Last Sunday of the Church Year – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Last Sunday of the Church Year (Series A)
November 22, 2020
Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
I must admit, my Lutheran sensibilities took a blow when I first read this passage. There’s a lot of seeing and doing, but nothing is said about believing. Yes, I can see you squirming in your seats already. We Lutherans have faith! We do not need to see, because faith is the conviction of things unseen. And we do not need to do, because we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not our own doing. Seeing and doing are not Lutheran things. We just need faith, just like we’ve been talking about these last couple weeks. Faith is a gift, not on our own terms, and we need to feed that flame of faith with Christ’s gifts. Even more, faith is being care-free with God’s lavish grace, his gift of abundant life. But today it seems like Jesus is going to judge our works! Which is actually true! But with a closer look at the text, we see that the final judgement won’t just be about seeing or doing, and it won’t just be about believing, either. In the end, judgement is about being—being righteous or unrighteous.
We want to be included in the righteous, of course, since the righteous receive a glorious gift. Jesus says to them, “Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This verse is saying more than “the righteous ones got into heaven.” There’s much more at work here. When Jesus calls the righteous those “who are blessed by my Father,” he’s not saying “You’re blessed because you’ve done these things.” Instead, the Greek shows that the blessing is already a completed action, done by the Father sometime in the past, which continues to have an effect even now. In other words, the Father set apart the righteous for himself long ago, and it’s only now that he is calling them to receive their reward.
The righteous inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. This word inherit is significant, because not everybody can inherit—only sons and daughters can inherit things from their Father. So the blessing of the Father is much more than a declaration; it’s a change of being. This blessing of the Father is the righteous being reborn and made into children of God. And because they are children, they inherit the kingdom which the Father has had prepared since the beginning of time. This isn’t because they did anything in particular to earn the favor of the Father. They simply were incorporated into his family; or, to use the image from the parable, they were made into sheep who are a part of his flock.
So what are we to make of the good works the righteous ones did? At the surface level, it seems like they’ve been called righteous and received this inheritance because they did all of these things! But in fact, it’s the other way around. They did these things because they had been made into children of God. Sheep and the goats aren’t just distinguished by their looks. They’re recognized by the way they act, too. But we see that the righteous don’t act a particular way because they see that they are helping someone in particular. They just do it, and then they’re shocked to learn that at some point, they did these things to Jesus.
But the more peculiar thing is that it seems the righteous don’t ever remember any of the good works they did. Even when Jesus explains that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” there’s no sudden agreement. They don’t say, “Now we remember when we did those things to you, Jesus.” This was pastor’s question to me this week about this text. Why don’t the righteous ones remember their good works? As far as they were concerned, not only did they not see anyone in particular, but they also didn’t do anything significant. They just were. The goats at least know that they didn’t do the good works, but the sheep seem to suffer some sort of amnesia.
On one hand, we can compare the deeds of the righteous to the work of a surgeon. A surgeon can perform multiple life-saving surgeries in a day that drastically change the lives of their patients. These are miracles to the average Joe. But the surgeon doesn’t think a whole lot of it. It’s just who she is as a surgeon. It’s what she’s called to do. In the same way, the righteous don’t think anything of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting the sick. It’s just who they are, part of their DNA as children of God. In short, it’s a habit. We don’t think our habits and tend not to notice them. They’re just part of who we are individuals. We don’t remember our habits until someone points them out.
Of course, that means that the righteous should have acknowledged their deeds after Jesus pointed them out. So on the other hand, as Pastor pointed out to me, maybe it’s not even the righteous ones doing the good deeds. Instead, it’s Christ in them doing the work. The righteous don’t recognize the deeds because Christ is the one working in their bodies. As St. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Then the good works are not so much about the habits of the righteous as it is about Christ inhabiting the righteous. I think that’s why after Jesus concludes this parable, he doesn’t heal any more sick people or feed any more hungry people. He doesn’t offer any more examples on how to live a holy life. Instead, he says, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified” (Matt. 26:2).
Because it’s at the cross, finally, where the seeing and the doing and the believing and the being all finally run together. For the cross was throne from which Christ the King crowned with thorns declared the final judgement in your favor. For God had seen the wretched state of mankind, he saw how all we like sheep have gone astray. So he turned to his Son and said, “You know what to do.” So out of his great love, Jesus took on human flesh and became the scapegoat on whom all our sins were laid. He did this so that “all who would receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). And even more, by his Holy Spirit, he dwells in each and every one of us. He is in you, and you are in him.
In the end, what we see and what we do will indeed matter. But that’s because our being, who we are, has changed. Christ is in us. He’s inhabiting us and because of that, he is changing the habits of our hearts. He’s changing how we see the world, and he’s altering how we act. Of course, we don’t strive to display these habits. It’s probably better to focus on getting rid of those things prevent him from working his love. After all, we want to be with those who say, “Did we do that? I’m pretty sure that was you, Jesus. We’re just dumb sheep.”
He’s the one doing the doing, and he’s doing good even now as he seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured, and strengthens the weak in his body the Church. But finally we have faith that he will soon come and call his flock out from the far reaches of the world. He will bring us into his land, where he will cause us to lie down in rich pasture, and we will know that peace which surpasses all understanding.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.