Reading through this parable of judgment, it occurred to me that the Lord has it all backwards. He should have begun not with the sheep but with the goats. Apparently our Lord did not attend a sermon class at a Lutheran seminary or He would have known the Law comes before the Gospel, not after it. But alas, He is the Lord and so He violates all the good little rules we have established to box God in and to define who God is and what He says. That said, this is only a hint of the surprise we find in this story of judgment. Part of it rests with who are the sheep and who are the goats.
Although Jesus does not follow the Lutheran rules, we do so let us begin with the goats, with the Law. It is our common presumption that these are terrible people. They do not put cans of corn in bags for the food pantry or take care of their yards. They are not good parents and their children end up good for nothing kids without education or employment. Of course, the big sinners are numbered here – everyone from Hitler to terrorists to mass shooters. But with them we tend to lump all the people we do not like. From neighbor to co-worker to stranger across the globe, the goats are bad people and the sheep are good people. But that is not what Jesus said.
The goats probably were good people in the eyes of the world. They were not druggies or irresponsible or poor parents or on the welfare rolls. I suspect that they were Christians who went to Church and gave money to the poor and dropped off clothes to Good Will and took care of neighbors in distress and made sure their kids when to the good colleges and got good jobs. For what is contrasted here are not works but faith. That is why Jesus puts the sheep first. He is commending faith. From Hebrews we know that without faith it is impossible to please God. Jesus is not in conflict with the author of Hebrews. It is the same message. The central point in it all is faith. What marks the difference between sheep and goats is faith, faith, and only faith.
When the sheep are confronted with the works of faith, they do not see them. When did we do these, Lord? They do not see because faith focuses not on our works but on the saving work of God in Christ. Faith is fixed upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is all faith sees and it is the only thing that matters. Their surprise to the notice of the Lord is because they cannot count their good works. They can only count the great good work of God who sent His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. They are not surprised that they are sheep. They know they are and believe they are. That is because they see the cross and believe in His saving death and cleansing blood. They believe in their baptism. They believe in the Word preached and the creed confessed. They believe in Communion.
The goats have all the outward marks to show the world they are good people but the one thing that they lack is faith. “When did we see you, Jesus?” They did not see Jesus but they did see what they did or did not do that they thought was worthy of notice. They saw how hard they tried to be good people but they did not see their great need to be saved. They saw every opportunity to do the right thing but they did not see what Jesus did to be the only thing by which they were saved. They did everything right but they did not have faith. They did not see Jesus. Not in baptismal water giving them a life they did not deserve, not in the voice of absolution forgiving them of sins worthy of death, not in the Word of God speaking eternal truth, and not in the bread and wine that is His flesh and blood. The sheep see only Jesus but the goats do not see Him at all.
This is not a parable about works at all. This is a parable about faith. The sheep ask when DID we do these works of faith, Lord. They do not count their works to earn them anything nor do they expect their works to be noticed or rewarded. But the goats see only their works. When did we NOT see you or NOT do these things? You may have read this parable for years and presumed that Jesus was telling you the bottom line of judgment is works but what Jesus is pointing to is the bottom line of faith. The great difference between the sheep and the goats is not what they did or did not do but faith. How they saw themselves and how they saw Jesus was the mark of distinction that Jesus is pointing us to see.
By the way, this is not a parable of judgment but rather a sentencing hearing. The judgment has already been rendered. This judgment does not take place at the last day but on the day when our Lord mounted the altar of the cross, when He paid the price for your sin and mine, when He died to deliver us from Satan and from the destiny of Satan and his ilk, and when the Father accepted this sacrifice and counted it on behalf of you and me and all the elect. That was judgment day – Good Friday. What Jesus is talking about is sentencing day. When Good Friday is applied.
At sentencing day, the verdict of the judgment already rendered is put into force, for all eternity. The sheep hear the sentence they will suffer for all eternity. “Come, ye blessed of My Father,” says Jesus. “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Nobody earns a kingdom or an inheritance. It is yours only by gift. That is the judgment we shall suffer. “Come, and get all that I have prepared for YOU.” Who would live in fear of such a sentence? The sentence is not a surprise to us for this is the very promise of Jesus. This is why He was incarnate into the womb of Blessed Mary, why He was born in flesh, why He lived a holy and righteous life of perfect obedience, why He manifested the Kingdom in words and works, why He willingly offered Himself to the cross, why He suffered and died there, and why He rose on the third day never to die again.
But the goats will be surprised. They were watching themselves and looking for God to watch them as well. They thought they were doing okay. They loved Jesus not as Savior or Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world but as Rabbi and teacher and example to follow. They saw love not as a gift in the cross but as a command to be fulfilled. They will be shocked when the sentence comes down. Enter straight away to eternal punishment. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Only punishment!
The goats thought works were essential and sincerity mattered but faith was flexible. The sheep knew that faith was essential and works and sincerity mattered only because of faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God. That is what they knew so they did not bother to keep track on a spreadsheet all their tiny good works but kept their focus on the great work of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. They rejoiced to be relieved of the burden of works to live in joy of grace, gift, and mercy. They willing surrendered their good works to be forgotten so that they might remember only Jesus and what He did to deliver them from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation.
Friends, we keep trying to make religion about works. This is not a small problem but the greatest problem of all. The works we take seriously only belong to Christ. Our works may help our neighbor but they cannot advance our cause with God. God has already rendered the judgment that counts. He counted Jesus guilty so that we might be counted just. He put all of our sins on Jesus so that we might be forgiven. He gave to us the reward that Jesus earned for His holy living and life-giving death and now we look forward not to limbo or uncertainty but eternal life in the presence of God, with all the saints, and the fullness of joy that knows no end.
You are the sheep. Don’t act like goats. This is even more important in times like these when you are tested by uncertainty and tried by fear. Faith first. That is your highest priority. Faith first in your time and talent and treasure – being in God’s House, receiving His gifts, and responding with voices in praise and prayer, and lives of sacrifice and service to His glory. That is all that matters. Not the troubles you endure or the works of your hands but only Christ and only what He has done to save and only faith to trust in Him. Everything else will pass away and only what is in Christ will endure. You are in Christ. Live in this faith. Amen.