MATTHEW 25: 31-46, EPHESIANS 1: 15-23
I once heard a joke about a king who sent his soldiers to an operation and his Knight was leading the operation. Then the Knight and his men returned to the castle after a long hard day of raiding.
“How are we advancing?” The king asked.
“Sire,” the Knight replied, “I have been robbing and plundering ruthlessly, burning the towns and farms of the enemies to the west.
“What?!” shouted the king. I don’t have enemies in the west!
“Oh, no…” says the Knight. “Well, you now do.” (5jokes)
After reading this passage, one would see Jesus having more enemies to the left when he returns to separate the Sheep from Goats on judgment day. While scriptures teach that salvation is by faith and not by good works, one may assume that this passage presents a reward for good works.
Here is the fact. The Protestant Reformation was built on the Biblical truth of salvation by faith and rejected any form of church systemic principles and concepts attributed to human salvation. Salvation is unmerited favor of God and it comes by God’s grace. Salvation cannot be earned, nor achieved on the basis of human endeavor, but it is solely a gift from God alone. It is God's initiative and action.
Yet, this passage seems to present something different when we read that the sheep are ushered to the Kingdom of God because they have done good to others. But is it true that the sheep are received in the Kingdom of God because of their charitable works? Did Jesus demand good works as the basis for our salvation? These are few questions anyone reading this story would struggle to understand--
Remember, Jesus used parables in most of his teachings. His Parables were based on life experiences, cultural practices, and allegories of his time. People understood, reflected on them, and applied them to their faith lives. In a few cases Jesus would tell the disciples what the parables means. Yet, parables are hard to comprehend, to find meaning and apply, mostly for us in the 21st century. Our trust is in the wisdom and knowledge of the Holy Spirit, the counselor— (John 14:26).
In Matthew 25 alone there are two parables and the third part of the passage, is the teaching of Jesus about his return. We learn about the parable of the ten virgins—(about saving faith); the parable of the talents— (about Service faith); and the story where Jesus put forward the kingdom future— (Gracious faith).
Let me refresh our memories for a few seconds and explore the background. Jesus was in the temple with his disciples in the prior chapter, (Matthew 24). They left the temple passing through the Kidron Valley to mount Olive. In the later chapters, this would be the same path for Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and too, where he would be praying at Gethsemane, and then when he would be led to Golgotha.
The disciples lagged after church. They kept gazing at the temples’ beauty. When they came up, they tried “to call his attention” to the features of the temple and asked him of his return and the signs preceding his coming (Matthew 24:1-3)
Now, they were on the mountain top. They sat down and Jesus began encouraging the disciples to be alert and cautious of the false Christs who might come in “between” and the time when he would come back. Jesus exhorted them to remain faithful stewards of the gospel. “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns,” Jesus said (Matthew 24:45-51)
Then Jesus moved on and told them the parable of ten virgins and the talents and the last sermon he preached in his lifetime on earth. When you explore this passage, you will find it interesting that this story is not a mere parable. The story of the Kingdom and judgment is different from the rest of the parables Jesus had told and taught in the book of Matthew. It does not follow the features of a parable. Jesus began saying, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…” His desire was for the disciples to look back to the parables he had taught them for the last three years. That they would say Ah, ah… Jesus was the Bridegroom, the Master with talents, and now Christ is the King who is coming back from a distant county to subdue the authorities under his feet (1Corinthians 15:25-26).
This passage is the last sermon of Jesus on earth. He concluded his teachings with this simple passage. You may say Jesus left the best for last! — “I am returning, but to judge.” From this story onward, Jesus will be going through the last chapter of his life on earth. Matthew said, that when Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “as you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matt 26:1-3).
