; and good fruit will naturally be produced on every tree firmly rooted in Christ alone, whose very own merciful nature is communicated through his holy Words and blessed Sacraments. Those who don’t produce these good fruit simply aren’t firmly rooted in Christ.
As you look to Jesus and trust all he does for you, the Holy Spirit is equipping you for works of service which doesn’t ignore the needs of those around you, but moves you to action – to feed the hungry, provide a drink to the thirsty, welcome the alien or stranger, clothe those not adequately dressed, and visit those who are sick or who feel imprisoned.
Yes, some of them may be a real pain in the neck, but as you choose not to ignore their needs and do these things Jesus talks about, you may be surprised to find you’re feeding and helping Jesus himself.
Then you’ll be surprised to hear those most welcome words of Jesus who tells you to ‘come into the kingdom of heaven which has been prepared for you since the foundation of the universe.’
Which is why the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.