This Ain't No People's Court
Courtroom TV shows are popular. One station runs 3 in a row in the afternoon. People like to see real people squaring off with one of them getting what they deserve. This can be entertaining, but it's deadly if you take what people judge to be justice into God's courtroom. You can end up like this old monk in the following story, or worse you can end up like the young monks. The old monk lay dying after serving piously and faithfully for decades. The dying man was troubled by his sins. The young monks tried to comfort him saying, "You have kept your vows. You have fed the hungry; visited the sick; clothed the naked. What man could say you don't deserve to go to heaven?" The monk replied, "But the judgments of God are very different from that of men." If you don't learn at least this much today, our text will end up killing you either by self-righteousness or by despair.
Note our text isn't a parable. Before this, Jesus had told the parable of the 10 maidens and that of the talents, picturing in figures the end of the world and the judgment to come. In our text, Jesus drops the figures and speaks plainly. He says He'll come in glory with His angels sitting on His throne. The nations will be gathered, and He, not the angels will separate them.
Notice that? Right from the get-go before any evidence is presented Judge Jesus puts them in 2 groups. The people on the right are identified as sheep, blessed by God the Father, and righteous. Those on the left are called not just goats which were considered worthless compared to sheep but, "kids." A kid is worth even less than a goat. Not only are they called "kids," but also "accursed ones." Finally, where those on the right are called "the righteous," those on the left are identified by the impersonal, "they."
As soon as Jesus returns, He separates everyone into one of 2 groups. There's no 3rd group. You're either a sheep or a goat; you're either blessed or cursed; you're either "righteous" to Jesus or no more than a "they." And these 2 groups file off into one of 2 places. The sheep are commanded to "come" take your inheritance, the kingdom of God, which has been prepared for you from eternity. The goats, the worthless kids, the accursed ones, are commanded to "go" from Jesus into the eternal fire never meant for people but for the devil and his demons.
I've left something out, haven't I? We went from judgment to sentencing without introducing evidence. Evidence is here, but it comes after the initial judgment of Jesus that this one's a sheep; this one's a goat. The evidence Jesus introduces will prove that His judgment of who's a sheep and who's a goat is correct. The evidence, however, doesn't make them one or the other.
What does make sheep and goats? Do you think it's works? Well, then these past hurricanes produced many sheep, or didn't you watch the news? Weren't you amazed at all the people who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, and took in the homeless? Did any of you do like that woman in San Marcos who took in 11 refugees? Did any of you fill a car with food and water and drive it to east Texas as those two Austin women did? If works make sheep, these folks are sheep, but the judgments of God are very different from the judgments of men.
This text doesn't tell you what makes a sheep or a goat. Other Scriptures do. In John 10 Jesus says that His sheep hear His voice. Jesus speaks in the Words of Baptism, the Words of Absolution, and in the Words of Holy Communion. Sheep hear Him speaking there; goats do not.
Who are the ones blessed by the Father of Jesus? Ephesians 1:3 tells us in no uncertain terms: The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ "has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." Only in Christ is anyone blessed by the Father. Feed the hungry, water the thirsty, clothe the naked, take in the homeless everyday of your life like Mother Theresa, but if you're not in Christ, you are cursed by God. You can only be in Christ by an act of God, by something God does not by something you do. By God's act of Baptism you are reborn in Christ. By God's act of Absolution you're dipped in the blood of Christ. By God's act of Communion Christ is in your body and you're in His.
Who are the righteous before God? Before men a righteous man is one who does righteous things. Is that how it is before God? What does Paul in Romans 3 plainly say that Christianity teaches? "We hold that we are righteous, by faith without, the deeds of the Law." We are justified by faith in what? In our doing good? In our trying hard to keep the law? We are justified by faith in what Jesus did. No one could convict Jesus of doing wrong. He never walked by someone in need as I have. He never helped someone reluctantly like I have. He never felt proud about helping others as I have. Jesus was perfect. I am not. I can only stand before God in the perfection of Jesus.
Sheep deserve to go to hell as much as goats; why don't they? God can't send sheep to hell because they take refuge in the Jesus who went to hell already in their place. He became a curse for them. He bore the punishment they deserve for not helping others as they should. By faith, they find shelter under the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross, and not even God the Father can bring judgment down upon them there.
Now on to the evidence. What is the evidence that sheep are sheep and goats are goats? And remember the evidence is for men not Jesus. Jesus separates them before ever mentioning works. He puts them on the guilty goat side or the not guilty sheep side before introducing any evidence. No earthly judge could do this. Even a TV judge would be off the air if he started the case by saying this one is guilty and this one is not guilty. Men cannot judge without first producing evidence of works, but the judgments of God are very different from the judgments of men. He judges by whether or not a person is in Christ, and then He produces the evidence for men to see that His judgment was just.
This is where all the world messes up this text. What sheep and goats did or didn't do is evidence of being saved not the cause of their being saved. You hear Jesus' words this way, "Come, take your inheritance prepared for you. For I was hungry and you fed me..." You hear the word "for" as "because." But even if you translate "because" rather than "for," you're still to understand this in an evidential not a causal way. It's like this everyday situation. You wake up in the morning go outside and see the sidewalk is wet and you think, "I know it rained because the sidewalk is wet." Now, not one of you has ever thought that a wet side walk caused the rain to fall. No, a wet sidewalk is evidence that rain fell. Jesus says, "I know these sheep are going to heaven because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, etc..." Thinking Jesus means their good works cause them to go to heaven is as silly as thinking a wet sidewalk causes rain to fall.
The truth is when we find ourselves caught up in whether or not we do enough good works, we're acting more like the damned than the saved. The sheep, the righteous, the blessed of God don't keep track of their works. Actually, they don't think they've done any. They ask, "When did we ever see you and help you in any way?" Isn't that how you feel? When have you ever done a good thing in God's judgment? What act, deed, or work could you point to and say I did that only for Jesus? Nothing I've ever done has been that pure. Sheep can't, won't and don't point to what they've done to or for Jesus. They point to what He has done and does for them.
It is the worthless goats, the accursed ones, those going to hell who trumpet their good works, who want to talk about good works. When Jesus points to their lack of works they protest that they have never failed to help Jesus. "When did we not help you?" they demand. Unbelief believes it can please God by its works. Unbelief believes that works tainted by selfishness, pride, boasting, etc, are good enough. Unbelief believes that having done more than others, it has done enough to please God. But the judgments of God are very different from the judgments of men.
What is offered to God apart from Jesus on its own merits, no matter how good, holy, noble it is before men, before God it stinks to high heaven as the foulest garbage you can imagine. What is done in Jesus as a baptized Christian, as a forgiven sinner in Absolution, as a sinner bodied and blooded to Christ by Communion, is righteous, pure and holy whether it be feeding a hungry stranger or your hungry family, clothing the homeless or clothing your children, visiting the sick stranger or your sick grandfather.
When people are worried they aren't doing enough good works, they are living in the people's court, not God's. In God's court no amount of good works by themselves count for anything at all. That's what the old, dying monk knew and why he could find no comfort in all his good works that the younger monks pointed him towards.
May you be able to find no comfort in your good works long, long before you have to face the judgment throne of God on your deathbed. May the mention of what you have done no matter how highly it is regarded by men grate on your ears and stink in your nose. May the Water of Jesus, the Words of Jesus, the Body and Blood of Jesus and what He has done for you be music to your ears and perfume to your nose. And finally may you know that all you do in Jesus no matter how ordinary, no matter how mundane, no matter how unvalued by the world, has, does, and will please God now and in eternity. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (20051113), Matthew 25: 31-46