Today, Jesus tells us what is going to take place when he returns. When Jesus comes, the Kingdom comes with him; he comes to separate and judge. Just try to envision the court room and the proceedings. You can feel the intensity, the silence of the multitude around the throne and the smell of fear as the judge proceeds to sentencing. King Jesus will be sitting on his gracious throne. He will not be rude but gentle. Nations will gather anxiously for the hearing session. But you may ask, how would someone know who is a sheep and who is a goat? Good question, but I do not have a straight answer either. Yet, three things stand out in this passage and Jesus wants to convey that
1st Good works and charities do not have any place in our salvation— (the sheep did not know they did it to the Master)
2nd You and I were once goats, but when Son of man came:
a. He found us lost, naked, and he clothed us with love (Luke 15:1-10)
b. Jesus visited us while in our prison of sin and disobedience (Romans 5:8)
c. You and I were hungry and thirsty for truth and Christ gave us grace and mercy (Matthew 9:31)
d. You and I were strangers and refugees on earth, but Jesus called us friends (Ephesians 2:3)
3rd Transforming Grace—Though we were sinners, You and I are born again in Christ through the love of God. The good works in this passage are simply the outpouring of grace. We do good works freely and without expecting to receive a payback. Jesus did it first and now we are encouraged to pay-it-forward (not payback). Remember, the Sheep did not know when they had done so to the Master.
Therefore, your charity, love and compassion for others are the overflowing of grace. Your generosity springs from God who gave his son freely, from King Jesus who surrendered his authority to the cross and was humiliated for your sake and atonement (Philippians 2:5-11).
As Christians, the “Will” to serve others is in your loving DNA (Sheep). The sheep did so not for self-glory, neither for self-righteousness nor fame, but as an action of their faith. They did so as an outpouring of praise and thanksgiving to God. This simplicity of life and good works happens when we are created anew in Christ, renewed through the power of the Holy Spirit, and transformed in God’s love. In this new birth of our baptism, a new relationship is established, a new identity is formed, and a new name is given— a Sheep not a Goat.
What make sheep different from goats is not their features. You cannot distinguish between Christians and non-Christians based on their outfit or hairstyle. It does not depend on the fact that goats have beards, neither on sound of their voices. It is not because goats have ears sticking out and hear more. But because goats disobey. Goats run away. Goats are stubborn. They claim to be independent and active in their own world. They brag on their efforts and say they do not need any help from the master. Goats are sneakers and like to put their shepherd in trouble. There is a lot we can say about goats, which are non-believers according to our passage.
On the contrary, sheep listen and follow their shepherd; they depend on the provision and compassion of the shepherd—the shepherd leads to still waters (Psalm 23). Sheep cannot stay in the bush by themselves when they are lost and are easily attacked by enemies. Sheep trust their master, but goats do not. For this reason, eternity will be the last blessing for the sheep. For they have passed through hardships on earth (Revelation 7:10). The King will say to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” For those on the left, they “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)
Therefore, Jesus tells us today not to “leave anyone behind” while he is returning. King Jesus encourages us to help, and support others with little things we can do. It could be a meal, a bottle of water, a warm blanket, lifting the spirit of a sick person and talking to a stranger on the sidewalk.
Help without expecting a pay back—those at the right, did not even think they were helping Jesus when they did so. They did it only because they could. Doing good works was natural to them and we should do the same from our hearts. Paul said to the Corinthians, “you must each decide in your heart how much to give. And do not give reluctantly [not with regret (GNT)] or in response to pressure. For God loves a person who gives cheerfully” (2 Cor. 9:7). “Whereas on the other hand, the attitude of those who failed to help was; “if we had known it was you, we would gladly have helped; but we thought it was only some common person who was not worth helping,” said William Barclay.
Yahweh tasked his people Israel to look after the disadvantaged and foreigners among them and not to glean their harvest but to “leave [some produce on the ground] for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:22). You and I are given same responsibility to look after and be our fellow-human-keepers. We are called to love others as King Jesus first loved us. And when we give generously and freely, we are rewarded with the gift of joy. As Sheep we will rejoice in life eternally with Christ and with the angels of Heaven in the Kingdom of God.
Now, I leave you with this message as Paul said to the believing community in Ephesus: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” Amen!