The Text: Matthew 25:31-46
As good 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. We believe this.
But at first glance, what Jesus says to us today challenges our thinking a bit. It seems in 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 will not 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, which has been prepared for them since the foundation of the universe. Obviously we want to be on that team!
Why? Because the other team of losers are the ones who will enter the eternal fire of hell, which has been prepared for the devil and all his angels.
It’s entry into heaven or hell. We’ll be blessed or cursed. That’s the choice, but it’s not our choice. God chooses. By this time the result is already decided and we can’t appeal his decision.
So the obvious question is: ‘How do we know which team we’re going to be on?’
You might think from today’s text that the answer seems to be based on good works. In other words, those who do all those 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, then you’re out!
So, how many of us are confident we’ve done enough, we’ve ticked all the boxes and willingly and regularly helped those in need?
I thought so!
It seems that the greatest and most unforgivable sin Jesus mentions here is inaction! If you don’t help, serve, show mercy, or welcome people, 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 kept our hands in our pockets when we saw someone in need of basic help, and did nothing? How many times have we made a conscious decision not to help, or serve, or provide, or give, or visit, or bless?
How often do we think or hope that someone else will feed them, give them a drink, donate to that appeal, or visit them, and so on? How often do we think it’s only the pastor’s job or the elder’s job to visit the shut in and help the needy?
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 our acts of grace and mercy to other people are not optional, but essential – in fact our salvation is dependent on them!
Well, so far it sounds like if we don’t perform acts of mercy by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, providing clothes for those without, or visiting the sick or those in prison, then we’re not going to heaven!
So does that mean faith in Jesus isn’t essential anymore? Isn’t this a little different to what we’ve been taught?
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?
No, because there’s something else strange in this text.
Note the ‘blessed ones’ didn’t even know they were helping Jesus!
They’ve been naturally feeding the hungry, providing drink to the thirsty, welcoming the strangers, covering the naked with clothing, and visiting the sick and those in prison.
For them it was no surprise Jesus expected them to do these things, because they did it naturally anyway, but the surprise for them is when they did these things, 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 we provide for these people’s basic needs, we’re doing it for Jesus himself!
This is because Jesus doesn’t abandon the needy, 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!
Now, this doesn’t mean we do these things just because we know we’re doing it for Jesus, but because we’re naturally merciful to all people.
You see, for those who believe in Jesus, helping the needy isn’t an optional extra, but a natural part of their life; a natural extension of their faith in Jesus. In fact only a believer will live in the way this text directs.
To make it plain: Good works won’t save you and get you into heaven. 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.
The more we are exposed to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God and his holy Sacraments, the more we receive Christ’s nature. The more of Christ’s nature we receive, then the more naturally we 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.
Notice we’re not expected to heal people or release them from prison, etc, but simply supply their basic needs – a meal, a drink, clothing, welcoming, and visiting. No big miracles required, just little ministries of grace and mercy. Those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, will also love their neighbours, and show it in real, tangible actions. This is something we can all do, no matter how young or how old – just to help as you are able.
All of us have the ability to help those who are vulnerable and needy in society: the ones most other people isolate or ignore, such as the infirm, the lonely, those in nursing homes, the foreigner, the outcast, the unborn, and so on.
Strangely, as we attend to the needs of others, we’re also attending to our own salvation. Notice this doesn’t mean we’re saved by our good works. Again, to make it clear, we’re saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone! But the result of having faith in Christ is our natural service to those around you.
This is because the fruit of our faith is shown – not through our holier-than-thou attitudes or long-winded sermons, but through our 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. Those who don’t produce good fruit simply aren’t firmly rooted in Christ.
Christ is preparing us through his Word and feeding us with his very own body and blood, which carries his grace-filled and merciful nature to us.
The Holy Spirit is equipping us for works of service which will minister to the needs of those around us – 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.
Our help may not always be appreciated, but if we choose not to ignore their needs and do these things Jesus talks about, we may be surprised to find we’re feeding and helping Jesus himself.
Then we’ll be on the team surprised to hear those most welcome words of Jesus, ‘Come into the kingdom of heaven which has been prepared for you since the foundation of the universe.’
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.